Rethinking the Media’s Role in Saving Democracy
This is Civic Way’s fourth commentary (of four) on America’s broken politics, with a special focus on reforming the media. The first commentary introduced the threat of extremism, the second commentary explained how extremism infects politics and the last essay offered some ideas for using good government to save American democracy. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- America’s media landscape, with the emergence of cable TV, streaming, podcasts and social media, has changed dramatically since 1987 when the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned
- As new providers, platforms and technology come, the media landscape will likely continue to change
- We need a new approach to regulating all media, including social media, and ensuring that citizens get the information they need to make informed choices about civic matters
- To establish a free marketplace of ideas, we must increase competition among the firms that shape and distribute information and restore liability for those that neglect the public interest
- We should reinvent public broadcasting as an unbiased public aggregator of political and government news with programming that helps people grasp the impact of such news on their daily lives
The dictators … say that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it [but] if you tell the truth often enough, they’ll believe it and go along with you. – Harry Truman
Recognizing the New Media Landscape
Since the FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the media landscape—the myriad of channels through which we receive news and other information—has changed dramatically.
Let’s start with television. The major broadcasting networks like ABC, CBS and NBC remain. While CNN began in 1980, most cable networks started later (Fox News and MSNBC in 1996). Since then, Fox News has emerged to compete with the major networks. Overall, with over 120 million TV homes and 287 million viewers, linear (traditional) TV remains an important source for Americans.
Audio (radio) includes terrestrial (AM/FM) and digital formats (e.g., online and podcasting). With over 15,000 commercial stations (AM, FM and satellite radio channels), radio remains fragmented. With a total listenership of about 250 million, a weekly 82 percent reach among adults and usage as a news source for half of US adults, terrestrial radio remains highly influential. And digital radio, which in 2020 generated nearly ten percent of total radio revenue, is becoming a force as well.
Social media’s reach cannot be overstated. With algorithms that amplify and disseminate data with stunning efficiency, it has become the primary platform for delivering real-time information. In 2020, over 223 million Americans used social networks, mostly with mobile devices. Over 70 percent of us get at least some news from social media platforms. Facebook is the largest platform, but others, like YouTube, Whatsapp, Instagram and TikTok, are building huge audiences.
Envisioning the Next Media Landscape
Not only is the media landscape a far cry from its 1987 version, its likely to keep changing. Corporate mergers. New internet providers and platforms. New technology. Finicky customers. Declining public trust. These changes, together with the exponential spread of dangerous misinformation on many media outlets, demand a thorough look at how to regulate all media in the public interest.
To predict the future media landscape, it may help to examine recent media trends, such as the:
- Rise of cord-cutters (especially among younger households) and decline of traditional Pay TV audiences
- Shift of linear TV (broadcast and cable) audiences to ad-free streaming options
- Growing popularity of Over-the-Top (OTT) delivery systems like Apple TV and Roku
- Steady decline of traditional (terrestrial) radio audiences
- Rapidly growing digital audio and podcasting audiences
- Continued growth of social network users, especially on mobile devices
The most troubling trend is the growing use of social media to spread lies and mobilize the gullible. Consider the anti-vax movement. Prominent broadcast voices provide cover, but the anti-vax movement would be trivial without social media. While some platforms, like Facebook, have begun regulating anti-vax content, their efforts seem inadequate. In the face of the Delta virus surge, one cannot help but wonder how many more will die because of social media abuse.
Keeping the Media Honest
Given the changing media landscape, we must rethink media regulation. We must regulate all media, including social media, to help citizens distinguish fact from opinion and fact from fiction.
The US Supreme Court must revisit the First Amendment and the related constitutional scaffolding. The First Amendment protects free speech, but the Court has carved out exceptions like libel, hate and incitement speech (i.e., speech intended to incite imminent mayhem or violence). Moreover, while the First Amendment protects speech, it does not necessarily protect the technology that amplifies that speech.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will strike a balance between free speech and national survival. As the conservative US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in his 1949 Terminiello v. Chicago dissent, “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the … Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.” Our hospitals and Capitol are the most recent examples of that danger.
Some call for reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine. With so many different media outlets disseminating information across the spectrum of political ideology, this doctrine seems hopelessly antiquated. How could the government possibly police so many outlets, let alone force them to air alternative views? With so many issues and opinions in the marketplace of ideas, it would be virtually impossible to enforce the Fairness Doctrine. In any event, do we really want government to assume this role again?
The new regulatory regime should have several elements. Tailoring the free speech doctrine to the new media landscape. Crafting an honesty doctrine that enables consumers to distinguish opinion from evidence-based news. Imposing controls that prevent the viral spread of unsubstantiated information and accelerate (and highlight) the correction of errors. Requiring transparency regarding content controls, algorithms and advertising. Holding all media outlets accountable, not just for obscenity, but for truth.
Fostering Media Competition and Responsibility
The corporations that control information are too large. We have long been wary of Big Brother, but usually concerning big government. However, private enterprise has far more control over the information we receive than big government. According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Facebook are the nation’s five most valuable companies, the first time in decades one industry has claimed the top five spots. With such size comes staggering (if not ominous) power.
If we want a free marketplace of ideas, we must foster far more competition among the firms that shape and distribute information. We should redefine and prohibit uncompetitive practices. We should make it easy to transfer platforms. We should establish a moratorium on future mergers until we develop tougher approval criteria. We should break up monopolies like Facebook that pose undue threats to economic competition and the flow of information. And we should adequately fund antitrust enforcement.
