The Founding Fathers made a critical mistake while writing the Constitution of the United States. They recognized that an independent press was vital to the functioning of a democracy, as a well-informed public is the foundation upon which one is built, but made a grievous error in believing that the free market would provide one. The press does not exist to create well-informed voters in a capitalist society, it exists to make money for its owners, just like every other business in the world.
For a long time these goals happened to mostly coincide, but this was happenstance rather than by design. It relied on wealthy newspaper owners who were just as interested in the prestige of owning a newspaper as they were about becoming richer, and on the limited options that the populace had for choosing how to receive their news. For a long time most people only had a couple of newspapers to choose from, or even just one in their region, so the real choice they were making was on whether to pay for the news or not. Those interested in being informed payed for a newspaper and those who weren’t (or couldn’t afford it, our society has always, and will always do its best to ignore the poor) simply stayed entirely uninformed except by word-of-mouth. The advent of cable television and the internet has changed this dynamic, allowing for the proliferation of choices for the news consumer, and most of it is free. Instead of relying on selling newspapers (and advertising space) to those interested in being informed, now all sources of news are forced to compete with each other over a limited amount of consumers. Worse, each individual story now needs to compete with each other story for attention.
The end result is an environment where the objective of every piece of news is to engage (another word for “entertain”) rather than inform the consumer. And this is something that the free market isn’t capable of remedying. The entire purpose of a free market is to reward businesses that are the most effective and efficient at making money and any press run for profit will only inform the public the minimum amount necessary to achieve this goal.
So, the free market will never even try to fix this problem, but we all agree that the government can’t just be in control of the news either. It’s not like a Republican controlled government would provide more accurate information than Fox News. Democrats would be somewhat more responsible with this power, at least providing accurate information on Climate Change and the like, but they could never be trusted to provide news that was critical of their own politicians. So, what’s the answer to this quandary?
The only solution I see is a genuine fourth branch of government, created by Constitutional Amendment and funding by the federal government, but completely independent from oversight by elected officials. It would be run by a non-partisan governing board of Presidentially appointed positions. Each Presidential term, the President would be able to appoint one member to the board, and importantly, each President can only appoint a single member, even if other members (or even their own appointee) retire or die. This person must be an editor at a nationally recognized news organization, and importantly, the current members of the governing board must also unanimously vote to confirm this appointment. This should prevent a President acting in bad faith from appointing an idealogue or incompetent. The budget for this must also be a part of the Constitutional Amendment, as it is important that the funding be non-discretionary. Can’t have a party of liars get power and then cut off the news.
So, what’s to prevent politicians from attacking this newly created agency for purely partisan reasons, the way they attack respected sources of news now? Unfortunately, not much. But these attacks can be mitigated by giving this government-funding news a mandate that doesn’t exist in other news organizations: It must never report what on what someone has said. No opinions, no statements, not even the President’s State of the Union.
Reporting the statements of politicians inevitably puts a news organization in the position of choosing to print lies without commentary, or to correct those lies, and either way it gives extreme partisans a reason to dismiss that source of news. The current President of the United States is a pathological liar, but all Presidents lie at least some of the time, and reporting those lies without correcting them is irresponsible, while correcting them leaves the reader in a position of having to choose between believing someone they voted for or a source of news that has apparently put itself into opposition with their chosen President. And you want to avoid giving people an excuse to revert to partisan loyalty over rational thought.
The only thing this news agency should report are verifiable facts. News backed up by science and numbers, rather than the opinions of individuals. It would report on actions that officials take, and the content of bills being voted on, rather than the self-serving statements of politicians trying to convince people. And it should be kept to only the information necessary for the creation of a well-informed voter. No fluff, no entertainment, no stories about crimes carried out by a single individual (unless that individual is an elected official).