What if we decided that accurate information is an essential need in a democracy, just as effective police and fire services are essential in any society that values safety?
The logic here is straightforward. Democracy cannot function properly unless voters are knowledgeable and well-informed. By funding public education, most democracies acknowledge, at least tacitly, that voters must be knowledgeable. The shortcomings and confused aims of public education are obvious, but my point here is simply that education is regarded as so universally valuable that we all agree to pay taxes to fund schools. But what about the need for voters to be well-informed?
We obviously cannot rely on private, for-profit media outlets to provide accurate information to voters. Partisan propaganda is part of the problem, but the profit motive, fundamental to any business, undercuts the desires of conscientious reporters and editors to provide essential information to voters. To understand this, imagine that all police services were privatized. It would soon become apparent that the costs of policing certain areas are just too high. To protect profit margins and please shareholders, services to those areas would be reduced or eliminated.
Similarly, many news stories that would provide essential information to voters are complicated. To explain them requires long, detailed reporting and investigation. An editor or publisher who chooses to run such stories will quickly find that he or she is losing out to competitors who feature punchy, eye-catching, easy-to-understand stories that are full of “human interest.” As a result, the mass media landscape today is dominated by scandal, gossip, and superficiality. So long as journalism remains a for-profit enterprise, this is unlikely to change.
The internet has accellerated journalism’s decline, not only by increasing the competition for eyeballs but by eviscerating what was once a newspaper’s main source of income: the classified ads. Many local newspapers have simply disappeared. Others have been gobbled up by corporate outlets like USA Today. Even at local papers that have survived, reporting staffs have been cut drastically and content is mostly from national syndication. School board meetings and city council meetings go largely unreported.
How are voters expected to make informed decisions under such conditions?
There are some alternative models. Britain’s BBC, Canada’s CBC, and National Public Radio in the U.S. come to mind. All of them have flaws. Public funding is often inadequate. Political pressure is a constant threat. Fundraising through donations, memberships, and sponsorships brings another set of challenges. Keeping a publicly-funded news service both independent and accurate requires a carefully-designed system and unrelenting vigilance. None of that is easy, to say the least. But if we accept the idea that well-informed citizens are essential to a 21st-century democracy, then it follows that a free, independent, non-profit, publicly-funded press is an essential service just as much as policing and firefighting are.
A free press is an essential service.