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Never mind the blockchain, fund public media

Jon Ossoff, CEO and MD of Stacey Dooley: Face to Face with ISIS producer Insight TWI and the 2017 Democratic nominee for US Congress in the historic special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, demands greater investment in public media. 

You know the popular refrain about the news today: the public is misinformed and divided by cynical partisan content while manipulated and surveilled by Silicon Valley spyware. Local journalism is dying. Walter Cronkite is dead along with everything that he stood for.

Long gone is the vaunted “common set of facts” — the authoritative public worldview, established daily by a few major broadcasters and publications, whose legitimacy crossed demographic and partisan lines.

Amidst nostalgia for that “Cronkite era”, there is scant critical assessment of how well the public really was served by editorial and ideological homogeny. But whatever the flaws of the old regime — when a few great newsrooms and broadcasting houses dominated information — our new Zuckerberg-Murdoch era presents a genuine crisis for media and democracies.

This crisis in journalism has provoked a lot of fashionable new ideas, few of which have panned out. But there is at least one straightforward solution, and it’s an old one: invest more public funds in independent, public-interest journalism.

For democracies to function, citizens need ready access to superb journalism produced for accuracy and relevance rather than sensation, partisanship and profit.

Money is pouring into ratings-driven TV and streaming content, partisan sensationalism on cable and highfalutin festival docs. There is scant corporate interest in hard-hitting reporting and investigation.

Courageous video journalism has a track record of informing and influencing public opinion at critical moments. Our television and film industry has been relied upon to produce it. But these days, money is pouring into ratings-driven TV and streaming content, partisan sensationalism on cable and highfalutin festival docs. There is scant corporate interest in hard-hitting reporting and investigation.

Liberal optimists looked to technology for solutions, but those aspirations have been demolished. Social media platforms were praised for their transformative openness at a decade of #futureofnews conferences, yet those same platforms have revealed themselves to be rapacious, deceitful and easily manipulated.

And with a few exceptions, the trendy new media ventures once hyped as rescuers of journalism are struggling, constraining their own appeal to narrow audiences, or becoming properties of the same corporate empires that serve us sensation and infotainment on cable.

The challenges to democratic civilization are huge and immediate. Public institutions are rotten with corruption. Authoritarianism is ascendent while governments and a few corporations amass greater and greater power over our lives. The economy is fragile and unsustainable. We continue to destroy the natural environment. Our political leaders are liars, incompetents and demagogues.

Times like these demand a powerful, independent and aggressive press — a press worthy of fear by those who lie, cheat, steal and kill.

That means we desperately need hard-hitting, brilliantly made news and current affairs programming. But how will we fund it?

Forget about the blockchain, micropayments, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and whatever else is pitched at the next conference. Right now — and it is urgent— publicly funded, editorially independent, public-interest journalism is the most obvious solution.

Despite its flaws, the BBC remains the most reputable newsgathering institution in the world. Yet it stands alone. Should not  American public media be such a force to be reckoned with?

PBS, NPR, the BBC and public media yet to be established can be among our greatest assets. They are also likely to remain under attack, because a well-funded, independent press threatens the corrupt, the dishonest and the powerful.

As a matter of urgency, the US Congress — and, dare I suggest, parliaments and governments around the world — should dramatically increase funding for public media and reinforce guarantees of their editorial independence.