I almost choked when I read Lee Bollinger's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal advocating public financial support of the mainstream media. This is the Lee Bollinger who is the president of Columbia University and was recently named deputy chair of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. The article says more about the writer and the mainstream media than it does its subject matter. It is unbelievable and irresponsible that anyone in his position should seriously advocate subsidies for the press.
What Bollinger is saying is that he wants us to pay for news from journalists he thinks we should read, not what we think we should read. As a law professor he is an expert in first-amendment issues. If he is an expert then he is the exemplar of the problem with scholarship and intellectualism in America today. He obviously distrusts our ability to make choices about the news we wish to read; he is eager to supplant our judgment with his. If he believes that forcing us to pay for news services we don't want is the key to constitutional freedoms and freedom of the press, then we are in trouble because he is in a position to do something about it.
He frames the debate in these terms:
We have entered a momentous period in the history of the American press. The invention of new communications technologies — especially the Internet — is transforming the human capacity to speak, perhaps as monumentally as the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. This is facilitating the largest and fastest expansion of global economic growth in human history. Free speech and a free press are essential to a dynamic economy.
At the same time, however, the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core. The proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers. Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future.
Let me translate what he is saying — competition thrives because of new media, yet because newspapers and television journalism have failed to innovate and keep up we must subsidize them, because their reporting is (was) better. He cites NPR, PBS, and BBC as the ideals of journalism. The common theme is that these services are all supported by government. Further, he suggests, we need, as an instrument of foreign policy, to compete with China's CCTV and Xinhua News, and Qatar's Al Jazeera. If the BBC is the standard, then I urge you to actually listen to it as it drones on about what is happening in the UN or Mali today.
Bollinger believes that press freedoms and government support are compatible, not antithetical. If anything in history is obvious, it is the fragility of freedom of the press. Of course, this is something Jefferson and Madison fully understood when they thought they nailed down press freedom forever. As we know, the limitations of the Constitution were breached from the very beginning, as Federalists sought to centralize power. While Wickard v. Filburn is not the only example, it is one of the most egregious cases. It removed the limitations of federal power over almost all commercial activity, because the case defined almost everything as "interstate commerce." It also established the principle that what the government pays for it can regulate. Subsidies would open the gate wide to assaults on press freedoms.
When you think about Bollinger's argument, he is turning the Fourth Estate into a public utility, a service deemed good for society that we must subsidize, direct to hire more foreign correspondents, and force to be "fair" in its reporting as most broadcast media. This is a phony argument and a direct assault on freedom of the press. As one wag said in the Journal article's commentary page, "Article translation: 'We have to give tax money to CBS to help fight Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.'"
Bollinger proves that the government is out to get the media it doesn't like. He says,
Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are undertaking studies of ways to ensure the steep economic decline faced by newspapers and broadcast news does not deprive Americans of the essential information they need as citizens. One idea under consideration is enhanced public funding for journalism.
Bollinger is like an artifact left over from the New Deal, when centralization of federal control over all aspects of the economy was in vogue (as in the National Recovery Act). He actually seems to despise press freedoms by advocating subsidies for mainstream media, which is truly a slippery slope toward total government regulation. He distrusts market competition and he distrusts you and your ability to make choices about what information you wish to receive. He is a dangerous man.
I think I serve a valuable service by giving my readers a fresh, innovative view of the economy. Don't I deserve a subsidy, Professor Bollinger?
Who is so wise as to know what is good for all of us?