Signal and Noise

Trying to follow global news in America, a newcomer finds that something is missing

If you wished to see a vivid illustration of how the broadcast news media in the US are perceived in 2011, you could do worse than watch President Obama tell jokes.

At the White House correspondents’ dinner he delivered a left and a right, so to speak. First, he played his “official birth video,” a clip from Disney’s animated Lion King. ”That was a joke,” he enunciated at the table for Fox News, the network that has facilitated “birther” rumors that the president was born in Kenya. Then he looked around the glitzy gathering to find National Public Radio: “You guys are still here?” he quipped, referring obliquely to congressional thundering against continued public funding for the network, adding, “I was looking forward to new programming like No Things Considered…”

That’s about it in a nutshell. On one side, successful commercially funded entities that are popularly characterized as having abandoned high-quality reporting for ratings, one way or another, to one degree or another. On the other side, a public media system with a highbrow reputation but a political mountain to climb to maintain the public portion of its funding.

And somehow the two parts are not greater than the whole. America lacks a central voice in terms of both reporting itself to the world and the world to its diverse citizens. This puts the country at a disadvantage. The quality of its democracy suffers, as does its global image.

In the first two weeks of March, when I began working on this article, the news media in the US had two very different unfolding protest stories to follow. One was the latest wave of the Arab Spring, which rolled into Bahrain that month and met violent resistance from the authorities. The other uprising, less violent but similarly newsworthy, was taking place in Madison, Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker’s union busting “budget-repair bill” hit a wall of public workers and Democratic senators fled the state in an attempt to hold up its passage.

As an avid consumer of news, and as someone who is relatively new to the US, it was striking and a little disconcerting to find out how hard it was to follow either narrative arc contemporaneously through the mainstream media. I remember a particular evening in mid-March when Twitter alerted users to the fact that both #Bahrain and #Wisconsin were “trending,” yet it was impossible to find comprehensive coverage of either story. Cable news did not break its schedule to bring the news instantly; the New York Times website, normally a source of wide-ranging news, was slow to update; on the radio, NPR made clear that it is not a twenty-four-hour service. All outlets eventually carried some coverage of both stories, of course, but locating information about events in Madison and Manama as they unfolded in real time was difficult.

Back in Britain, when momentous events were unfolding, I would switch on the BBC, or click on its website, confident that I would be able to find a broad, if sometimes shallow, impression of what was going on in the world. The BBC is omnipresent in the UK—an all-encompassing news website, eight national TV channels and ten national radio channels, dozens more local and international channels, outlets on each platform dedicated to breaking news. In the US, I seem to have no such go-to broadcast news source when big stories break. Like what I expect is an increasing number of people, I find myself reliant on social media feeds. Is this a problem at all? Is it a problem for Americans?

These days, my default position for big stories is to follow the stream of aggregated news from multiple sources—Facebook and Twitter, as well as search engines like Google News. Here, links from domestic sources such as CNN blend increasingly with international coverage from convergent news organizations, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera English, which reach wide audiences with web and broadcast platforms far outside their domestic markets.

The web is increasing audiences for news, but growth is often outside domestic markets and not supported by proportionate advertising increases. Those who benefit most from this situation are often the news organizations that have funding models that allow a concentration on editorial firepower and reach, in terms of how many million visitors see a story, rather than revenue. And predominant among that group are often state and publicly funded media entities.

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).

Since I come from the UK, where the BBC has been the culturally dominant force for more than seventy years, the idea that there is not one outlet dedicated to telling the whole nation what is going on in the world right now is disorienting. But to US audiences, many of its politicians, and even many of its journalists, the idea that your dominant media authority would be publicly funded is the very vision of a dystopian horror.

In the past, such cultural differences have been interesting but not much more than that, because these outlets operated pretty much in isolation. It took television technology more than fifty years before the market was ready for international TV services. Until CNN International’s arrival in 1985, five years after CNN’s birth, news channels on television operated for their domestic audiences only. The BBC only extended its international TV reach after that, in 1987, with the stuttering start of BBC TV Europe, which became part of BBC World in 1991.

Then came the Internet in the mid-1990s. In addition to upending the financial model to support news, the global interconnectedness of the Internet as a delivery system has also had the effect of creating a new global market. Citizens can converse and consume beyond their borders, and news organizations can transcend previous formats and licensing arrangements to reach much bigger international audiences. Just as the revenue opportunities are shrinking, so the opportunities of reach are expanding. And again, some advantage goes to state-funded media, which do not have to worry as much about revenue and can focus on content and distribution.

In the US, the lack of a clear path toward funding what has been called “accountability journalism” has triggered a number of suggestions that the country should rethink its resistance to publicly funded media. In 2009, Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia Journalism School professor and CJR contributor, wrote a report, published here in CJR, called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” Among several recommendations was one that public funding for journalism be increased, via the Federal Communications Commission, which would contribute a portion of its fees from telephone networks, broadcast licenses, and spectrum auctions to create a new Fund for Local News. It also recommended a more consolidated approach toward distributing funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, giving larger sums to fewer recipients, and suggested that this body change its name to the Corporation for Public Media.

The same year, Princeton professor Paul Starr, testifying before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee during a hearing on “the future of newspapers,” called for more government support of journalism, holding up as encouraging the example of public broadcasting, which he said “has become an important source of news and public-affairs discussion.”

