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?

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