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The Value of Public Media - A Response to Skeptics

Comments of mine that the FCC cited in its National Broadband Plan (advocating for a more robust and restructured public media system) have been getting some attention in the blogs. There have been a few outlandish posts accusing me of supporting state control of the media.

I thought it would be useful to explain what I meant by one of the terms that seemed to be causing heartburn: filter. Obviously, these are my views and not those of the FCC's Future of Media Project, which I am advising.

The comments I submitted to the FCC (prior to joining the Future of Media Project) identified certain basic functions of public media entities. The most obvious one is to create content where there are market gaps (e.g., accountability journalism). Another is to curate content - that is to"raise the profile of important, reliable, and innovative content." I said that this kind of curation operates like a"filter," sifting facts from rumor, the main point from the tangents.

All editors serve as filters in this way. So do all search algorithms, all peer recommendation engines, all newspapers and cable channels. That's what we want from them: to help us prioritize the content most likely to interest us. This is what commercial editors do; this is what public media editors do.

A recent thoughtful post by Randy May of the Free State Foundation (I sit on its Board of Academic Advisors) posed some more profound questions about public media. In particular, Randy questioned the market-failure rationale in a world of information abundance and highlighted the dangers of government influence over content. In so many words, is there a market gap in information curation or any other media function? Even if there is, isn't it dangerous for government to fund alternatives? Randy asked why we should think public media had any special role to play in generating"wisdom and knowledge" and noted that those attributes are subjective.

Let's leave aside the question of whether there are public goods associated with media that the market will not generate. That's a huge question requiring a lot more study. Most people, even the conservative Ted Olson, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities, seem to agree that there are information and engagement deficits that the market will not address.
So why should we trust public media to curate what is"important" and"reliable" in areas where commercial entities have not and where what's important to me is not what's important to you? To be clear,"wisdom and knowledge" are not substantive. Knowledge is deep familiarity with a subject. Wisdom is the ability to take that knowledge and act on it effectively. Moreover, I don't believe public media has a more important role than commercial media in fostering"wisdom and knowledge."

But I do believe it has an important role. Is Nova the only source of"knowledge" on science? No. But it generally is a valuable addition to the conversation that might otherwise go missing - at least in a format that's easy to understand and relatively comprehensive. Is Sesame Street the only provider of high quality kids programming? No, but it plays a valuable role. In a pluralistic society, the public can gain wisdom and knowledge from many sources. Public media has been and should be another available source. Indeed, given the contraction of certain types of news and information media, there may be a greater need than ever for these sources.