Is a Massive Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda Machine Really a Good Idea?

by on July 14, 2010 · 6 comments

Earlier this year, while I was preparing this mega-filing to the Federal Communications Commission in its “Future of Media” proceeding, I read Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-open: A Free Press for a New Century, by Lee C. Bollinger, who is the president of Columbia University.  I had planned on reviewing it since I try to review almost every book I read, but it was hard for me to believe that anyone would take this book too seriously, so I just moved along.

I hate to be that dismissive of any text but this is a book, after all, that proposes the creation of a massive U.S. propaganda machine.  Bollinger doesn’t just want our government to help out a bit at the margins like it currently does; he wants the State to get under the covers, cuddle tight and become intimate lovers with the Press.  And then he wants the Big Press to project itself more, especially overseas, to compete with other State-owned or subsidized media enterprises. Again, it’s a propaganda machine, pure and simple.  In a new Wall Street Journal editorial today entitled, “Journalism Needs Government Help,” he argues:

To me a key priority is to strengthen our public broadcasting role in the global arena. In today’s rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, other countries are developing a strong media presence. In addition to the BBC, there is China’s CCTV and Xinhua news, as well as Qatar’s Al Jazeera. The U.S. government’s international broadcasters, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, were developed during the Cold War as tools of our anticommunist foreign policy. In a sign of how anachronistic our system is in a digital age, these broadcasters are legally forbidden from airing within the U.S.  This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters.

China’s CCTV and Xinhua news? Qatar’s Al Jazeera?  Really?!  As Jeff Jarvis rightly asks in his terrific response essay, “No American BBC,”: “In what sane world is the Chinese government’s relationship with news a model?”  Indeed, this is frightening stuff.  Has Bollinger not studied the Chinese system of state media meddling? Needless to say, it’s not pretty. And while I would agree that the BBC model shows that some State-funded media can be quite impressive and free of most meddling, that’s not been the case across the board.

Incidentally, Bollinger seems oblivious to the fact that one reason those Voice of America and Radio Free Europe have generally been restricted from being rebroadcast in the U.S. is because they were thought of State propaganda machines intended to serve strategic military ends.  (Moreover, they were just so damn boring no one domestically wanted to listen anyway!)

Unsurprisingly, however, the radical band of media reformistas over at (un)Free Press are already touting Bollinger’s piece since they savor any move toward greater State control of the Press.  I wonder though, how will the folks at Free Press and others on the Left feel about the Propaganda Press they wish to create once the next Dick Cheney gains hold of the reins?  Oh, and can you imagine the fun Dick Nixon would have had with this?!  Let’s not forget, Nixon wanted to use FCC licensing authority to try to intimidate The Washington Post when the Watergate scandal broke.  Yet the subsidy-happy Left seems to naively believe that everything will be different when their pure-as-driven snow and well-intentioned liberal philosopher kings are running the show.  But what values will guide this effort? Who decides?

Even if the propaganda machine isn’t all that bad, someone needs to explain to me why my tax dollars should support viewpoints I find distasteful, even offensive.  And this isn’t just about me being selfish with my tax dollars. As Randy May explains:

when government-supported media—that is, media supported with our tax dollars—decide what content should be filtered or amplified regarding issues of public importance… government’s involvement tends to exacerbate public tensions in a way that makes civil discourse more difficult. This is because government content decisions are seen by many as tilting the public policy playing field in a way inconsistent with their beliefs.

One could argue, of course, that this fight has always been with us in the debates over funding of National Public Radio, the Public Broadcast Service, and even the National Endowment for the Arts. Importantly, however, the narrow, targeted subsidies of the past were subtle and small enough that they could operate without generating public outrage / tension. By contrast, the scale of the intervention and subsidization being envisioned by Bollinger and Free Press would likely bring fights over compulsory funding to the center of the political discourse. Indeed, a massive infusion of state meddling in media markets likely will raise the stakes in this already heated debate. And it will also raise the re-emrgence of potential for meddlesome strings on the media: Fairness Doctrine-like mandates on one hand; indecency regs on the other.

Finally, practically speaking, no matter what the level of subsidy, it simply isn’t possible to make consumers “eat their (media) greens” and pay attention to the “right” media in an age of information abundance. With so many voices competing for our attention, it’s impossible make people watch, listen, or read things they don’t want to.  That’s especially true with “hard news” that many policymakers might look to subsidize, which has never netted major ratings. As Ellen P. Goodman of the Rutgers-Camden School of Law (and a current adviser to the FCC “Future of Media” project) has noted: “Given the proliferation of consumer filtering and choice, these kinds of interventions are of questionable efficacy. Consumers equipped with digital selection and filtering tools are likely to avoid content they do not demand no matter what the regulatory efforts to force exposure.” As Goodman rightly argues, “regulation cannot, in a liberal democracy, force viewers to consume media products they do not think they want in the name of the public interest.”   Thus, there is the potential with Bollinger’s proposal that we would just be pissing massive amounts of federal tax dollars down the drain. Isn’t it better we just decide how to spend our own media dollars?

  • piratebrido

    I don’t really think the terminology in your article is at all helpful, and I am not sure you quite understand how the BBC is run. I don’t pay my BBC License fee – I don’t receive a live broadcast on my television so I don’t have to (only use it for games and DVDs) – but trying to suggest that it is a state propaganda machine is outrageous. The UK government has no say in how the BBC is run, it is independent. Neither can they express views or opinions favouring one party over another (personalities can’t disclose which party will get their vote for example). I don’t see how it can be seen as a propaganda machine when government can’t decide what the BBC shows? People who support the BBC – and there are a lot of people in the UK who do – love how it is funded. The BBC do not get money from advertisement, so no adverts. It can’t be bought (which is a brilliant thing) and since their revenue isn’t dependant on advertisement they can take risks. They can fund those niche shows that has a small audience. They can take risks on new shows and not worry that it will be a financial disaster.

    I am getting off point. The BBC isn’t government run, it doesn’t promote a party. You are wrong in suggesting that it is a propaganda machine. There may be some good reasons why a free press is more desirable, but your article is so sensationalist that I’m afraid everything else was lost.

  • Matthew Carolan

    Apparently the previous comment missed the part where Bollinger urges the U.S. have a media outlet to “compete” with the likes of the BBC and the rest of the state run media outlets. The point is simply that America values and should continue to value individual freedom more, not allowing elites, government officials or anyone else to determine what the “right amount” of programming is.

  • piratebrido

    I think you are showing a great misunderstanding regarding the BBC. I’ll reiterate – the BBC is not government run. The UK Government has absolutely no say on what the BBC spends its money on. Claiming it is a government propaganda machine is incorrect and misleading. The article also hints at criticism of Aljazeera, justifying it’s concern with a “Really?” What am I supposed to take away from this? Which state dictates the news to Aljazeera anyway, as it is a controversial channel in the Middle East as it airs views that many Middle Eastern governments would rather kept private.

    You may very well support a free press, but I don’t think the way to do this is to misrepresent public service broadcasting in such a sensational fashion. We do have both in the UK, and it isn’t a case of one or the other. On the contrary in the UK, the free market press is the ones to go to if you want a pro-party paper. I can’t think of one that doesn’t support a particular UK party.

  • MikeRT

    If you follow the work of Radley Balko and Carlos Miller, you start noticing that the “free press” is already borderline useless at its self-proclaimed role as a public watchdog. For example, Balko frequently demonstrates how the media just parrots the side of the government, simply out of laziness if nothing else. It often even goes so far as to actually whip up sentiment in irresponsible ways like it did with the Jena 6 (where it was discovered that not only had a hate crime not been committed, but that the lead “victim” was, in fact, a serial violent criminal who victimized other blacks as much as whites)

    On some level, I think Free Press is completely comfortable with this. The hard left is only interested in police brutality when it fits neatly into their Marxist class dialectic like the BART incident. When it involves whites and asians, these statists defend the government because the police ultimately need to be protected by them since the police are the ones who will end up carrying out the edicts of the state.

    It will become not just a propaganda machine, but a vehicle for actually sugar coating and even hiding the corruption in the state.

  • Theelusive1

    Well, guys, I see you Brits are quite offended and surely defensive when it comes to BBC! I totally agree with your comments, however, that the UK Government has no say in how the BBC is run. The big BUT is, the statement is not entirely accurate when it comes to the coverage of international affairs! The editorial policy pretty much follows the UK foreign policy, and rightly so, because the BBC (international) is there to promote Britain, not just a free service! Why do you think the BBC World Service broadcasts in 32 languages? You may think it is charity, as it goes hand in hand with “Great” Britain! Have you ever wondered why the BBC has not been able to launch a “Kurdish” service for instance, the FCO just won't have it, since the Kurdish language was banned in Turkey up until recently. Now you tell me who is “sensationalist”!
    As for Adam's article, I fully agree that he needs to tell his readers that the BBC is completely independent when it comes to domestic coverage.

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