Don’t Worry, I’ll Save Democracy!

(This is a guest post from Sara Melillo, Program officer, McCormick Tribune Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Sara Melillo

USC Annenberg Dean Ernest James Wilson III made the room chuckle today with his take on the state of the media as part of the popular Media and Philanthropy mini-summit held at the Newseum. The headline: Traditional media is dying/changing, and democracy is at great risk.

Nothing new there, but through the hundreds of cocktail receptions and dinners he’s obligated to attend, he’s identified the common syllogisms media people use when pleading their importance to democracy.

According to Wilson,

If you’re a member of TRADITIONAL MEDIA you argue:
1. Newspapers are vital to democracy
2. Newspapers are dying, therefore:
3. Democracy in the U.S. is at great risk.

If you’re part of DIGITAL MEDIA:
1. New media is opening new channels of communication and networking for all
2. Democracy is all about the interchange of ideas, therefore:
3. Democracy is being enhanced by digital media.

If you work for PUBLIC BROADCAST:
1. The non-commercial media space is essential for democracy
2. Public broadcasting is seeing a decline in audience and is slow to adapt digital media, therefore:
3. Democracy is at risk.

If you are with COMMERCIAL MEDIA:
1. Commercial media are desperately trying to leverage their assets and cut costs to save itself
2. Democracy is good in principal, but the government has moved away from regulation, therefore:
3. Commercial media pays little attention to democracy.

Levity aside, Wilson raises a good point that more cross-sector collaboration on the challenges facing media is vital. No one sector will “save media” – and self-importance won’t help their case either. I’ve seen the silo-ing firsthand through my work as a journalism program officer, meeting with a variety of organizations claiming to have “solutions” to the changing media landscape.

Wilson’s call for increased cross-media dialogue is useful for funders considering investing in media (and by the looks of the overcrowded room, many either already are or are interested).