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US democracy: another problem

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Please Be Sensible, and fund public broadcasting properly

Jacinta: So we’ve long been wondering why things are so bad in the USA, why so many people believe such rubbish, and even act on it, to the detriment, it seems, of their democratic system. We’ve talked about their jingoism and their religiosity, but there’s so much more to it. For example, there’s a movement of the religious Right, the supposedly Christian Right, which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the supposed teachings of Jesus…

Canto: Or his example, since he clearly wasn’t much of a family man. Actually much of Jesus’s behaviour and speakings were contradictory, certainly nothing you could build a coherent moral framework from.

Jacinta: Yes the Christian Right is all about ‘old-fashioned family values’, men who are men, women who know their place, the corruption that is homosexuality, feminism and the pro-abortion crowd. And this stuff is prevalent in Australia too, but with nowhere near the force and noise. And the same goes for the conspiracy theories, the misinformation, the libertarian, anti-government breast-beating and so forth. In the USA it has threatened, very seriously, to bring down their democracy, which is clearly still under serious threat. But something I heard today on the SGU podcast (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episode 875) has helped me understand why so many United Staters are so loopy. Their public media outlets – as opposed to private media – have nothing like the presence that Australia’s ABC and Britain’s BBC have. Kara Santamaria, the SGU’s resident (but not token) female, presented research on this. Government-funded media (not of the Putinland or CCP kind of course) can be seen as ‘funding democracy’. The research comes from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, presented in a paper called ‘Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries’. It’s behind a paywall, but the link is below, for anyone who ever reads this, haha. I’m basing my comments on an article about the research, published on the Annenberg website – and on Santamaria’s commentary.

Canto: My turn. From the abstract of the research article we get this conclusion:

Correlations and cluster analyses show that high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.

The point being that the USA’s public media, such as PBS and NPR, is funded to the tune of about $1.40 per person per annum, whereas Britain, Western Europe and Australia spend orders of magnitude more. Less than half a per cent of the USA’s GDP goes to Public Media. The Australian government spends about $1.5 billion annually on its public broadcasting, compared to less than $0.5 billion by the USA, with a population about 14 times that of Australia!  These are quite mind-blowing figures. The funding in the USA has been decreasing over a long period, and this has correlated with the country being downgraded on The Economist’s ‘Democracy Index’ from ‘full democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’. Now obviously the lack of a well-funded public media isn’t the only reason for the USA’s fall from grace – the January 6 insurrection and the growing insanity of the GOP are also factors – but it’s quite possible that the growing influence of unregulated social media, uncounteracted by reliable organisations such as Britain’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the ABC in Australia, is a major factor.
Jacinta: Print journalism, as we well know, is have trouble surviving, causing ‘news deserts’ throughout regional USA, not to mention Australia. And news monopolies are also a problem. I recently perused Adelaide’s ‘Advertiser’ for the first time in a v long time. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch and is the city’s only newspaper. It was all right-wing stuff, criticising Labor throughout and not even mentioning the struggling Conservative government. It should be obvious that when the media is almost entirely privatised it will be owned by those who favour the status quo, as this is what has made them wealthy enough to buy into the media in the first place.
Canto: There’s no independent oversight with privately owned media – I think of comparing this to private prisons, and the destruction they’re causing. Publicly-owned media doesn’t encourage extremist views – the public outcry would be immediate, and understandable. It also covers a greater diversity of issues, and tends to be more educational. Think of ABC’s Landline, and even Gardening Australia. The public broadcaster here is essential viewing and listening for regional Australia, and is greatly appreciated. The private media tries to provide the public what they think the public wants, public media tends to focus on public need. It appeals to our better angels, while commercial media often appeals to our worst instincts.
Jacinta: More statistics, backing up your previous stuff:
In terms of its public media funding, [the USA] is almost literally off the chart for how little it allocates towards its public media compared to other democracies around the planet. It comes out to .002 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At $465 million dollars, 2020 federal funding of U.S. public media amounted to just $1.40 per capita. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, Norway, and Sweden spend close to $100 or more per capita toward their public media.
Which is interesting considering the conservative attacks on our ABC. They so often seem to think it’s a tool of the left – that’s what I get from occasionally accessing twitter. I think it’s because it covers politics a lot, whereas the commercial networks are light on about politics, assuming an indifference from their audience, which becomes a self-fulfilling thing. Certainly the private media have no interest whatever in educational stuff such as Catalyst or children’s educational programming.
Canto: It’s not surprising that the findings from this research back the view that well-funded and regulated public media supports the development of ‘well-informed political cultures, high levels of support for democratic processes, and increased levels of civic engagement’. The counter-argument is always something about ‘state capture’ along the lines of the CCP and Putinland, but recent events have surely revealed the yawning gap between these state thugocracies and the WEIRD world.
Jacinta: But the worry is that some media moguls have as much money and power as many states. I’ll leave the last, lengthy comment to Victor Pickard speaking to the journalist Alina Ladyzhensky, on his public media research re the USA:
Since the market is no longer supporting the level of news media — especially local journalism — that democracy requires, there is arguably now an even stronger case to make that public media needs to step into the vacuum to address the widening news gaps as the commercial newspaper industry continues to wither away. News deserts are expanding across the country and around the world. This should be public media’s moment – an opportunity to revisit its core purpose and assess how it should operate within a democratic society and within an increasingly digital media system. Ideally, we would both restructure and democratize our public media system as we expand this critical infrastructure.
The USA need to turn a corner on this. But will it? It seems highly unlikely at the moment. The slow-motion train crash of US democracy grinds on…

References

https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts

https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/public-media-can-improve-our-flawed-democracy

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/19401612211060255

https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021/?utm_source=economist-daily-chart&utm_medium=anchor&utm_campaign=democracy-index-2020&utm_content=anchor-1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2022 at 4:27 pm