Journalism Is in Crisis. Only Public Funding Can Save It.
For the Left, it’s easy to hate the media, with its entrenched centrist biases and loyalty to the status quo. But a world without high-quality news is a world where meaningful democracy is impossible. That’s the message of media scholar Victor Pickard, who argues for a transformation of our media system away from the model of commercial news and toward a “public option.”
- Interview by
- Meagan Day
- Micah Uetricht
Most of the Left’s media critiques focus on the mainstream media’s blatant ideological defense of the status quo. This emphasis is understandable since we frequently find ourselves either ignored or absurdly demonized by mainstream news outlets — recall MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid bringing on a bogus “body language expert” to confirm that Bernie Sanders hates women, or Chris Matthews comparing Sanders’s victory in Nevada to the Nazi invasion of France.
What gets less attention on the Left is the prospect of building a media system that isn’t so inclined to advance the interests of those in power. In other words: there’s something terribly wrong with our media, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with media in the abstract. On the contrary, access to timely, factual, high-quality journalism is a social good and one that the Left should seek to secure for all people by waging the fight to establish public media alternatives.
In his new book Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, Victor Pickard explains why our commercialized media system is so dysfunctional and disliked and why the Left should make it a priority to build a better one. Pickard is a professor of media policy and political economy at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacobin’s Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht spoke to him for an episode of the podcast The Vast Majority. That conversation has been excerpted and condensed below.
Our problems certainly did not begin with Donald Trump, but the run-up to the 2016 election revealed a number of deep structural pathologies in our news and information systems.
We can look for example at cable news, where Trump was being covered constantly. I often trot out that infamous quote by the now-disgraced CBS CEO, Les Moonves, who said about this constant coverage of Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s good for CBS.” It speaks volumes about what’s so deeply wrong with our media system, which is driven by commercial values and profit imperatives that will always trump democratic concerns.
Less visible than the profit-driven values of cable news, but no less important, is the structural collapse of commercial journalism. Since the early 2000s, the newspaper industry has lost over half its employees. Local news media in particular has been utterly devastated.
The roots of this problem not only predate Trump but predate the internet. It’s common to say that the internet broke journalism, but that wouldn’t have happened without the commercialization of the press, which pegged journalism to advertising revenues. Advertisers never really cared that much about supporting journalism to begin with — they were only trying to reach audiences, and the best way to do that was to advertise through local newspapers, which had monopolies in their given markets.
But when readers migrated to the web, those monopolies disappeared, and so did the advertising revenue. We now have what are increasingly referred to as news deserts where entire regions and communities lack any local news media whatsoever. We’ve lost over a fifth of all of our newspapers since the early 2000s. And of course, this disproportionately hurts lower socioeconomic groups, who have no reliable way to find out about what’s going on in their community and their society.
Meanwhile, digital advertising pays pennies on the dollar compared to traditional print advertising, so that entire advertising-supported journalism business model is gone. With the collapse of the advertising revenue model, the next model was the paywall: if advertisers aren’t going to sustain journalism, then readers should sustain it. But while you do see niche reader-funded communities that are able to do some fantastic stuff, we now know that, broadly speaking, individual readers won’t financially support journalism at the level that democracies require.
Ultimately, what we’re seeing today is an existential crisis in the industry where the market is driving journalism into the ground.
Liberals have noticed that journalism is in crisis, but they often respond by overstating the fundamental goodness of actually existing journalism, waxing poetic about how “democracy dies in darkness,” as the Washington Post tagline became during the Trump administration. That was par for the course during the Trump administration: the president would denigrate the press, and liberals would reflexively and breathlessly extol its virtues.
But leftists have a more complicated relationship to the mainstream press than liberals do, because we’ve been mistreated by it. We saw how the mainstream media regarded Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, for example. It’s both true that journalism is vitally important and that the press we have today plays a role in manufacturing consent for the powerful. How can we hold both of those ideas in our minds at once?
You’ve put your finger on a core tension. On the left, media criticism tends to focus on the ideological function that the mainstream media perform of defending the status quo and advancing the interests of the powerful. It’s true: our media system is dominated by corporate media firms dedicated to making sure that certain stories don’t get covered or that they get covered in a particular way.