We also should reimpose reasonable liability for the media’s abuse of its responsibilities to the American public. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 exempts social media from the defamation standards that govern traditional publishers. There were plausible reasons for granting this immunity to social media (e.g., unfettered free speech and self-policing obscenity), but immunity can no longer be justified. If, for example, a social media firm disseminates clearly unsubstantiated (if not false) information and that information results in injury or death, the firm should be subject to litigation.
Reinventing Public Broadcasting
For decades, public broadcasting has been a political football. The right has frequently criticized the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) for being too liberal, citing such programming as Frontline as biased and repeatedly seeking to eliminate their public funding.
While the extent of liberal bias is debatable, conservatives may have a point. NPR and PBS produce a high-quality news product, but many conservatives believe it is delivered through a liberal lens. NPR, PBS and CPB have acknowledged that their workforces are predominately liberal. A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that at least 60 percent of PBS and NPR audiences are left-of-center. A 2020 Pew Research Center report found that 87 percent of those naming NPR as their main political news source are Democratic or Democrat-leaning.
What is not debatable is that PBS and NPR receive federal funds through their parent organization, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). In 2019, CPB received $445 million in federal dollars (virtually unchanged since 2014). About 89 percent of the federal allocation is used to support nearly 1,400 local stations. Far more federal funds are spent on operations than programming.
Still, PBS and NPR are far less dependent on federal funds than most people realize. PBS and NPR only receive about 14 and 10 percent of their revenues from the federal government, respectively. Other revenue sources like membership, distribution, underwriting and corporate sponsorships have become more critical. Overall, public broadcasting could probably survive without taxpayer support if didn’t fund local stations.
Conservatives and liberals should stop fighting over public broadcasting and start taking advantage of its strengths. First, PBS and NPR have an incredibly strong local presence. NPR has over 1,000 member stations and PBS has over 350. Together, they have stations in every state and territory and virtually every metropolitan area in America. Their local roots run deep.
Second, PBS and NPR have large followings. About 86 percent of all US television households and 211 million people watch PBS at some point during the year. Over 57 million people consume NPR’s offerings each week on radio or digital platforms. NPR is seeing impressive growth with its digital offerings and now generates more revenues from podcast underwriting than from radio shows. Not surprisingly, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report, NPR has become the main news source for adults aged 30 to 49 (49 percent).
Third, conservative angst notwithstanding, PBS and NPR have built solid reputations among viewers and listeners for reliable, objective reporting. Based on surveys, PBS and its member stations have been rated as America’s most-trusted institution for 18 consecutive years. PBS also receives high marks for value (higher even than Social Security). According to AllSides, a nonprofit that tracks media bias, NPR’s online news has a Center (unbiased) rating. Finally,other survey data suggests that NPR and PBS audiences tend to be better informed than the audiences of other media outlets.
What should we do with PBS and NPR? We should reinvent them, not kill them. Instead of exposing their liabilities, we should leverage their strengths. Instead of debating their roles as TV and radio broadcasters, we should confirm their role as a public aggregator of civic information and a clearinghouse of political opinion.
As a trusted public aggregator and clearinghouse, PBS and NPR—and their digital platforms—could become a reliable source for curious citizens seeking multiple perspectives. At the same time, they could function as a cfact-checking hub, continually scrutinizing (and rating) the claims of other outlets. Reinventing PBS and NPR will likely require several strategies, including the following:
- Adopt clear standards to ensure the objectivity, accuracy and reliability of information
- Establish an independent oversight panel comprising a diverse group of prominent liberals, centrists and conservatives to ensure that all published information reflects the full spectrum of political views
- Diversify the workforces as needed to minimize the external perceptions of bias
- Maintain a clear distinction between news and commentary
- Shift funding from traditional broadcasting to dynamic, inclusive new media (e.g., digital and streaming)
- Increase support for digital local government coverage
- Revamp programming to help consumers connect the dots between news and their lives (e.g., show how a proposed bill could affect the amount of time required to file an individual tax return)
By working together, liberals and conservatives could craft a new role for PBS and NPR. Over time, this new role—if fulfilled—could help reduce polarization and remind divided Americans of their shared values. Ultimately, it could enhance public trust in media, government and democracy.
Challenging Bias with Reliable Information
Most media outlets give us what we want—information that confirms our biases. This is the time-honored way to maximize audience loyalty and corporate profits. For democracy to thrive, however, we need a citizenry that thinks critically. And this requires far more exposure to information that challenges our biases.
It is easy to be distracted by the narratives about tribes and bubbles. Those on the right watch nothing but Fox News and those on the left watch nothing but MSNBC. However, this may sell the American public short.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, most Americans rely on an array of outlets for their political and governmental news. Other studies have shown that several national media outlets attract a healthy mix of liberal and conservative views, including the major TV networks ABC, CBS, NBC, print/digital media like Bloomberg, Economist and USA Today and aggregators like Google News. Many local media outlets enjoy a similarly diverse following even as the future of local print media is increasingly uncertain.
We should not overlook the natural curiosity and skepticism of many Americans. Millions of us hunger for honest, reliable and diverse information about our civic affairs. Millions of us crave an Easy Button for political and governmental news, a trusted source that helps us put the news in perspective, a more efficient way to make sense of an increasingly complicated and pluralistic world.
Democratic institutions, public discourse and perhaps our national survival depend on a common set of facts. By reforming media we can ensure access to such facts. We can reduce the spread of misinformation. We can provide a public forum for comparing competing views. We can strengthen our ability as individual citizens to think for ourselves. We can restore trust in government and democracy.