President Barack Obama described the current problem with the media to Bill Maher just days before the 2016 election this way:
When I leave here, one of the things I’m most concerned about is the balkanization of the media where you’ve got 800 stations and you’ve got all these websites. People have difficulty now just sorting what’s true and what’s not. If you don’t have some common baseline of facts, you know, we can have a disagreement about how to deal with climate change, but if we have a big chunk of the country that just discounts what 99 percent of scientists say completely, it’s very hard to figure out how we move the democracy forward.
In his view, the imperative of the media is to reach a wide audience, to attract attention as the means to pay for itself. Unfortunately, this conflicts with respecting baseline facts and telling the truth. It certainly does in the realm of commercial TV and cable news, but not in the realm of non-profit, public service media. The distinction is worth examining more closely.
Since public media do not rely on this kind of advertising revenue to exist, they are not driven to grab the attention of viewers and listeners as a set up to see and hear spot ads for which commercial TV and radio are paid by their sponsors depending on the size and demographics of the audience, calculated minute by minute.
Obviously public media need resources to create their content via donations, subscriptions, grants, and a variety of subsidies, but they do not rely primarily, if not solely, on advertising revenue. As Katrina vanden Heuval makes clear, commercial media too often ignore difficult and important subjects because they do not cater to the audiences they want to reach and are generally much more costly to produce.
Like President Obama, most citizens think funding news and public affairs programs is mainly done through advertising that requires large, engaged audiences of the kind Donald Trump was able to deliver throughout the 15 month election season. As previously mentioned, this narrow thinking has perilous consequences, and is too glibly referred to as the “free media” Donald Trump was such a master of exploiting.
Citizens with critical media literacy skills understand these distinctions. Unfortunately, few do, apparently including President Obama.