The Case for Public Television

When “slurpee summits” get more national media attention than the expiration of unemployment benefits for millions, it becomes clear that American broadcast journalism has lost its way.

Our minds are constantly assaulted by an onslaught of information from blogs, television, and satellite radio, making it difficult to know where to turn for news sifted from distractions like the one above. Worse still, we’ve seen some the most important national debates degenerate as a result of misinformation spread by major networks (death panels, anyone?). This produces mistrust: a Pew Research poll conducted in the heat of debates on health care reform last spring revealed that 7 out of 10 Americans gave the media a low score on coverage of the issue.

The irony is crippling: at a time when information flows more freely and in greater quantities than ever before, Americans remain ignorant and confused over the most basic facts. A Bloomberg poll released last October showed that 52% of Americans were convinced Obama had increased their taxes, when in fact the administration has decreased taxes for the middle class by more than $240 million.

How do we remedy this ongoing information crisis? More importantly, where can I escape a ten-minute CNN story about the newest color of M&Ms?

Americans must realize the importance of an objective news source, one free from the constraints of sponsors and from the crazed drive for 24-hour ratings, of which mediocrity can be the only product. Never has the need been greater, therefore, for publicly funded television.

An informed citizenry is an engaged citizenry: get even one fifth of Americans to understand the long-term implications of energy reform, and I guarantee that visible public interest in the issue will explode. Other Western nations recognize this fact: while we invest an embarrassing $400 million on public broadcasting each year for our more than 300 million citizens, smaller countries like Britain and France are spending billions. Canada, with a population one tenth of the U.S., spent a whopping $1.5 billion on public radio and television in 2005.

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum argue that adequately supported public television, by extension of its federal funding, would somehow become a propaganda machine for the state. The loudest proponents of this argument even tried to kill off NPR as recently as two weeks ago. To the contrary, nothing could be more democratic: unlike cable networks, public television is available to all, becoming a forum in which to discuss America’s problems at home and abroad. Spurred by competition, cable networks would also be forced to pay more attention to the content of their news coverage, a win-win for consumers.

We must call for greater support of public broadcasting. Only by giving networks like PBS the potential to compete with their private counterparts can we do ourselves the much needed favor of access to factual, unbiased news.