Private Media Providers Shouldn’t Be Forced to Fund Public Media

by on October 31, 2010 · 2 comments

I sincerely hope it was a Washington Post editor, and not New America Foundation president Steve Coll, who picked the title for his editorial today, “Why Fox News Should Help Fund NPR.”  After all, Coll certainly must be smart enough to know that there is no law or regulation on the books today that gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or any other agency the ability to force private media providers to fund their public media competitors.  Moreover, it takes a lot of chutzpah to try to spin NPR’s recent Juan Williams fiasco into an excuse for private media providers like Fox News to fund NPR, but, shockingly, that’s exactly what Coll does. “The Williams imbroglio is teachable, but its lessons actually point in the opposite direction: America’s public media system, including NPR, requires more funding, not less.”  Hmm… that’s not exactly the lesson most of the rest of the world took away from this episode!

Coll first argues it makes sense for private media funds to be transferred to NPR becuase “In this time of niche publications and cable networks that thrive on ideological anger, we should be seeking to strengthen NPR’s role as a convener of the public square, a demagogue-free zone where all political and social groups — including conservatives and others opposed to federal funding of public media — should be welcome on equal terms.”  This is indicative of the all-too-common “progressive” impulse to force media upon us that we don’t want or even find offensive.  To be clear, I am not one of those people who finds NPR to be a hopelessly biased bastion of Leftist thinking.  While I think it’s clear to everyone that many of NPR’s stories and reporters do lean that direction, I also think there’s some outstanding reporting to be found there.  But if Steve Coll and his colleagues at the New America Foundation want to see NPR get more funding, they should do the same thing I do:  Open up their wallets and make the voluntary choice to fund it. To force everyone else to do so is despicable.

Second, Coll wants to pretend he’s doing private media providers a favor by forcing them to fund NPR.  “Continuing to force profit-seeking licensees to tack public interest work onto their commercial enterprises is a fool’s errand. It would be far more rational to let commercial enterprises respond to market incentives as they see fit, while leaving the construction of public interest journalism to organizations and leaders who want to do nothing else – among them, NPR.”

How arrogant. Coll is basically saying there’s no other good news out there besides what’s on NPR.  Perhaps he’s just not listening to anything else?  Moreover, to suggest that private media providers should welcome the opportunity to fund their public media competitors because that will take a burden off their shoulders is absurd.  That’s not Steve Coll’s decision to make and it certainly shouldn’t be the government’s either. Whether he feels his preferred mix of views is accurately represented elsewhere is utterly irrelevant.  That does not justify forcing those other media providers to fund the one outlet he feels does provide the right mix.

Astonishingly, Coll never addresses the fundamental unfairness of his proposal to private providers.  After all, in case he didn’t notice, many private media operators are fighting for their lives right now in the hyper-competitive modern media marketplace.  Coll not only ignores that but he then somehow rationalizes what would, in essence, be a new discriminatory media tax that would undercut private media operations at a time when they can ill afford it.  This raises fundamental fairness issues. Not only has public broadcasting and non-commercial media been siphoning off more and more market share from private news media in recent years, but, by placing such a tax on private media to fund its competitors, Coll’s proposal would essentially put private operators in double jeopardy.  It’s hard to see how that’s in “the public interest.”  It’s like the government signing the death warrant for private media.

Elsewhere, I’ve written much more about how such discriminatory private media taxes are seriously misguided.  See, for example, this paper I wrote on what’s wrong with using broadcast spectrum fees as a slush fund for public media.  Also, similar discriminatory tax and regulatory schemes are critiqued in this 79-page filing that my former colleagues Berin Szoka, Ken Ferree, and I submitted to the FCC as part of its “Future of Media” proceeding.

Needless to say, their won’t be much of a “future of media” — at least for private media providers — if Congress took Steve Coll’s advice and imposed this massive media income redistribution scheme on the market.  Again, fund your own media.  Make your own choices.  Don’t try to impose your choices on others.

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