Breaking the News: The Case for American Public Media

How we build a media ecosystem that strengthens our democracy — rather than divides it from within.

I. The Fourth Estate

In 1945, the Supreme Court heard a case claiming that the Associated Press had violated antitrust laws by prohibiting its member newspapers from sharing stories with nonmembers. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Hugo Black ruled against the AP, arguing, “The constitutional guarantee of a free press rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.”

II. From Cronkite to Murdoch

In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition in Congress used their mandate from the people to pass a series of broad social and economic reforms tackling rampant inequality and broken institutions. Among their lesser known reforms was the Communications Act of 1934, which set national standards for the various forms of broadcasting to be made available to all people and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Walter Cronkite, CBS Morning Show, 1954

III. How the Media Fails

The Never Ending Cycle

Columbia Journalism Review, “Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.” (2017)
Gallup Daily Tracking
The Trump-Fox & Friends feedback loop, explained
“Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election”
Sinclair’s script for stations

IV. A Media for the People

This day-to-day, short-sighted focus is at the peril of the civic dialogue that the media should be facilitating to inform our decision making. Consider the post-9/11 patriotic fervor the networks were swept into as the Bush Administration deliberately used false intelligence to lead us into Iraq. Administration officials were given an unfettered platform to promote what we now know were lies, the war’s basic assumptions went unchallenged, and those who did offer criticisms were silenced because it “wasn’t good for business”. Again during the 2016 election, they gave Trump wall-to-wall coverage because executives viewed him as ratings gold, even as their own newsrooms faced bomb threats and their reporters faced escalating hostility and violence from the supporters he’d incite at his rallies. “It may not be good for America”, CBS executive Les Moonves said, “but it’s damn good for CBS”.

Unfiltered Voices From Donald Trump’s Crowds | The New York Times

V. The Fix

American Public Media

Mission statement of the BBC
  • Investigative reporting that verifies sources and follows the story wherever it leads
  • To remain a watchdog over power, and to give voice to the voiceless
  • To seek out diversity in the human experience
  • To abide by ethical standards, and to weigh public need to know against personal discomfort
  • To embrace complexity and nuance over tabloid journalism or sound bites
  • To explain context and historical background whenever necessary and possible
  • To avoid conflicts of interest, and to refuse gifts and special treatment
  • To never plagiarize and to clearly credit sources
  • To admit and correct errors made in reporting
  • To embrace the press’s role in protecting a free, tolerant, and democratic society
Columbia Journalism Review

VI. Veritas

We’re approaching the fourth decade of the 24-hour cable news cycle with little to show for it and a fractured, increasingly polarized populace turning to conspiracy theories and radical fringe websites instead. The election of Donald Trump, and the swift alignment of the entire Republican Party establishment behind him — despite his constant attacks on the free press — are testament to how broken our system of checks and balances are. And when the headlines that carry the day are the ones that sensationalize events rather than treat them with context and analysis, it’s time to recognize that the media is part of that broken system.