In chatting with a friend today about the sorry state of Journalism in the United States (and elsewhere), we were discussing why, and what options there were.
Based on a fairly simple premise, Journalism in the US (and elsewhere) is driven by advertising revenue. Journalism in itself doesn’t generate any income, so advertisers have to pay for said media. This creates a couple issues. One thing it creates, and this is the most obvious, is having to treat those advertisers with kids gloves. So, a network that’s owned by GE (NBC) isn’t going to run a story that says GE is a major manufacturer of Nuclear Weapons. Or causes some pollution. ABC networks aren’t going to publish anything negative about Disney, and CBS isn’t going to go badmouthing Viacom. And Fox, well, is Fox.
The other issue is the need to get viewers, to appeal to advertisers, to continue advertising. One of the first things you learn in a class about the News Media, or Media in general, is that they are really there to sell viewers/readers to advertisers. Yeah, that may seem backward, but it makes sense if you think about it.
So, what do you do about it? One option is the BBC approach. You tax commercial advertising, and with that money, you fund a state run public news organization. Where’s the problem? “State run”. No self aware organism is going to bite the hand that feeds it, so the BBC is going to be very cautious anytime it runs a story critical of the UK government. Especially the branch/department it reports to. So, how do you fix our system if a public system, while better, isn’t infallible?
What a lot of it comes down to is lack of Media Literacy on the part of the public. They accept, by and large, the worthless “news” passed off by the Media in this country. So there is no incentive for the media to change. So, media literacy is to blame… but that’s just a symptom of poor education. But poor education is generally a sign of lack of funding. Which, brings us to item two…
Taxes in the US are by no means “high”, but they’re also not “low”. Yet any time there is a budget deficit, or crisis, education is often one of the first things to get cut (shouldn’t it be one of the last?). So, over time, you end up with uneducated, uninformed people who think their taxes are too high. I like to call them Libertarians. =P Seriously though, more like the Wild Wild West bunch. So, here’s a suggestion for President Obama’s administration. Take a page from business, and treat the tax payer as a shareholder.
Let’s say, for nice round numbers, I pay $10,000 in federal taxes a year. That tax money goes to some pot in the IRS/Federal Government. Of that money, so much is spent on the military, so much on interest for loans to cover deficit spending, so much on social services, so much on education, etc. All this is tracked (hopefully). Why not, every year, either snail mail, or email, or just have a website, where I can see total amount I paid, and where my money was spent. I know it’s nebulous, but theoretically, the IRS knows how much it takes in, total, and how much goes out, and the government at large knows how much comes from the IRS, and how much it spends from other places. This is all really simple database reporting. Basically, give us all shareholders reports. How much did the Government take in, how much went out, who where the top 100 receivers of that money? Make it available. I guarantee, that would do two things. First, it would surprise people that so little is spent on education vs. anything else. Which would correct the “cut education first” notion. Second, it would really appeal to the fiscal voters (the Ross Perot group, because the government would be doing something business like). Basically, all this infrastructure is already there, and could easily be supplied to the public. The only reason not to do it is to prevent people from knowing how money is really spent.
As a bonus, you’d give news organizations some real “news”.