SB 911 Would Provide Much Needed Support To Local News

Democracy cannot survive long without a reliable source of news about government

James Madison, the author of our First Amendment, described a free press as an essential bulwark of liberty.

Madison was right. Unfortunately, both our free press and our liberty are threatened today by the erosion of the advertising model that sustained newspapers and their coverage of public affairs for more than two centuries.

Nearly one-fourth of California newspapers have failed in the past 15 years. And about half the people who read newspapers at the start of this century no longer do so.

The capitalist system has responded to the weakening of the traditional newspaper model the way it often does, with predatory economic behavior.

Wall Street hedge funds have bought up struggling local newspapers, fired experienced journalists, and cut the resources the remaining reporters need to do their jobs.  In this way the new owners can squeeze the last few drops of profit from the companies before shutting them down and selling the property and equipment that once supported thriving, independent publications.

Into this gap have rushed purveyors of misinformation and conspiracy theories whose authors’ intent is not to inform but to mislead. As more and more Americans get their information about public affairs from Google, Facebook and Twitter, they increasingly rely on echo chambers that share rumor and innuendo – or outright lies – packaged to look like news.

A democracy cannot survive long with an electorate that has no reliable source of information about its government and institutions. One need look no further than the percentage of Americans who believe Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen to see the fundamental threat misinformation poses to our political system and our society.

Senate Bill 911 would address this crisis using a model that Americans have long trusted – the non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  This independent institution uses public funding to support television and radio stations across the country. The law and the CPB’s bylaws prohibit any government influence on the news decisions of the stations that receive the grants.

SB 911 would be similar. It would create a five-year pilot program to provide grants to help start or sustain local media. The board would be controlled by public members and appointees of university journalism schools. Politicians would be prohibited from influencing the grants to media organizations, and the board would have no say in the editorial decisions of the grantees.

The measure targets small community and ethnic media where local oversight and a spotlight on government actions are more important than ever.

Ironically, an opinion piece published July 18 by this newspaper employed deceptive tactics and misinformation in an attempt to fool the public about our proposal.  The article deliberately ignored pending changes to the bill being made under the leadership of Assembly Member Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), who is chair of the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee, in cooperation with California Common Cause, Free Press Action and the Latino Media Collaborative.

The California News Publishers Association tries to portray SB 911 as some kind of radical idea. But Californians know that PBS and NPR are trusted, independent news sources. In Britain and Canada, great democracies are sustained in part by the accurate, unbiased information they get from their public media.

As an alternative, the publishers are seeking a direct subsidy controlled by appointees of the governor and doled out with no assurance that the money would be spent in California or used to hire journalists or expand coverage of public affairs.

That kind of bailout would only prop up their struggling business model. 

James Madison was right then and now: our Democracy and the liberties it provides need a vibrant free press. SB 911 would provide some much needed support.

Sen. Steven Glazer (D-Contra Costa) is chairman of the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee and principal author of SB 911.