I almost choked when I read Lee Bollinger's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal advocating public financial support of the mainstream media. This is the Lee Bollinger who is the president of Columbia University and was recently named Deputy Chair of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The article says more about the writer and the mainstream media than does its subject matter. It is unbelievable and irresponsible that anyone in his position could seriously advocate subsidies for the press.
What Professor Bollinger is saying is that he wants us to pay for news from journalists he thinks we should read, not what we think we should read. As a law professor he is an expert in first amendment issues. If he is an expert then he is the exemplar of the problem with scholarship and intellectualism in America today. He obviously distrusts our ability to make choices about the news we wish to read and he is eager to supplant his judgment for ours. If he believes that forcing us to pay for news services we don't want is the key to Constitutional freedoms and freedom of the press, then we are in trouble because he is in a position to do something about it.
He frames the debate in these terms:
We have entered a momentous period in the history of the American press. The invention of new communications technologies—especially the Internet—is transforming the human capacity to speak, perhaps as monumentally as the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. This is facilitating the largest and fastest expansion of global economic growth in human history. Free speech and a free press are essential to a dynamic economy.
At the same time, however, the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core. The proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers. Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future.
Let me translate what he is saying: competition thrives because of new media yet since newspapers and television journalism has failed to innovate and keep up, we must subsidize them because their reporting is (was) better. He cites NPR, PBS, and BBC as the ideals of journalism. The common theme is that these services are all supported by government. Further, he suggests, as an instrument of foreign policy, we need to compete with China's CCTV and Xinhua news, and Qatar's Al Jazeera. If the BBC is the standard, then I urge you to actually listen to it as it drones on about what is happening in the UN or Mali today.
Professor Bollinger believes that press freedoms and government support are compatible, not antithetic. If anything in history is so obvious it is the fragility of freedom of the press. Of course this is something Jefferson and Madison fully understood and they thought they nailed down press freedom forever. As we know, the limitations of the Constitution were breached from the very beginning as Federalists sought to centralize power. While Wickard v. Filburn is not the only example, it is one of the most egregious cases that removed the limitations of federal power over almost any commercial activity as the case defined almost anything as "interstate commerce." It is also settled law that what the government pays for, it can regulate. Subsidies would open the gate wide to assaults on press freedoms.
When you think about Professor Bollinger's argument, he is turning the Fourth Estate into a public utility, a service deemed good for society that we must subsidize, direct to hire more reporters for foreign bureaus, and be "fair" in its reporting as must broadcast media. This is a phony argument and is a direct assault on freedom of the press. As one wag said in the Journal article's commentary page, "Article translation: 'We have to give tax money to CBS to help fight Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.'" And most bloggers. And if you don't think that is the case, then you better stop reading now.
He proves that the government is out to get the media it doesn't like. He says:
Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are undertaking studies of ways to ensure the steep economic decline faced by newspapers and broadcast news does not deprive Americans of the essential information they need as citizens. One idea under consideration is enhanced public funding for journalism.
If you want to see the integrity of the "mainstream media," then I urge you to read this post by Cato's Jim Powell ("Bailouts for Journalists?"). He details the fawning reporting of Progressives, especially from the NY Times, over folks like Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, and Castro. Why would we expect a subsidized press to be any better?
Professor Bollinger is like an artifact left over from the New Deal when centralization of federal control over all aspects of the economy was in vogue (as in the National Recovery Act). He actually seems to despise press freedoms by advocating subsidies for mainstream media which is truly a slippery slope to government regulation. He distrusts market competition and he distrusts you and your ability to make choices about what information you wish to receive. He is a dangerous man.
I think I serve a valuable service by giving my readers a fresh, innovative view of the economy. Don't I deserve a subsidy, Professor Bollinger?
Who is so wise as to know what is good for all of us?
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