“Health care is a right!” It’s a familiar refrain on the left. Progressives argue universal human dignity requires that access to care not be restricted to those who can pay. It is a central tenet of what it means to live in a democratic society. British theorist E.G. Marshall noted that health care was one of many “social rights” necessary for humans to flourish and hence be part of a well functioning democracy. As a reaction, many on the left ask government to step in and provide this necessary good.
Is it time for us to think of access to responsible journalism in the same way? The first amendment pays special attention to the freedom of the press because of its central position in challenging those in power. In the era of “over the air” television, the three major networks took seriously the responsibility owed to the public. Watch a broadcast of Face the Nation or the evening news and compare it to today’s news fare.
The advent of cable television, however, eviscerated the quaint notion of the public airwaves (and a corresponding public trust). The result has been a slow descent into covering the spectacle of politics over actual politics itself. To accommodate this new reality, politics has become more spectacular. In particular, this 2016 presidential race is unprecedented for the lack of public policy coverage. It has been almost entirely replaced by low cost “pundits” that analyze easily digestible “optics” or “tactics.” Substantive discussion about critical questions facing the nation have taken a backseat to weeks of argument over whether a major party candidate calling a judge a “Mexican” means the candidate is a racist.
I don’t mean to romanticize the politics of yesteryear. Penny presses were plenty salacious. But in a time and age where issues are increasingly complex, our system requires a sober, thoughtful citizenry capable of making thoughtful decisions (at least thoughtful enough to “do no harm” and not elect demagogues). We need news sources that are not driven by profit motive to cover important affairs of state in a banal way.
Given this, is it time for us to think about demanding the creation of impartial “public news” in the fashion of the BBC. We have something on radio in the US that isn’t directly driven by profit and strives to provide public policy coverage. Would an NPT (National Public Television) akin to our National Public Radio (NPR) give citizens the tools necessary to make informed decisions?
I don’t mean a replacement for PBS. I mean a 24 hour public television news station that was “listener sponsored” and sought to present pressing policy issues and world events in an interesting and compelling way. It would not be bound by ratings in the same way that CNN, Fox or MSNBC are bound. Could you have a television version of “All Things Considered” or “Planet Money” that would take an honest stab at objectivity and would provide those who listened with a better understanding of public challenges?
The parallels with health care are important, if imperfect. Not everyone has the time or inclination to read longform journalism. But most Americans do have a few moments to watch the news. How many people would switch from Fox or CNN if they had an “NPR TV station” as an alternative? Would they be better informed citizens if they did?