Friday, September 9, 2011

Wasn't this once called Voice of America?

From Columbia Journalism Review:

What Might an ‘American World Service’ Look Like?
Building on Lee Bollinger’s call for a BBC-like service from the United States

It is time for the US to follow the example of other modern democracies and provide citizens with a government-supported, twenty-four-hour news channel devoted to global news.

After living in Cairo for two years, my wife and I recently returned to the US, and among the first things we did was address our information needs by getting US cell phones and cable TV. Given all the a la carte news and entertainment we can watch online these days, we chose the most basic cable package, which contains little more than C-SPAN, the major three-letter networks, and a deep queue of home shopping channels.

The setup is fine, but I constantly wish for a twenty-four-hour network devoted to serious global news, like BBC World or Al-Jazeera. Even people in the US with expanded cable packages are denied serious global news coverage, of course, as most cable providers do not offer Al-Jazeera English and too many don’t carry BBC, and domestic cable news channels routinely cover hours upon hours of nonsense. Someone I follow on Twitter pointed out that on much of August 20, as Libyan rebels surged into Qaddafi’s capital of Tripoli, CNN fixated on the wedding of reality TV bombshell Kim Kardashian.

In the July/August edition of CJR, Lee Bollinger offered a bold proposal to address these problems, suggesting creation of an “American World Service,” much like BBC World News. Bollinger imagines the outlet as a catalyst to enhance the global exchange of ideas: “[A] media institution with sufficient funding to bring the highest-quality American journalism to the global public forum.” It seems to me that one of the primary benefits to an American World Service would be to also bring more serious global journalism to Americans.

Even if more sophisticated global news does emerge in cable packages across the United States, recent figures show consistent declines in the number of traditional cable subscriptions in the US since 2001, numbers which are likely to recede further as syncing online content with living room screens becomes ever easier.

Allow me to build somewhat on Bollinger’s proposal and suggest a basic structure for an American World Service. Presumably, an American World Service (AWS) would offer a well-crafted website, apps, and radio service in addition to TV, but I’ll focus here on the latter.

AWS would be broadcast on TV and streamed for free online. Anyone with Internet or TV access would also have access to AWS. Additionally, AWS stories could be rebroadcast and republished, free of charge, by anyone, anywhere.

AWS would rebroadcast reporting from, and share resources with, Voice of America. The absurd post-World War II restrictions imposed by the Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids broadcasting in the US of Voice of America content and other government-produced news, would be abolished, and some English-language programming produced by VOA could be rolled into American World Service scheduling.

AWS wouldn’t cover nonsense. I understand that for-profit news outlets often need to cover topics of varying sophistication to attract maximum attention, but an American World Service will not cover Kardashian weddings or feature morning segments on the merits of Cocoa Krispies.

AWS would sell advertising. Like Al-Jazeera and BBC World, an American World Service would sell advertising time to reduce dependence on government subsidies. Call them sponsorships if you like, but either way AWS would seek revenue from private sectors.

AWS would have a wholly independent ombuds team to monitor quality, respond to consumers’ concerns, and publicize and correct errors in reporting.

AWS would withstand exaggerated fears of government-supported news. Government-funded journalism scares many people. Interestingly, some US critics who oppose government financial support for journalism are, like me, college or university professors. I would ask them, then, whether they feel they must not criticize the universities that that pay their salaries.

The answer would be of course not. University professors are some of the most outspoken creatures on earth, and their salaries are routinely funded or subsidized by the public purse. Just because reporters work for an outfit that receives government support doesn’t mean, as a matter of course, that they cannot fulfill a rigorous, monitorial function. Maine now pays my faculty salary, and I attacked some of the state’s education policies before I even completed new faculty orientation.

Other measures need to be taken by the private sector to provide Americans with more global TV news. In 2011, for example, it is absurd, perhaps even civically irresponsible, for US cable providers to withhold access to BBC World or Al-Jazeera English, and this has to change. The launch of an American World Service, though, would ensure that Americans, whether they pay for expanded cable or not, have access to a serious global news channel, all day everyday. And as Bollinger argues, the network will give the United States a voice in global journalism more fitting of its place among the largest modern democracies.