Public Media Autonomy and Accountability


I recently published an article with Matt Powers and Tim Neff entitled, “Public Media Autonomy and Accountability: Best and Worst Policy Practices in 12 Leading Democracies,” in the International Journal of Communication 11 (2017): 1-22.

We show why public media are so important for democracy and how the relatively weak public media (NPR, PBS) in the United States could be made stronger and more autonomous.

Here is the article abstract:

Public media’s contributions to democracy are well established. Less widely known are the specific policies that make these contributions possible. This study finds that professional autonomy and civic accountability in public media are supported by (1) funding established for multiyear periods; (2) legal charters that restrict partisan government influence while also mandating the provision of diverse, high-quality programming; (3) oversight agencies, whose “arm’s length” independence from the government in power is bolstered through staggered terms and the dispersal of authority to make appointments; and (4) audience councils and surveys designed to strengthen links to diverse publics. Public media governed by policies that continue and extend, rather than depart from, these best practices will likely be the most successful in maintaining their civic mission online.

Taking stock of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign


Last night, I had a great discussion with colleagues Deborah Borisoff and Mark Hannah and NYU students about the 2016 presidential campaign. I analyzed the campaign drawing on the interesting ideas of Jeffrey Alexander about the “cultural binaries” of civil society discourse. It seems clear that Trump’s image or brand has been strongly “polluted” (to use Alexander’s language) with the anti-civil/anti-democratic side of the binaries: irrational, hysterical, excitable, wild-passionate, distorted, mad, deferential (to foreign powers), conspiratorial, antagonistic, arbitrary, power, and hierarchy, to name the most clearly applicable. Clinton could be fairly labeled on the negative side with “calculating.” After all the back-and-forth attacks, both now are associated with terms like “secretive” and “self-interested.” Otherwise, Clinton – at least in the contrast with Trump – is starting to own positive civil/pro-democratic terms like: rational, reasonable, calm, self-controlled, realistic, sane, deliberative, rule-regulated, law, equality, and inclusive. In Alexander’s framework for analyzing politics, Clinton has enacted a far more “successful political performance” than has Trump (see Alexander, Performance and Power, Polity, 2011, p. 101). Whether or not that translates into a victory at the polls will depend on the efficacy of her GOTV (Get out the Vote) in the remaining few weeks.

The New American Media Landscape: Creeping Towards Oligarchy

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I was recently invited by my colleague and friend Aeron Davis to write something on U.S. media for his Political Economy Research Centre (PERC) website, hosted by Goldsmiths University of London. It’s the final paper in their Economics of Public Knowledge series. All of the papers are in the process of being published in a forthcoming book. More on that later. Here is how I start the paper:

“US journalism has taken a fresh turn in recent years. A small group of major digital commercial and nonprofit news ventures seem to be here to stay, and they are providing real competition to the still dominant legacy media outlets. New and old media alike are creating new forms of civically valuable journalism, but in the shadow of increasingly concentrated and opaque economic wealth.”

And here is my conclusion:

“What will be the end result of the American experiment in hyper commercialism and philanthropy? While there are some bright spots, a number of problems loom on the horizon for American news media.

If current trends hold, full-time professional journalism will continue to be downsized. The tens of thousands of journalists being laid off at major legacy news organizations are not being replaced by the trickle of new jobs at digital and nonprofit news organizations, not even close.

Digital-only commercial media are subject to even greater commercial pressures than their legacy predecessors were, as advertisers gain greater control over the editorial process via native advertising. The only escape from advertiser control seems to be increased reliance on reader contributions and subscriptions, which tend to favor high-income demographics and ultimately wall off most people from the promised civic and cultural benefits of the Internet.

As a whole, the US media system – increasingly privately-held or foundation-funded – seems to be moving back toward the corrupt and agenda-driven media system that prevailed in the US and most of Western Europe prior to World War II, and probably still is the global norm. In this kind of system, global oligarchs accept less than maximal profits in exchange for the obvious publicity – and silencing – power of the media. This doesn’t mean there won’t be quality journalism anymore. But there are clearly limits, and as economic power becomes increasingly concentrated, these limits will degrade the quality of democratic life. Any media reform worthy of the name will need to address these new challenges.”

Here is another excellent PERC paper by Toril Aalberg: “Does Public Media Enhance Citizen Knowledge?” The answer is “Yes”!

And here is a related very recent paper I’ve written on U.S. nonprofit media: “Are Foundations the Solution to the American Journalistic Crisis?