I recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is an annual gathering of the American intelligentsia and powerful to discuss global issues. I watched a session where Chrystia Freeland, a Canadian, was interviewing Bob Rubin, former Secretary of the US Treasury and now chairman of the Council on Foreign Affairs. Rubin gave a brilliant description of the deep and seemingly intractable problems in the United States. The country is so divided, it is increasingly difficult if not impossible to get anything done.
Freeland, an adept journalist, asked Rubin if he ever thought about the role a strong public broadcaster could play in the United States. She referenced the role of the CBC in Canada and the BBC in the UK, not in bringing their respective countries together, but by creating a platform whereby various points of view are expressed and reasonable discussions could occur. The interview became one of Rubin interviewing Freeland on how the public broadcasters work in Canada and the UK and what were their effects on each country. Was it just that a tiny elite that listened to it and watched it or was it broadly accessed by the general population from different communities within the country? They discussed the difference between the CBC and its impact compared to the U.S.'s National Public Radio, which is listened to by a much smaller and narrower cross-section of the population. At the end, Rubin ended up concluding that a strong public broadcaster like the CBC or BBC could be a simple yet powerful initiative that could help United States get out of its self-destructive mode.
The discussion was in sharp contrast to recent calls to reduce or eliminate funding to NPR. It reminded me once again how important public broadcasting can be to a country, and arguably never more important than today with the arrival of the digital media. There is a fragmentation of all the media, and we've gone from mass media to what I call molecular media. One upshot is that increasingly any American can be awash in any particular narrow point of view. They can listen, read or watch the views that they support or hold. That means there is a real danger of the balkanization of society, and that we may all end up in these self-reinforcing echo-chambers where all we hear is our own point of view and the purpose of information is not to inform but to comfort.
In the United States, many conservatives seek out right-wing news/advocacy organizations such as Fox News, RushLimbaugh.com or Glen Beck. Similarly, many liberals increasingly turn to left-of-center sites such as Truth-out.org, Alternet.org or TomPaine.com. More and more of these organizations preach to the converted. And on the right, extremism is taking hold, as we just saw with the Tea Party's willingness to jeopardize the country's credit credibility with the world simply to promote its vision of America. To the Tea Party supporters, even neutral organizations such as NPR are now damned as being liberal. What a contrast to 2005, when a Harris poll found that NPR was the most trusted news source in the U.S.
A strong public broadcaster would help maintain a civil public discourse. It would be not-for-profit, with a large part of its budget coming from the federal government. Yes, reliance on public funding runs the risk of the broadcaster becoming a mouthpiece for the government, as is the case, for example, of many countries in the Middle East. But as the CBC and BBC show, with proper precautions this doesn't have to happen. The broadcaster would be accessible everywhere, independent and hire great journalists.
In 1995 I wrote a book called the Digital Economy, where I predicted that broadcasting would soon be transformed -- it won't be broad and it won't be casting. Audiences, especially a new generation of digital natives, expect media delivered on all platforms and they expect it to engage and even be interactive. Transforming from a traditional broadcaster to a national 21st century media company is no small challenge. In fact it's one that many media organizations are failing.
This is not a debate between old media and new media. Old media is changing as prime time becomes any time. Millions of podcasts are downloaded every week from the CBC and BBC. So the listener becomes the "programmer." Programs are diversifying. Radio shows are now streaming video online, Tweeting commentary and hosting community discussions. This is all fundamentally positive, but there is a dark side.
This is a time of great opportunity when a public broadcaster could be enormously transformative and influential.