Policy Paper

A “Full Stack” Approach to Public Media in the United States

July 26, 2021
Ellen P. Goodman
Sanjay Jolly
2 min read
Photo credit: antishock / Shutterstock.com

Over the course of U.S. history, and especially in turbulent times, the federal government and civil society have sought to promote civic information. They have sought to make it easier for citizens to get accurate, local, and timely information, and for suppliers of that information to reach citizens. Exposure to civic information and engagement with it is what makes self-rule possible, which is why the First Amendment is the cornerstone of democratic liberties. As a policy matter, the United States has treated civic information as a critical infrastructure—one that should be resilient and decentralized. The infrastructure built at the nation’s founding started with the postal service. After the authoritarian surge in Europe around the Second World War, the focus turned to modifying a highly concentrated commercial system of information production to shore up democracy. Amid the turmoil of the 1960s, the commitment to civic information infrastructure powered the creation of a decentralized public media system.

Today, the challenges to democratic practice and governance are as severe as they have ever been. Many Americans live in separate realities, lack access to local news, distrust expertise and institutions, feel antagonistic to tens of millions of their fellow citizens, and struggle to access or accept credible information. They are manipulated by a digital advertising machine that pushes them toward disinformation and discord.[1] The problem is so bad that the U.S. Surgeon General has issued an Advisory on health misinformation.[2] Disordered information flows are a global phenomenon and some of the responses will require coordinated effort to change the incentives and characteristics of social media and digital advertising. But there are also distinctly U.S. responses that are available, drawing on the country’s decentralized public media tradition.

This paper outlines what a “full stack” approach to new public media might look like. The “full stack” involves all the layers in communicating information, from production through distribution. In considering what a reinvigorated infrastructure for civic information might look like, the paper asks anew what have always been questions for media policy: How can community anchor institutions like libraries and universities participate? How can we ensure robust and resilient physical infrastructure everywhere? What technical and regulatory protocols will free citizens from exploitative commercial control? How can we support accurate, high-quality content that the market does not produce?

The United States needs to invest in a new digital public sphere—a new civic infrastructure—if it hopes to sustain democratic practice and informed participation.

[1] See Matthew Crain and Anthony Nadler, “Political Manipulation and Internet Advertising Infrastructure,” Journal of Information Policy 9 (2019).

[2] U.S. Health and Human Services, Confronting Health Misinformation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Healthy Information Environment (2021).

Full Policy Paper