07/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Journalism's Crisis Is Public Media's Opportunity

On Friday night, the great Bill Moyers signed off for the last time on his weekly PBS series. His departure was no surprise, but the broadcasting legend's absence marks a turning point for public broadcasting and quality journalism in America.

"I can think of no journalist, now or at any time across the annals of our past, who has contributed so much to democracy's dialogue," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in tribute to Moyers. "The world of fact and the world of ideas are his beat, and he seems always to arrive at his conclusions only after digging first and digging deep for the facts -- a kind of intellectual induction too rarely seen on what passes for issues programming these days."

In a fitting coincidence, Copps was speaking to a who's who of public broadcasting officials, innovators and critics gathered that same day for a daylong workshop at the Washington headquarters of the FCC exploring public media's future in the digital age.

As I told the FCC on Friday, this discussion comes at a critical juncture for public media:
We have a crisis. We have an historic opportunity. And we shouldn't let either go to waste.

Reinventing Public Broadcasting

You know about the crisis: Tens of thousands of journalists losing their jobs. Local outlets shuttered or reduced to a shell. A "perfect storm" created when the rise of the Internet and the end of local advertising monopolies collided with the economic downturn.

Of course, the media's most serious wounds have been self-inflicted. While regulators rubber-stamped one mega-merger after another, the big media companies took on massive amounts of debt. Now they're drowning in it, and they're taking newsrooms down with them.

Wherever you point the blame, we face the same daunting reality: There is no longer enough private capital -- in the form of advertising, subscriptions, philanthropy and other sources -- to support the depth and breadth of quality local, national and international news reporting our communities need to participate in a 21st century democracy.

And there's the opportunity: This is the moment to re-imagine our old public broadcasting system and rebuild it as a new public media network committed to education, to community service and, most importantly, to local newsgathering.

Local news reporting should become one of public media's top priorities, and we should redeploy and redouble our resources accordingly. We need public media to put professional reporters, fact checkers and editors on the beat to keep a watchful eye on the powerful and to reliably examine the vital issues that most Americans can't follow closely on their own.

Oh, yes -- we also need to figure out how to pay for it.

You Get What You Pay For

At a time when the need for public media couldn't be bigger, we're spending far too little.

Let's consider the numbers: We now spend about $420 million per year in public money for public media. That works out to just $1.43 per capita.

By comparison, Canada spends more than $27 per capita, and England spends $87 per capita. If the United States spent the same per capita on public media and journalism subsidies as Sweden and Norway, which rank No. 1 and No. 2, we would be spending as much as $30 billion a year on public media.

Not coincidentally, those same two countries rank at the top of The Economist magazine's Democracy Index, which evaluates nations on the basis of the functioning of government, civic participation and civil liberties. The United States ranks 18th.

But just imagine how the American public media system could dramatically increase its reach and relevance with as little as $5 a person?

It's worth remembering that just a year ago, every U.S. taxpayer spent $565 to bail out AIG; five bucks for better public media is a bargain.

Time for a Trust

Unfortunately, while annual appropriations for public media are still essential, we can't count on the politically charged process in Congress to provide long-term fiscal viability and independence.

What's needed instead is a supplemental source of revenue: a trust fund seeded with a substantial endowment and operated by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (or better yet, a newly mandated "Corporation for Public Media"). If done right, a trust would not only supplement budgets in the near term but eventually enable the public media system to become nearly or completely self-sufficient.

In my testimony before the FCC, I shared a series of proposals to support such as a trust fund. These include charging fees to broadcasters for using the public airwaves; auctioning off spectrum to support better public media; placing a tiny tax on advertising; changing the way advertising is treated in the tax code to support the public good; or instituting a small assessment on consumer electronic devices. (Read the more detailed plans here.)

Any of these ambitious ideas would take an act of Congress. And all would require other changes to prevent undue political influence and to ensure public media are well run and worthy of this increased support.

Just as important, these plans will require building a national constituency to move statehouses and Capitol Hill to implement the right policy changes in support of public media in its many forms. That means getting outside the Beltway, taking the FCC's show on the road, and giving local communities a chance to share their ideas.

But if done right, over the next decade, any one of these plans could put tens of billions of dollars into a public media trust and sustain significantly higher annual budgets to support the education, arts and culture programming, and local and investigative journalism our communities need.

I can't think of a better tribute to Bill Moyers than that.