ELON MUSK: Does the BBC hold itself at all responsible for misinformation regarding masking and side effects of vaccination, and not reporting on that at all? And what about the fact that the BBC was put under pressure by the British government to change its editorial policy? Are you aware of that?
INTERVIEWER: This is not an interview about the BBC.
EM: Oh, you thought it wasn’t?
If the past decade of democratic politics has a defining issue, it's probably that amorphous entity known as “the media.”
Whatever you think of Elon and his clashes with…well…everyone, there’s something really telling about this clip and its popularity. It’s not just about Elon’s and Twitter’s erratic waffling between labeling the BBC, NPR, and others as propaganda, then public media, then nothing at all. Much more importantly, it encapsulates publicly-funded media’s profound crisis of identity and purpose in a democratic world increasingly fractured by polarization and distrust.
To better understand what’s going on here under the surface, we took a look at seven different media outlets from around the world and broke them down into four simple categories, to explain how public media works, what separates one example from another, and what the future might hold.
I — STATIST MEDIA
This is a map of press freedom around the world, according to Journalists Without Borders. Just glance at it, and it’s hard not to notice these two dark clusters, especially this giant one including China and Russia.
To understand what’s going on here is pretty simple. Just follow the money.
Let’s start with Russia’s media darling, RT, or Russia Today. If you’re watching this, you’re probably not Russian, yet you’ve probably consumed RT’s content before. That’s because it’s grown to be the world’s biggest media company based outside an English-language country, at least, that is, according to RT’s website.
Why not believe that, or anything else on their website, for that matter? Well, following the money is pretty simple. RT gets its funding from the Russian government which is, despite having the window dressing of democratic institutions, really just a straightforward autocracy. As a result of its ties to the government, RT operates with minimal real independence. According to former RT employees, criticism of Putin is strictly forbidden, while coverage of the Ukraine War is unswervingly pro-invasion.
Simple, right? Just follow the money, and it’s clear where RT’s rye bread is buttered: the Russian government, i.e. Putin. In China, it’s even simpler.
Let’s look at the example of Xinhua news. Like RT, Xinhua receives its funding from the government, and like Russia, China’s government is an obvious autocracy. Except…Xinhua doesn’t just get its money from the government; as _the _official state news agency of China, Xinhua is actually part of the government.
To the public, Xinhua publishes sanitized, spun, and specious stories which support the CCP, although in private articles published only to party members, it enjoys freedom to highlight hard truths: proof even Xinhua doesn’t believe the junk it’s peddling. In the strikingly honest words of the agency’s president, “Xinhua will never depart from the party line, not even for a minute, nor stray from the path laid down by General Secretary Xi Jinping.”
RT and Xinhua may differ in some ways, but following the money back to the Russian and Chinese governments affirms the common assumption that government funding makes biased content.
II — PUBLIC MEDIA
Thus, Elon’s desire to equate RT and Xinhua with other government-funded media like the BBC. After all, that’s just following the money. But democracies are different from those zero-accountability, zero-transparency regimes.
At least in theory, democratic public media is kept independent from the political powers-that-be through tough-to-change funding mechanisms and editorial boards with legal and institutional independence from government influence. Supposedly this leads to high quality, independent, and impartial journalism fit for democratic citizens.
The BBC stands as a mixed example. Its founder saw the broadcaster’s mission as fundamentally paternalistic, and he lamented being “behind” the Nazis by not banning Jazz music. Though today BBC radio broadcasts more than classical music by British artists, it has been embroiled in a handful of political controversies, including Boris Johnson’s characteristically corrupt appointment of a major personal bankroller to the broadcaster’s head, who was just recently forced to resign. Although the BBC remains the most trusted news outlet in the UK, that trust is quickly collapsing.
But that only tells one side of the story of public media, and we can see the other side with Norway and its NRK. Take a look at this graph of per capita public media funding. Norway is even higher than the UK, but examples of influence peddling or cronyism in recent years are nowhere to be found. In fact, in the world’s increasingly fractured media landscape, trust in the NRK has remained steady. 
In other words, when we follow the money and end up at a government, we see that it’s the quality and character of a country’s government that’s the best predictor of public media quality and independence. For one metric, Norway ranks at the top of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, while the UK comes in at 18th, and it’s hard to deny the farcical turn the country’s politics have taken lately. As such, it’s unsurprising Norway has top-tier public media, while the UK’s recent record is more mixed.
III — PRIVATE MEDIA
But, Norway’s exceptional example aside, if even the BBC has intermittent issues with political influence, maybe the most reliably unbiased media would have nothing to do with the government at all. In the words of Succession’s private media kingpin Logan Roy, “And I didn't make human nature but I do know what they read and what they watch. I make my nut off what people really want. Don't tell me about people. I'd go flat broke in a week if I didn't.”
So the argument goes; follow the money, and outlets like Fox and CNN are good because they’re independent of the government, living and dying according to market forces. If they didn’t give people what they wanted, they’d fold, unlike publicly-funded media, which can be propped up by government backers long after people have lost interest in what it has to say.