But two years later, for those who had hopes that a serious discussion about public funding for the press would arrive, the world has moved backward. As most readers know, NPR has suffered through a plethora of public controversies this year (Juan Williams, Ellen Weiss, James O’Keefe, et al.), culminating in the resignation of NPR’s president and chief executive, Vivian Schiller. A week later the House of Representatives voted to strip NPR of its government funding, though the measure is expected to fail.

Even in the UK, political pressure on the BBC is forcing its director general to attempt cutting costs by 20 percent. The big difference between the UK and the US, though, is the scale of the funding. In the UK, a license fee charged to every TV-owning household in the country raises more than $5 billion a year for the broadcaster—this from a domestic market roughly a fifth the size of the US. In the US, the total amount the CPB distributes to the public broadcasters is just around $400 million per year, which in turn is split between NPR, PBS, and many local affiliates.

In the US, PBS and NPR receive a mere $9.37 per capita in revenue, counting all sources of revenue—federal funding, donations, and sponsorships. That compares to $116.43 per capita in the UK and $54.03 in Japan, according to a recent report by the media advocacy group Free Press.

But the argument that the US compares poorly in its state and public investment in media is not one that gets much traction in the US. And many Americans do not think that the decentralized system operated here is necessarily a disadvantage. Even some of those involved in public broadcasting see decentralization as a plus. “The fact that NPR has zero control or authority over affiliate stations is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Schiller, the former NPR chief, now the chief digital officer of NBC News. “Independence of ownership is often a strength as these stations are closest to their audiences.”

Schiller is skeptical that there will ever be more public support for funding for public media than there is at the moment. “I just don’t see it,” she says. “Even journalists who work inside public media are conflicted about taking public dollars.”

Yet while public media may struggle for funding, it is having no trouble finding audiences. Schiller’s time at NPR might have ended with a series of controversies, but her two-year tenure saw a continuing growth in audiences and a focus on digital innovation. And at a time when the normal trajectory for ‘legacy media’ has been at best static, NPR’s figures have increased to around 27 million people listening to at least one NPR show a week, up from around 13 million in the late 1990s. Similarly, PBS claims a monthly reach of 117 million and an online monthly reach of 20 million.

Bill Clinton set public-media-advocate hearts aflutter in May, when he suggested an American or international entity, similar to “NPR or the BBC,” that would put out unspun truth and debunk Internet rumors. But privately, even those at the top levels of public broadcasting feel that this is unlikely.

What may be more likely is that a new ecosystem could spring out of current networks of professional and amateur news organizations, using the cheap or free infrastructure of the Internet to create traction.

Tom Glaisyer, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, for example, envisions the emergence of a connected world of public service publishing based around libraries, community groups, and journalism schools, many of whom are already active participants in publishing to local communities. Such a vision relies on the idea that the majority of newsgathering will fall to more dispersed sources, some of them professional journalists and many of them not. “These will be new information institutions, and look very different from what we had in the past,” says Glaisyer. Context and analysis might as easily come from experts in the field publishing their own material as from news organizations.

We certainly got a glimpse of the ability of the Internet to facilitate and integrate news sources, and maybe of a new news ecosystem, during the Arab Spring and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this year. Whether it was NPR’s own head of social media strategy, Andy Carvin, ceaselessly tweeting links of disparate sources and coverage of the Middle East for months on end, or MIT’s nuclear science and engineering students blogging the post-earthquake problems with the Fukushima power plant (, we could begin to see how such an ecosystem might work. Investment in professional journalists—to follow sources and subjects even when they are not in the public eye, to investigate and stand up to governmental and corporate pressure, to help sort the fake from the real—will still be needed, but the money currently spent on maintaining bureaus and infrastructure is almost certain to shrink—at least in America.

This need was made clear in the recent FCC report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” published in June. But meanwhile, the increased and rapid investments by many other governments into centralized media will continue to be a challenge to the US. The “soft power” struggle in the world has begun a new and more political phase, and globalized news has increasing relevance to domestic markets. People and money move ever more fluidly across borders, so information about an earthquake in Japan, an explosion in Russia, or a riot in Tehran becomes directly relevant to a viewer in the US or a listener in Europe.

In this new world, the US is undoubtedly a leader at least in one way. The US has a more powerful media platform than any of its rivals, through technology companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

It is somewhat ironic then, that the journalism distributed via these networks will be increasingly generated by non-US sources. To many, this might seem like a blessed liberation from the pervasive Americanization of culture through the likes of MTV and CNN in the heady days of cable expansion. But one can see why Hillary Clinton talks about other countries “winning” the information war, and why this might be of concern to the US.

News journalism will come through these free, commercial, private platforms as much as through any other means, including the broadcast channels of old. In this respect the future of public media is already here. It is networked and highly dispersed.

But in another way, it still feeds on the ability of individuals and organizations to present reports and perspectives, to motivate debate and action. And in that realm, it is unclear what the US national news identity might be, or how it might be funded.

It may be that the notion of the cross-national news brand, such as the BBC, is outmoded, but this seems a premature and quite possibly wrong conclusion. Signal is needed above noise, and professional journalists at their best should be about signal.

What is clear is that in a world where the rapid deployment of news has widespread impact but limited economic value, to stick rigidly to the idea that the market will provide for it is a high-risk strategy.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.