The Public Interest Media Conundrum

The tension Adam Smith identified between pursuing one’s economic well being which contributes to producing wealth and the ability of those amassing great wealth to manipulate the economy to their unfair benefit are relevant to the role media play for better or worse in a democracy.

The importance of a free press and universal public education to democracy are ideas stemming directly from the Enlightenment.  How they are supported financially has remained a critical conundrum of democractic societies since the time of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson.

It can be argued that growing media ownership concentration is directly related to the dramatic increase in partisan news production dominant when our nation was founded.   Opinion journalism is dramatically cheaper to generate than fact based , well edited investigative reporting.  Public interest media obligations, media education and media accountability issues rarely receive the attention and resources they deserve.  The unfortunate reality, as President Richard Nixon once remarked, is that “. . . one hell of a lot people don’t give a damn about the suppression of the press.”

While new media capabilities afford greater opportunities for engaging citizens in addressing these issues, news room economics, according to James Hamiltom at Duke University, have steadily shifted news coverage “ . . . to an increasing emphasis on what people want to know and away from information that they need as voters.”  For a thorough overview of the ways news media and public education affect the policies and practices of government and powerful business interests, see The Institutions of American Democracy: The Press, edited by Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

The Media Stewards Project seeks to encourage local citizens to become more active in educating themselves about these difficult issues and begin talking directly to

–          their elected state and federal representatives

–          news media organizations at the local and national level

A great topic to begin with is the contested debate over raising the federal debt limit. Not reaching a political compromise on this in the next two months could result in shutting down our government and seriously depressing the US and world economy.  It is time for citizens to assess how responsibly  –  or not  – these issues are being discussed by both their elected officials and the news media. Those who are need to be thanked and encouraged. Those who are not need to be criticized.

Working with one or two persons who stay in regular touch to send emails, write letters and arrange face-to-face meetings with elected officials and the news media is usually more effecttive than working alone. The challenge is to get started.