With the passage of the 2021 federal infrastructure act, billions of dollars have begun flowing to rebuild the nation’s transportation, energy, and water systems. Notably, the act also commits considerable funding for the expansion of broadband connectivity. That was the subject of much debate, with some arguing that the concept of infrastructure itself should be limited to public utilities such as roadways, pipes, and bridges. Ultimately, though, the act recognized that telecommunication—the facilities and technologies enabling the flow of voices, ideas, and information—is also an essential component of societal infrastructure. Scholars of media and politics have argued this point for many years, expressing concern about what they call the infrastructure of political communication. Policy discussions further tend to focus on the role of infrastructure in economic development, but the line of thinking here makes the case that beyond its potential to produce material wealth, the infrastructure of communication is critical for the functioning of democracy, in ways that roads and bridges simply cannot be.
This shift in perspective, from commerce to speech and from the material to the symbolic, asks us to consider what it means to understand media as kind of public utility, or to put the point differently, how media might function as a public good. In the narrow language of economics, public goods are defined as those that are non-rivalrous and nonexcludable. That is, no one’s use of a public good limits another’s ability to benefit from it (think, for example, of breathing clean air), nor should a person’s inability to pay deny them access to that benefit (would it be just if one had to pay for air?). More abstractly, public goods are those that serve the core needs of a society and that a society is, in turn, committed to providing, such as safe streets or, at least for the time being, public education. Scholars argue that media provide public goods, then, when they offer—at little or no cost to the end-user—the civic, informational, and deliberative resources that fuel democratic practice.
As we’ve seen, however, commercial media, driven by the profit imperative, too often fall short of this ideal. Unfortunately, there is little new about this complaint. More than sixty years ago Newton Minow, then the chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, famously described American commercial television as a “vast wasteland.” Minow was speaking at the annual meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, whose membership included the leaders of what was at the time one of the most profitable, and powerful, industries in American life. Minow noted the extraordinary success of the TV business in generating profit but lamented the larger failure of the industry to live up to its public interest responsibilities. To do that, Minow proclaimed, television “must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.”
That was the logic driving the passage, six years later, of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act. Intended to address the market failures of commercial media, the law called for the development of a national system of non-profit, public-service television and radio. The 1967 Act was a bold effort to reshape the nation’s civic infrastructure and build what President Lyndon Johnson described during the bill’s signing ceremony as a “great network for knowledge.” The goal was to develop and maintain an interconnected system of independent, locally controlled broadcast stations that would create and distribute high-quality, civic-minded programming. To do so, the Public Broadcasting Act mandated the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn developed the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for television, and then its counterpart, National Public Radio (NPR).
The system, which remains in place today, was intended to empower local, non-commercial broadcasters to directly serve the civic needs of their local communities. It was to be paid for, in part, by annual appropriations of federal dollars largely directed toward defraying the operational expenses of the local broadcast stations. Despite the popular mythology that public media is an undue recipient of government largesse, federal spending on public media never covered the full cost of the system, and today amounts to less than one half of one percent of the US budget. In global perspective, the United States spends less per capita on public media than nearly every other advanced democratic nation. And even that is routinely contested. Consider, for example, Mitt Romney’s ill-fated pledge during his 2012 presidential campaign to “stop the subsidy for PBS.” Republicans have long worried about public media’s potential for political bias, but the deeper question lies with the proper role of the federal government, and whether it has the responsibility to support the informational and communicative infrastructure of democracy.
That question is fundamentally complicated by the fact that the public media system was designed in a vastly different era. The internet, of course, has long since eclipsed broadcasting as the primary technology of the public sphere. Although many originally heralded the transformation from broadcast to digital for its potential to democratize the flow of information and expand access to the public conversation, the rise of digital media has introduced a set of unanticipated challenges. Both the architecture and economy of much digital communication—its technological design and its prevailing business model—are dominated by a few massive technology companies. Despite their often lofty rhetoric, companies such as Meta and Google are committed less to the public good than they are to the generation of private wealth.
At the local level in particular, the digitization, or platformization, of media has undermined the fragile commercial market for meaningful news and public affairs reporting. Beyond the common refrain that Craig’s List killed the newspaper, for-profit newsrooms simply cannot compete with Facebook and Google for digital advertising dollars. This has accelerated the expansion of news deserts and exacerbated what scholars have described as the “systemic market failure” devastating the local news ecosystem. At the national level, the digital pursuit of profit has driven news and public discourse toward clickbait sensationalism and populist outrage, and away from content built on a commitment to democratic discourse and social cohesion.
If we can understand that media and communication systems provide the infrastructure of democracy, we can begin to realize that the problems are systemic, and thus the solutions must be structural. A movement is taking shape around the point that quality information and deliberation, especially at the local level, is a “vital public good,” and as such, is as worthy of taxpayer support as are the roads and bridges that constitute our physical infrastructure. The state of New Jersey, for example, invests in the Civic Information Consortium, a partnership between state government, New Jersey universities, and local non-profit media outlets.
More broadly, advocates of democracy argue that we must aim higher, and fundamentally reinvent public media for the contemporary communication environment. Some envision a Public Media Center in every community—anchor institutions, along with schools and libraries, that can provide the primary building blocks for revitalized democratic culture. Others endorse a “full stack” approach to redesigning non-commercial, community-controlled media that could enhance the dissemination of local information, increase opportunities for cross-cultural exchange, and improve constructive democratic engagement. That work will not be easy, but the first step must be a shift in perspective. The 2021 infrastructure bill is necessary, and broadband access is critical. The larger goal, though, must be to develop a new civic infrastructure in support of the communication practices that democracy requires.