For years, Fox News, reported by Forbes as the most-watched cable news network in the United States, has attracted criticism. This stretches as far back as 2009 when the Obama administration controversially refused to refer to Fox News as a “legitimate news organization.” We now know they were right to do so. A few weeks ago, Dominion Voting Systems, as part of their defamation lawsuit against Fox News, released a trove of texts showing Fox News stars had expressed very different sentiments in private than the ones they displayed on air. For example, Sean Hannity, who called on his radio show for a special prosecutor to investigate claims of election fraud, said off air that Rudy Giuliani, who spread claims of election fraud, was “acting like an insane person.” Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, wrote that after the 2020 election, Hannity was “privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.” Perhaps the most revealing text from the Dominion lawsuit though was from Tucker Carlson, who — after a Fox reporter fact-checked a false claim about election fraud — wrote, “Please get her fired. … The stock price is down. Not a joke.” These are just a few examples of many, but they showcase how Fox knowingly spread false information about the 2020 election to maintain viewership and increase profits.
While it’s tempting to believe this prioritization of profit over ethical journalism applies only to conservative media like Fox News, other media companies do it too, albeit to a far lesser degree. Consider CNN, which often chooses to treat politics like a sport between two sides. This makes sense from a business standpoint: This approach can make news coverage more entertaining and lead to increased viewership. However, this perspective fails to reckon with the fact that politics and political elections have serious consequences for millions of people; treating politics like sports can also leave viewers confused and unclear as to what is going on. While CNN’s actions are not nearly as egregious as those of Fox News, it is another example of how the profit incentive in media can be problematic. Perhaps the most common example of profit incentives influencing journalism is clickbait headlines, which researchers at the University of Mississippi found have grown increasingly common in mainstream media. While they draw viewers and clicks, they often don’t accurately represent the article.
In American society, the goal of corporations is ultimately to maximize profits. This means that when for-profit news organizations are faced with choices where increased profit does not align with the ethical way to present news, organizations will mostly choose profit (like Fox News did). However, this is inherently problematic because journalists need to do what’s best for society. As the fourth estate, they inform the public and as such are vital protectors of democracy. The Washington Post sums up the need for good journalism well in its motto: “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma in journalism: government-funded media. Since such media wouldn’t be motivated by profit, they could inform society in an objective and beneficial way, even if doing so isn’t immensely profitable. Many other countries understand the importance of having trusted nonprofit media to ensure a society with informed citizens: The UK, Norway and Sweden spend a significantly larger share of their GDP on public media than the United States. Furthermore, trusted public media can decrease partisanship. Even in today’s polarized environment, government-funded media like PBS continues to be trusted across both sides of the aisle. Thus, increasing government spending on media would not only create a better-informed society but also decrease partisan polarization as well.
Some may critique government-funded media by arguing such media would never seriously criticize the government, as it is reliant on it for its funding. While this is rational in theory, this doesn’t actually occur in practice. For example, the BBC, funded by the UK government, had no hesitation in grilling Liz Truss, the former British prime minister, in interviews or reporting on government scandals that plagued former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration. As trust in media declines, partisanship increases and the bulk of mainstream media continues to put profit first, it is time for the American government to take steps toward creating and funding more public media.