The Dangers of Subsidized News, Continued

by on February 1, 2010 · 7 comments

The Annenberg School at the University of Southern California recently released a paper by Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal entitled, “Public Policy and Funding the News.” In it, Cowan and Westphal join the growing chorus of voices advocating a substantial role of government in propping up struggling media entities or investing in news production going forward.

I can’t say that I disagree with everything in the report, especially the contention that many traditional news-gathering institutions face serious challenges to their survival. But as I have noted here before, there are three big problems with recommendations to greatly expand the role of government in the media sector or journalistic profession as a solution:

  1. While public media & subsidies may have a role, that role should be tightly limited and focused on filling specific niches or unfilled needs within certain communities. Public subsidies should not be viewed as a replacement for traditional private media sources. Moreover, public subsidies will not begin to make up the shortfall from traditional private funding source, unless we plan on having Congress spend hundreds of billions of dollars (like the radical regulatory advocates at Free Press advocates) to subsidize news.
  2. If we do end up taking that path, it will raise profound fairness questions since it will leave taxpayers footing the bill for things they might not want or could find objectionable, even offensive. (Conservatives wouldn’t like funding Bill Moyers, and liberals wouldn’t be too keen on supporting Rush Limbaugh).
  3. Any plan to have government step up its role in supporting journalism will raise profound questions about press independence and threaten core First Amendment values. Putting journalists on the public dole is a serious threat to the integrity of the profession.

My PFF colleague Ken Ferree echoes many of these concerns in an essay today about the Annenberg report. (“Another Naïve Proposal for Government Entanglement with the Fourth Estate.”) I think Ken’s concerns about the First Amendment issues at stake here are worth quoting extensively. Ken argues:

I question the underlying assumption that the government has any role — at all — in enhancing or protecting the news media. The authors of the report take that role for granted, but it strikes me as fundamentally inconsistent with the First Amendment freedoms. The framers of our founding document were well aware of the dangers of government entanglement with the press. At the time of the country’s founding, there were about three-dozen newspapers in all of the colonies. Those publications were, for the most part, highly commercial and extremely partisan. The founders did not, however, craft a basic law that would allow for regulation to increase “fairness” or enhance diversity of viewpoints, or to change the way the papers were packaged or sold. Instead they came up with the elegantly simple: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . .” As Justice Black famously said, “no law means no law.” Congress and our elected officials may sincerely believe that a healthy media is essential to a democratic state, but the Constitution expressly carves the areas speech and press out of the sphere of appropriate government action. A truly free press must be truly free of the government’s tentacles.

Indeed, any attempt to socialize media in order to save it won’t likely work and in the process it will create a grave risk to private media, free speech, and vibrant democratic exchange.

Additional Reading:

Previous post:

Next post: