The Dangers of Government-Subsidized News

by on October 22, 2009 · 23 comments

We’ve talked here before about the dangers of a government-subsidized press as a way of “saving journalism.” But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite as eloquent on the issue as Seth Lipsky’s editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled “All the News That’s Fit to Subsidize.”  Mr. Lipsky is a member of the adjunct faculty at the Columbia Journalism School. In his essay today, he warns of the very real slippery slope associated with proposal to have government step in and somehow bailout newspapers as they find themselves in a time of crisis.Specifically, Mr. Lipsky addressees a new report (“The Reconstruction of American Journalism“) by Leonard Downie (former executive editor of the Washington Post) and co-author Michael Schudson (also of Columbia Journalism School), in which the authors call for a mixture of legal and regulatory changes as well as government subsidies to help prop up failing news operations.

Mr. Lipsky argues that they have “stepped onto an exceptionally slippery slope”:

I take no comfort from the analogy the authors of this report draw with government funding for the arts. In New York City, there came a time when the leaders the voters entrusted with their tax money concluded that what was being done with it in the arts was so abhorrent they tried to stop it. This happened in 1999, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani confronted the Brooklyn Museum over its display of a depiction of the Madonna that had been splattered with elephant dung. A federal court wouldn’t let the city stop funding the museum. [...]

Even if one could get around this sort of thing, I’ve come to the view that the real protection of press freedom is in the idea of private property. Press freedom in Soviet Russia was lost precisely on this issue when, as American journalist John Reed told the story in his famous book, “Ten Days that Shook the World,” a proposal was put on the table to restore the press freedom that had been suspended on the first day of the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin shouted it down with a diatribe about how that would mean restoring to capitalists privately owned printing equipment, paper supplies and ink. I don’t mean to suggest, in any way, that Mr. Downie is a Bolshevik. I do mean to suggest that the best strategy to strengthen the press would be to maximize protection of the right to private property—and the right to competition. Subsidies are the enemy of competition…

Amen brother.  Read the whole thing.

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