Rather to Obama: Journalism Needs Help

In a passionate speech

in Colorado on Tuesday night, former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called on President Obama to form a White House commission on journalism and public media.

Citing declining investment in investigative journalism and the loss of news outlets that regularly monitor institutions of power, Rather said that all citizens should be concerned about the crisis in journalism. "A democracy and free people cannot thrive without a fiercely independent press," he said.

I couldn't agree more. Decades of unchecked media consolidation and poor media policies have left us with shuttered newsrooms, disappearing local media outlets, unemployed journalists, and a near absence of investigative reporting that exposes wrongdoing and abuses of power. It's clear that we have passed the point of shrugging our shoulders and just assuming that the free market will solve our media problems.

Public media, established to provide news and information as a public service instead of being a conduit for advertising dollars, are one of the most readily available tools in our arsenal for saving the news.

Rather called media reform a "national priority," and explained our country’s long history of establishing national commissions to address the needs of at-risk industries. The Aspen Daily News reported:

    The free press, as established by the First Amendment to the Constitution, ought to operate as a public trust, not solely as a money-making endeavor, Rather argued, and it’s time the government make an effort to ensure the survival of the free press. If not the government, he suggested, then an organization like the Carnegie Foundation should take it on. Without action, he predicted, America will lose its independent media.

Indeed, this would not be the first commission to take up the issue of public media. In 1967, a Carnegie Foundation-backed commission released a landmark report, Public Television: A Program for Action. The commission recognized that a public television (and later, a public radio) system was necessary to provide an "instrument for the free communication of ideas in a free society."

The commission’s report was quickly taken up by President Johnson’s administration, and within nine months, the Public Broadcasting Act – which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – was passed into law. A new commission that focuses on the unique demands and opportunities of today’s media landscape has the potential to project a broad, new vision for public media in the digital age.

More than 40 years later, public media ranks continuously as the No.1 American institution in public trust. NPR’s news division is growing, even as commercial newsrooms are shrinking. Programs like The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Frontline are providing the serious journalism that is fast disappearing.

Public media also provide a welcome alternative to the sad state of commercial reporting. And with the rise of the Internet, and declining costs of tools like video cameras, more individuals and organizations are creating media that tell the stories and share the views so seldom seen and heard.

But while public media may provide some of the critical journalism our democracy needs, it is continuously hamstrung by a vicious cycle of paltry funding. The United States spends just $1.35 per person on public media, compared to more than $80 per person in the UK and $100 per person in Denmark and Finland. And most public media programming does not yet reflect the true diversity of the nation.

These important issues around funding and diversity, as well as the governance and expansion of the public media system, require attention from Washington if we are ever to create public media that meet the needs of the American people.

You can read more about public media’s catch-22 in the Free Press report Public Media's Moment.