Except…is that really the best standard for what makes good news media?
Set aside for a moment the obvious facts that corporate media isn’t simply free of bias because of distance from the government, that following the money leads to wealthy individuals with their own political preferences and agendas, and advertising that restricts coverage and content.
To say a certain sort of media is good because it gives the people what they want is a reasonable standard…when it comes to superhero movies and gladiatorial battles. Because, yeah, that’s just entertainment, not news which is supposed to be…informative. No one seriously believes a race to the bottom for ratings and clicks is a truly healthy way of handling news.
In America, Fox and CNN may have larger audiences than outlets like the BBC, but the most scientific metrics we’ve got show clearly that they are far less reliable, not far more. Moreover, it’s not just the science that says so, but the American public itself, which, if you can believe it, rates the BBC as the most trustworthy news media source and Fox and CNN among the least.
Still, if the news doesn’t appeal to or represent the interests of the public, no matter how high-quality it may be, it can cease to be valuable. But while private media may produce more appealing content, it has no counterweight to prevent a spiral into, well, garbage.
IV — HYBRID MODEL
Therefore, it seems like some kind of hybrid—a middle ground—between these two models would be the best answer: something that brings private media’s representation of the people’s wants and needs together with public media’s high-quality programming free of the negative incentives of advertisers and corporate interests.
It turns out there is one such solution that’s been around in America since 1967: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I mean, it’s in the name: Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Though the CPB’s budget comes straight from Congress, at roughly half-a-billion a year, rather than producing content itself, the CPB acts as a grant-maker, distributing those public dollars to non-profit media entities around the country.
If you’ve ever tuned into NPR, you’ve probably heard the CPB mentioned as a funding provider, along with “viewers like you.” But only about 5% of the CPB’s budget goes to NPR’s national programming. 15% goes to funding local radio stations, while 65% goes to local public tv. That means 80% of the CPB’s budget goes toward supporting local public programming, both news and cultural content: the kind of stuff that’s in touch with local needs and issues in a way even Fox and CNN couldn’t possibly come close to.
The CPB’s genius is that it double insulates public media. By distributing government dollars to content producers according to transparent and competitive rules and regulations, the CPB gives an extra degree of separation between politicians and pundits. At the same time, it subjects public media to some market logic, incentivizing content that connects with local audiences, while still offering a degree of separation from other, negative private pressures.
Yet, despite the CPB’s genius, America’s public media landscape is in bad shape. That’s because while half-a-billion may seem like a lot, America’s funding of public media is absolutely paltry compared to other nations. Without sufficient funding, the CPB model stands no chance against the tide of clickbait sensationalism and the behemoths of cable news.
So the CPB needs more money. But it also needs to evolve. It’s a good model, but in practice it’s a bit stuck in the past, directing so much funding to local broadcasting, when, as Adam Ragusea convincingly argues—yes, that Adam Ragusea—it should probably direct more money to news that suits modern consumption habits, such as online written journalism, or perhaps even online video.
V — THE WAY FORWARD
Elon’s handling of media labels on Twitter has been a mess, but he isn’t necessarily wrong to raise questions about different funding models and their integrity. Following the money can tell you a great deal about a media outlet’s biases. But not all governments are the same, and not all government funding is, either.
The quality of public media can’t help but mirror the quality of the political institutions that fund it. But what if we want to do better?
We live with clickbait in our pockets, partisan hackery on our televisions, and goofy incompetence in our highest offices. If publicly funded media is going to have any hope of providing a real counterweight to the worst possible trends in our discourse and our democracies, it needs to be innovative.
The model of the CPB, however flawed, is a good place to start, one that can balance those perennially tricky tensions of democratic life, between easy entertainment and tough truths, between private dynamism and public reliability, between spectacles and sanity.
Samuel Brazys and Alexander Dukalskis, “China’s Message Machine,” Journal of Democracy 31, no. 4 (2020): 59–73, https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2020.0055. ↩︎
China's state media urged not to stray from party line, dumb down ideology ↩︎
Toby Mendel, Public Service Broadcasting: A Comparative Legal Survey, 2nd Edition (UNESCO, 2011), 16. ↩︎
Ibid., 22, 32, 39, 46, 52-53, 60-61, 66-67, 77-79. ↩︎
Richard Sharp resigns as BBC chair after failing to declare link to Boris Johnson loan ↩︎
Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries - Timothy Neff, Victor Pickard, 2021 ↩︎
Trust in Media 2022: Where Americans get their news and who they trust for information | YouGov. This does not include the Weather Channel, which outranked BBC in the survey but which hardly qualifies as a news media source. ↩︎
Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries - Timothy Neff, Victor Pickard, 2021 ↩︎
Topple the towers: Why public radio and television stations should radically reorient toward digital-first local news, and how they could do it – Knight Foundation ↩︎
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