It’s the Wrong Time to Cut Support for Public Media

When Josh Silver, one of the founders of the media reform organization Free Press, spoke at Rutgers University in March, he suggested that the key to re-invigorating American journalism is to increase investment in non-commercial media.

Silver noted that support for public media in the U.S. pales in comparison to the funding that other nations provide. In fact, a Free Press study he co-authored found:

“At around $420 million in federal funds per year, the United States has one of the lowest-funded public media systems in the developed world. The federal government allocates a paltry $1.43 per person each year to maintain the system, compared to more than 70 times that amount in Finland and nearly 80 times that amount in Denmark. If the United States spent as much on public media as those countries, it would total $30 billion annually.”

I found Silver’s idea intriguing, but wondered about its feasibility in the current fiscal climate. At the time of his lecture, Republicans in Congress were threatening to cut off funding for NPR, and in New Jersey, the future of NJN, the state’s public television network, was in jeopardy.

This week, the ax started to fall on NJN. Governor Christie announced plans to transfer operation of the New Jersey network to public broadcasting station WNET in New York, which will partner with Steve Adubato Jr.’s Caucus Educational Corporation to produce New Jersey programming. The proposal, however, can be blocked by the State Legislature, so what happens between now and the end of June will determine the future of NJN.

At an annual cost of about $11 million, NJN does not account for a significant portion of the state’s $30 billion budget. Still, it is a matter of priorities. Governor Christie has made it clear he does not believe the state should be in the business of operating a television network. As Governor, that is his prerogative, but there are plenty of reasons why funding NJN should be a priority.

For starters, quality journalism is an essential component of a strong democracy. Over the past decade, it has become increasingly difficult to provide quality journalism, largely due to economic factors that have caused massive layoffs and cutbacks throughout the industry. We need more, not less, support for journalism – especially in New Jersey. Not only have our state’s media outlets experienced the same cutbacks and layoffs as other states; we have no major television station of our own – and TV remains the most popular source for news, even with the phenomenal growth of the internet.

As for questions about the somewhat unusual situation of having a station that is staffed by state employees cover state government, I believe those concerns are overstated. From a personal standpoint, I have observed the NJN news staff for more than 25 years – as a fellow reporter, as a staffer for the legislature and two governors, and as an analyst for the Hall Institute – and I cannot recall any instances in which the station cut state government a break.

Similarly, the Free Press study acknowledged the possibility of government influence and interference in publicly funded media systems, but found little indication of such occurrences, In fact, the results were quite to the contrary:

“The evidence clearly demonstrates that where democratic countries have invested considerably in an independent public media system, the results are not censorship and propaganda, but greater civic participation and democratic engagement. Many of the nations that enjoy the highest rates of voter participation, civic literacy and civil liberties maintain large public subsidies for journalism.”

The truth is the perception of a conflict can exist regardless of what entity funds a news organization. Most news outlets are parts of massive corporations that own wide varieties of businesses, so they also are subject to the perception of conflicts. But that does not make the perception true. For that matter, is the perception that NJN is unduly influenced by state government any more troubling than the perception that would occur if the Governor’s proposal goes through and the state’s new public television network is operated by a corporation whose principal is the son of Steve Adubato Sr., one the state’s most influential political powerbrokers?

Lastly, by transferring operation of the state’s television network to an entity based in New York, the Governor’s plan furthers strengthens the false perception that New Jersey is less important than our neighbors to the north, as well as those to the south. This is not a new problem. As far back as 1776, Benjamin Franklin described New Jersey as “a beer barrel, tapped at both ends, with all the live beer running into Philadelphia and New York.”

For more than two centuries, we’ve let too much of that beer flow to Philly and NYC. It’s time to keep more of it in the Garden State.

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