This is not surprising. In a world in which international news is holding the interest of audiences more frequently, the ability to publish and broadcast news pan-nationally is hugely advantageous. And without a reliance on advertising or subscription, editorial focus becomes paramount. For commercial outlets, speed is a function of being competitive, but resources for producing content are under pressure. So large appealing advertising audiences are more often anchored to big name talk shows, which are more reliable in terms of generating revenue, than to streams of events, which by their nature are unpredictable.
In this trans-national world, it is unclear what the American proposition is to the international market.
In a recent speech, Peter Horrocks, director of the BBC World Service, addressed America’s problem as he discussed a new era of government investment in global media: “There is an explosion of state-funded international news at the same time as there is a dramatic cutting back in resources by most commercial news organizations,” Horrocks said in a keynote speech at the International Journalism Festival in April. He pointed to China’s $7 billion expansion program for its overseas media operations, “including an increase in foreign bureaus for its global English news channel CCTV, from nineteen to fifty-six over the next three years.” He could have pointed to others as well: Russia Today is stepping up investment; Qatar-based Al Jazeera is similarly looking for international expansion.
CNN remains America’s predominant news channel overseas, with a reach that exceeds 260 million homes around the world through CNN International, a very distinct news service from the CNN accessed in another 100 million US homes. CNN is the US equivalent of the BBC for reach and profile, but as part of Time Warner, its future is dependent on shareholders and the marketplace.
And domestically, CNN is in a dogfight with competing networks, notably MSNBC and Fox News. The economic necessity to be able to prove that a network is holding steady “audience share” works in favor of personality-driven schedules. Hence the investment in faces such as Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper, to pit against MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. This competition in the network’s home market draws heavily on management’s time, focus, and resources.
I asked Horrocks to expand on his remarks in an e-mail exchange. “Could the BBC be invented now for the USA?” Horrocks asked, rhetorically. “Of course not. Could its currently publicly funded media be made to operate more seamlessly and effectively? Of course.” As Lee Bollinger does in more detail—in the next article in this CJR package—Horrocks described the messiness of a US system in which the key overseas state-funded broadcasters, such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and Alhurra, are prohibited by law from rebroadcasting into its domestic market. “The lack of consolidation is a fatal flaw,” Horrocks said. “There have been some noble efforts but it is still utterly Balkanised.”
And there are consequences to that. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently employed the notion of Al Jazeera “winning”—with its coverage of the Middle East—as a stick to poke US domestic media, framing this soft power struggle as a policy issue.
Still, what was interesting and illustrative to me about trying to find news in the US is that the system works exactly as it is designed to work. It is highly pluralistic and market-driven, meaning that with news in particular there is not one canonical version of events. In speaking to a number of academics, executives, and media policy researchers, the same phrase occurs again and again in describing the US public media system: “designed for weakness.”
The highly decentralized nature of US public media was always intended in part to ensure that state-funded media did not reach the levels of dominance scaled by the BBC.
This is very much the main point of the monograph Nixon and the Politics of Public Television by David Stone, which is being republished this fall by the New America Foundation as part of its Media Policy Initiative program. Stone, now executive vice president of communications and public affairs at Columbia University, wrote the original paper almost thirty years ago, but the fierce antipathy Richard Nixon’s administration showed toward public broadcasting, following Lyndon Johnson’s creation of the system with the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, is remarkably similar to the contemporary pressures faced by the entities that law created—public media’s main funding body, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and its main beneficiaries, TV’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).