The emergence of public media in the twentieth century shook the foundations of the media landscape. Public media would provide a valuable service to the public and rectify the numerous flaws of the private commercial media. Public media was developed in Britain in the 1920s with several lofty goals in mind. One goal was to create high quality, intellectually stimulating and culturally enriching content that would expand the horizons and broaden the cultural outlooks of viewers. Other goals included the creation of broad and diverse content and universal provision. Across the Atlantic, public media remained unavailable until the 1960s, when Newton Minow, the Federal Communications Commission Chairman, delivered a historic speech denouncing commercial television as a “vast wasteland” and calling for the creation of more creative, educational and quality content. This remarkable speech paved the way to the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in 1967, signaling the launch of public media in the United States. The creation of the CPB led to the development of the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). PBS developed Sesame Street, an educational children’s series aimed at preparing children, specifically low-income children, for school. Public media, unlike commercial media, strove to provide free, quality and accessible content in order to educate, inform, enlighten and enrich viewers and build high-minded and sophisticated public citizens.
Public media brilliantly executed its goals, providing the public with groundbreaking, educational and critically acclaimed content that made a mockery of the vapid sensationalist content clogging the commercial media airwaves. However, as the era of neoliberalism crept in, public media, along with the entire public sector, suffered. Budget cut after budget cut has forced public media platforms to turn to private contributors to remain afloat. And as government funding has dried up, public media has been forced to rely more and more heavily on private donations. This trend is likely to continue. The new reactionary administration has waged war on public media, calling for the elimination of funding altogether, which would force local public media stations around the country to close their doors. Though the final negotiated budget will probably maintain some funding for public media, the appropriation will likely continue to decline. The ever-shrinking government appropriation for public media and the system’s growing reliance on private contributions pose a threat to the values and goals of public media. Private contributions from wealthy sources inevitably come with strings attached, most notably the power to influence and shape public media content in accordance with their economic interests. The wealthy sources may require public media platforms to dumb down their content in order to appeal to a wider audience and steer clear of content that is critical of certain industries and/or the capitalist system itself. Thus, by depending on private donations, public media risks compromising its fundamental values and intents and morphing into a quasi-private system.
Public media is more necessary at this point in time than ever before. As the public sphere becomes increasingly segmented and polarized, a media system that has a broad and diverse appeal is crucial. The commercial for-profit media thrives on division and strife, and a non-partisan public media system is therefore needed to help bridge the differences among people and foster mutual understanding and respect. Furthermore, public media serves the public interest by providing educational and informational content, which play an essential role in cultivating an informed, cultured and engaged citizenry capable of solving local, national and international issues. By contrast, the ratings-hungry commercial media avoids educational and informational content like the plague in order to cater to the lowest common denominator, reach the largest possible audience and maximize profits for sponsors. Finally, public media is indebted to the public, whereas private media is indebted to a handful of wealthy shareholders and advertisers. Public media is thus fundamentally democratic and helps elevate the voices of ordinary working people and create a more egalitarian society. A completely revitalized, revamped and robust public media system is needed, one that is fully funded by the government and does not accept a dime of corporate money. The revenue can easily be generated by rolling back the spate of unnecessary tax breaks handed to the wealthy over the last few decades or by cutting the bloated defense budget. The investment will be worth every penny. Media not only shapes but also reflects society. And a society marked by communication, cooperation and equality is far more preferable to one marked by antagonism, cutthroat competition and drastic inequality.