That said, a more sophisticated left-wing analysis would view our current flawed media system not as something that’s natural or inevitable, but as something that came about because of specific historical struggles. Once we understand this, we can recognize that it’s possible to create a different kind of system which would live up to the ideals that liberals impart to journalism in general. A more structural left-wing critique sees how our current system is symptomatic of capitalism.
I’ve been working in the media reform movement for many years now, and people on the Left will often ask me, “Why do we care about these dinosaurs?” The attitude is, “Let them burn.” I understand this, especially coming after the run-up to the Iraq War — we should never forget the role that our media institutions played in that. But at the same time, we need to recognize that any progressive project, whether we’re talking about fighting climate change, mass incarceration, or economic inequality, is going to require a viable press system.
We have to be able to simultaneously critique the system as it is and also imagine how it could be. And that’s why even though liberals often misdiagnose the problem, I’m heartened that so many people seem to care about the future of journalism as deeply as they do. It gives me some hope that media reform could be a major project for all of us.
You’re pointing toward a left-wing defense of journalism — not of the current media system but of the notion that access to factual information is an important service, a pillar of a decent society like health care and education and infrastructure, and, like those other pillars, should be publicly provisioned.
Of course, the idea of public journalism makes people in the United States freak out and start talking about a slippery slope to totalitarianism. People automatically think that if we let the state finance media, then they’re going to control media.
It strikes me that similar concerns were raised during attempts to establish public education in the United States. People said, “We can’t let the state indoctrinate our children.”
Obviously, we set up a public education system over these objections. And we have fought constantly over what should be taught in schools ever since, but those disagreements don’t invalidate the importance of public education. They’re just part of the process of maintaining a democratic institution that serves the public’s needs.
I use that parallel often. People often feel that if our local news institutions are no longer profitable, then that’s too bad but there’s really nothing that can be done. Supply and demand, the market has spoken, it’s on them to find a new business model. Now imagine if we said the same thing about our local public school system — which of course some people do, which is another problem, but at least they feel some pressure to say it implicitly instead of explicitly.
What you’re putting your finger on is the arbitrary designation of public goods. Whenever I’m talking about the future of journalism, I try to denaturalize it, to get people to think of journalism as an essential public service, not as a commodity or something we should leave up to the market to support. Even on the Left, I think a lot of people still harbor liberal ideas about journalism, viewing it as an individual endeavor and journalists as individual talents when we should be thinking about it as a collective public good.
All Americans should have access to a baseline level of news and information. To make that happen, we not only need regulatory interventions when it comes to the big media conglomerates, but journalism should be universally and publicly provisioned.
Sometimes to broaden people’s imaginations I talk about a public option, or I point to the BBC, because these carry some rhetorical weight and legitimacy — Americans have warm fuzzy feelings about the BBC, and the public option has been in the discourse for at least a decade. But basically in the end, I think the ultimate objective is that every community across the country has a publicly funded, locally owned news cooperative.
When we think about the role of mainstream media in getting Trump elected, it’s not just that cable news gave his campaign so much airtime. It’s also that a lot of people already hated the mainstream media but didn’t know exactly why, and Trump came in and spoke to and stoked that hatred in a particular, reactionary way.
To what extent do you think that the kind of solutions you propose in the book can help not just restore trust in the media, but actually transform our media system so that it rightly earns the public’s trust?
When it comes to the reputation of the press, I think there’s a lot of damage to undo, and much of it is self-inflicted damage. The commercialized media system has debased itself for decades, and there’s good reason to not always trust it. However, and there’s some evidence to suggest this so it’s more than just speculative on my part, of my analysis, there are still relatively high levels of trust in local news institutions compared to the big national media conglomerates.
In general, when local communities are deeply involved and engaged with their own local media, trust levels tend to go up. I cut my teeth in indie media in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and this was something that movement intuitively understood — the slogan back then was, “Don’t hate the media, be the media.”
That said, I will also add that we can’t just rely on volunteer labor or nonprofit donations. If you can imagine an independent media center in every community that’s fully publicly funded, then that not only addresses some of the structural problems but will [also] help restore people’s opinion of the institutions providing this vital public service.
Your book identifies several failures on the part of the US media that enabled Trump’s election: the media’s drive for profit, the circulation of misinformation on social media, and what you call the “slow-but-sure structural collapse of professional journalism.” You argue that these were problems before Trump, and they’ll remain problems now that he’s gone.