Economic Find: Public Media

Journalism is not exactly a great profession to enter right now. Journalists are losing jobs. Dailies are closing. International bureau’s are shutting down.  Media ownership is consolidating and the quality of journalism content is seriously degrading. (For more on this crisis see Economic Find: Controlling Our Media.)

So what can be done to fix the field of journalism and generate quality content so important to a functioning democracy?  Media commentators Robert McChesney and John Nichols suggest that America needs to rediscover the role of public media, particularly public-service broadcasting.  Developed in the early 20th century, the idea behind public-service broadcasting was to use tax dollars to generate media content without commercial influence.  “The term refers to non-profit noncommercial broadcasting directed at the entire population and providing a full range of programming.” The beauty of such public media is there is no profit motive that can degrade the kind of content that is developed.

The fear, and the main argument made by its opponents, is that public media is subject to state control. Under authoritarian regimes, public broadcasting is nothing more than government propaganda.  According to McChesney and Nichols, however, the evidence is actually that, in democratic societies, journalism content produced by public-broadcasting can be a viable and rich source of information and ideas.  The chart above shows the expenditures per capita for public-service broadcasting compared to several other nations.  McChesney and Nichols argue that there is a strong correlation between countries that have viable public media and knowledgeable, engaged citizens. Not surprisingly, the US, with so little funding going to US public broadcasting, has vast information inequality along race, ethnicity, and class lines.

In the words of McChesney and Nichols, “Getting serious about journalism and democracy requires a recognition that America cannot wait for the market to spring a solution to the crisis of journalism upon us.  We need to forge the policies and make the expenditures that are necessary to create the free and independent press that has always been and shall always be the guardian of liberty.”




Created by CPE Member Economist Sue Holmberg

October 2011



McChesney, Robert W and John Nichols. 2010. The Death and Life of American Journalism. Nation Books.