Media budgets have been decimated as the Internet facilitates a communications revolution. More public funding for news-gathering is the answer.
We have entered a momentous period in the history of the American press. The invention of new communications technologies—especially the Internet—is transforming the human capacity to speak, perhaps as monumentally as the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. This is facilitating the largest and fastest expansion of global economic growth in human history. Free speech and a free press are essential to a dynamic economy.
At the same time, however, the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core. The proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers. Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future.
Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are undertaking studies of ways to ensure the steep economic decline faced by newspapers and broadcast news does not deprive Americans of the essential information they need as citizens. One idea under consideration is enhanced public funding for journalism.
The idea of public funding for the press stirs deep unease in American culture. To many it seems inconsistent with our strong commitment, embodied in the First Amendment, to having a free press capable of speaking truth to power and to all of us. This press is a kind of public trust, a fourth branch of government. Can it be trusted when the state helps pay for it?
American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support. By the middle of the last century, daily newspapers were becoming natural monopolies in cities and communities across the country. Publishers and editors drew on the revenue to develop highly specialized expertise that enhanced coverage of economics, law, architecture, medicine, science and technology, foreign affairs and many other fields.
Meanwhile, the broadcast news industry was deliberately designed to have private owners operating within an elaborate system of public regulation, including requirements that stations cover public issues and expand the range of voices that could be heard. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld this system in the 1969 Red Liondecision as constitutional, even though it would have been entirely possible to limit government involvement simply to auctioning off the airwaves and letting the market dictate the news. In the 1960s, our network of public broadcasting was launched with direct public grants and a mission to produce high quality journalism free of government propaganda or censorship.
The institutions of the press we have inherited are the result of a mixed system of public and private cooperation. Trusting the market alone to provide all the news coverage we need would mean venturing into the unknown—a risky proposition with a vital public institution hanging in the balance.
Ironically, we already depend to some extent on publicly funded foreign news media for much of our international news—especially through broadcasts of the BBC and BBC World Service on PBS and NPR. Such news comes to us courtesy of British citizens who pay a TV license fee to support the BBC and taxes to support the World Service. The reliable public funding structure, as well as a set of professional norms that protect editorial freedom, has yielded a highly respected and globally powerful journalistic institution.
There are examples of other institutions in the U.S. where state support does not translate into official control. The most compelling are our public universities and our federal programs for dispensing billions of dollars annually for research. Those of us in public and private research universities care every bit as much about academic freedom as journalists care about a free press.
Yet—through a carefully designed system with peer review of grant-making, a strong culture of independence, and the protections afforded by the First Amendment—there have been strikingly few instances of government abuse. Indeed, the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector. This reinforces the point that all media systems, whether advertiser-based or governmental, come with potential editorial risks.
To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company's environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.
Or consider another area where we have well established mechanisms of government support for even the most oppositional views: defense counsel in our courts, where government-paid lawyers (including those in uniform military courts) will do their utmost to undermine cases brought by the government itself. Playing the role of calling our government to account is an accepted ethic of the legal profession despite the political hostility it can sometimes generate.
We should think about American journalism as a mixed system, where the mission is to get the balance right.
To me a key priority is to strengthen our public broadcasting role in the global arena. In today's rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, other countries are developing a strong media presence. In addition to the BBC, there is China's CCTV and Xinhua news, as well as Qatar's Al Jazeera. The U.S. government's international broadcasters, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, were developed during the Cold War as tools of our anticommunist foreign policy. In a sign of how anachronistic our system is in a digital age, these broadcasters are legally forbidden from airing within the U.S.
This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters. The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need. Let's demonstrate great journalism's essential role in a free and dynamic society.
Mr. Bollinger is president of Columbia University and author of "Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century" (Oxford, 2010).