Public Service vs Commercial Media

Funding for public service media in the United States is woefully inadequate, something few citizens know or care much about, to a significant degree because media education is not systematically taught here. There is a relation between between the two that is almost never discussed beyond academic circles, much less in the mainstream media. It’s worth considering why this is.

A good place to start is this open letter to journalistsFederal Communications Commissioner Mich by former FCC Commssioner Michael Copps in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review in which he describes the lack of media coverage of the many townhall meetings he organized across the country over a decade to discuss the pros and cons of commercial media consolidation.

If a community’s media was under consolidated control – with a large and distant company owning the major broadcast, and, often, newspaper outlets – the coverage would be somewhere between slim and none.  But if I was visiting a town where independent media still existed and locally employed journalists were on the beat, there would be advance notice that a meeting was going to happen; there would often be live TV coverage; and the event would be reported in detail, often on the front page of the local paper.

A basic tenet of media education is that citizens should constantly think about the economics underpinning all media enterprises, and the degree to which they are serving the public interest. These considerations are taught in our public schools on an ad hoc basis, by the relatively few teachers who consider this an important subject, at best between five and ten percent. In stark contrast, nearly all school curricula in Canada, Germany and most other industrialized democracies include some degree of fundamental media education, a policy issue given virtually no consideration here.

Why, Michael Copps asks, have journalists devoted so little time and attention to helping citizens understand critical aspects of delivering high speed broadband service to all citizens, and the political chicanery associated with designating broadband as a telecommunication service, as opposed to an information service. Media literate citizens would have at least some idea why these issues are important.

There is a reason why the public media sector is where such issues are most often given serious consideration – because they address their audiences as citizens, not primarily as consumers whose attention they can sell to commercial interests. There is a fundamental difference.  In the past, independently owned media enterprises, often held by families with a healthy respect for the public interest aspects of their work, could provide a critical mass of what insiders call “accountability journalism”.  These have diminished almost to the vanishing point and, with them, a traditional media commitment to factual reporting, sound editing, and a willingness to hold the powerful accountable, posing a major challenge to the non-profit sector. 

It is no coincidence that the CJR cover story in the same issue with the letter to journalists from Michael Copps is: Who cares if it’s true?  Both are worth reading to better comprehend how dominant commercial media have become, and that media education must be taken much more seriously by all citizens.

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