Freedom of the press is one of the bedrock, defining, and indispensable rights in our democracy. Every year when media awards are handed out, Pennsylvanians are reminded there is a lot of top-shelf journalism practiced daily in communities large and small across our sixty-seven counties. There are good reasons to be proud of our storied press tradition.
At the same time, mainstream media have struggled in adapting to a challenging economic and competitive climate, especially as dependable advertising revenues are threatening to become a nostalgia item. Now there is the compounding problem of aggressive efforts to delegitimize and destroy credibility, through appellations such as fake media. This is a crucial juncture for assessing the quality and sufficiency of media coverage in our commonwealth.
Survey the information landscape, and certain things are indisputable:
*State government has grown steadily in responsibility and cost, requiring greater effort to properly cover it all and break through the tidal wave of promotional publicity churned out by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
*The lobbying community has grown in numbers and advocacy firepower, pumping more information of increasing slant and selectivity into the public arena.
*Technology has led to the diffusion of news sources on which people have come to rely, spawning phenomena such as social media. A parallel trend has the correspondent corps housed in the Capitol newsroom declining in number.
*Think tanks and commentary shops have become prominent, with more attention being paid to their perspectives and output. Their interests and priorities are naturally reflecting those of their funders. So there is much more of a tilt factor in their product than what the media is commonly accused of.
*Pennsylvania is legendary for its regional and parochial interests, but this too is becoming even more pronounced. The influence of regional media no longer reaches as far and wide as it once did. Regional conflicts are covered by the media, and those reports are then seized upon to intensify the differences.
These factors make for an unhappy public interest equation. While there is more informational output than ever, there is less unbiased reporting and review than in a long time.
At present, the term state media refers to a collection of regional outlets. There is not really an entity that is truly statewide in purpose and function. Sure, the Associated Press is still cranking, there are some subscription reporting services providing feeds, and an energetic weekly in The Caucus has launched, but none of these provide the full range of reporting, investigating, commenting, and editorializing.
This question may not be on the minds of many, but it is worth asking: could journalism and governance and the public interest all benefit from the creation of a truly statewide media operation?
No surprise, the quick answer is absolutely. Yet, there is distance between grand concept and functioning entity. It would be a prodigious undertaking, requiring a considerable combination of imagination, determination, and resources. An entity would need the backing of both conservative and liberal underwriters, groups and individuals, to have any hope of bridging the divide of distrust that infects political discourse these days.
Admittedly, this is not a matter of pure supposition. There are examples to draw upon, from Texas most notably, where the Texas Tribune has taken root and established a record for vigorous and vigilant statewide coverage.
The advantages for Pennsylvania are easy to delineate.
A statewide media operation would raise the level of accountability. To many people, accountability means applying sanctions, with officials and workers losing their jobs for lack of performance or going to jail for outright corruption. But there is also the accountability of judging if programs retain their value, if services are operated commensurate with need and investment, if dollars are being spent effectively, not just properly.
By any standard, not enough is known about the many corners and outposts of state government. There is a shortfall in comprehensive coverage of both the negative and the positive aspects of state operations. A state government consumed by intractable issues and never-ending budget woes does a thoroughly incomplete job of exercising oversight. In such circumstances, it is impossible for citizens to judge whether they are receiving value for their tax dollars, much less to draw an informed conclusion on the entire $32 billion enterprise. That helps explain why people regularly tell pollsters they believe one-third to one-half of state dollars are wasted.
The loss of respect for institutions, which has accelerated mightily since the last recession struck, hurts results every bit as much as the most commonly scapegoated cause, excessive partisanship. Investigative reporting constantly informs us who we cannot trust. Thus, an important media role can be to help us identify who we might trust to reform and rebuild our public institutions, governmental and community.
Regionalization of media coverage and commentary is a contributing factor in the increasing difficulty of building statewide consensus on direction and action. Pick almost any long-running major issue – education funding, property taxes, health care cost and access, natural gas drilling – and it is apparent how sharp regional differences work to prevent long-range state solutions. At the same time, important regional developments, initiatives, and surveys that deserve statewide notice find a limited audience. A statewide source can contrast and compare regional arguments and amplify local success.
Public disenchantment with decisionmakers is running high, and the confidence numbers for state officials are perilously low. This is not to fault public opinion, for there have been more than enough disclosures of wrongdoing and self-interested dealing to undermine public trust. However, if the replacement players and reform plans are equally distrusted, hoped-for change is unlikely to take place.
News coverage is not a zero sum exercise. A statewide source does not discredit or diminish existing outlets. Rather, it fills a hole that is growing larger over time.
Thomas Jefferson stated that our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that government ought not to be without censors, the role he envisioned the press playing. The media are far better in terms of balance and fairness than was the case in Jefferson’s time. However, the subjects warranting scrutiny have grown exponentially too.
What can a truly statewide media operation accomplish? The chief advantage is giving citizens a commonwealth-wide set of perspectives and experiences and facts on which they can base better-informed judgments. It does not erase political, philosophical, or cultural differences. It does not homogenize commentary. It does shine a more powerful spotlight on our common interests and challenges. And it will ensure greater diversity of purpose in the stable of reliable and respected news sources.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.