Socializing Media in Order to Save It:
Another Misguided Proposal
Release 5.3 March 2009
[Originally published in The City Journal on March 27, 2009]
by Adam Thierer*
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With proposals to nationalize or heavily subsidize various segments of our economy more in vogue than ever, it was probably only a matter of time before someone suggested that America's media marketplace should be brought into the government fold. John Nichols of The Nation and the prolific neo-Marxist media theorist Robert W. McChesney have now provided the road map for media's march to serfdom. The cost to the American taxpayer would be at least $60 billion, but the cost for the First Amendment and our democracy would be incalculable.
Nichols and McChesney have coauthored several books and essays about media policy that view the world through the prism of class struggle, "manufactured consent" (á la Noam Chomsky), and the rest of the typical Marxoid tripe about history and economics. In their view, private, for-profit media cannot be trusted. As they stated in their 2003 call to arms, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, media-reform efforts must begin with "the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media." "Our claim," they continue, "is simply that the media system produces vastly less of quality than it would if corporate and commercial pressures were lessened."
In a new Nation essay, "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," the authors bring their earlier work to its logical conclusion. Saving journalism, they argue, essentially requires that media become an appendage of the state. Journalism, they claim, is a "public good," which—like education and defense—requires constant government oversight and support: "A moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens." They propose that government devote $60 billion to "subscription subsidies, postal reforms, youth media and investment in public broadcasting." Think of it as a "free press ‘infrastructure project,'" they say. "It would keep the press system alive. And it has the added benefit of providing an economic stimulus." (Isn't it amazing how everything stimulates the economy these days?)
Perhaps most audaciously, they argue that policymakers must respond to the crisis in journalism "with the same urgency with which they would approach the threat of terrorism, pandemic, financial collapse or climate change." And they proclaim that their subsidy proposals are entirely consistent with what the nation's Founders would have wanted:
We have to open the door to enlightened public policies and subsidies. . . . We need an organized citizenry demanding the institutions that make self-government possible. Only then can we, like our founders, build a free press. The technologies and the economic challenges are, of course, more complex than in the 1790s, but the answer is the same: the democratic state, the government, must create the conditions for sustaining the journalism that can provide the people with the information they need to be their own governors.
The Founders cared about a free press, of course, but they didn't call for massive public subsidies to achieve it. They did put in place one rather important provision—the First Amendment—suggesting what they believed constituted a truly free press: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
Nichols and McChesney seem utterly naive, however, about the dangers to the First Amendment of putting government in control of media's purse strings. "We must have a system that prohibits state censorship and that minimizes commercial control over journalistic values and pursuits," they maintain. Well, good luck with that. If eight decades of Federal Communications Commission meddling in media markets have taught us anything, it's that if you give bureaucrats the power to regulate the size and the shape of a soapbox, they will inevitably use their authority to regulate the speech delivered on that soapbox—indecency regulation, educational-television mandates, public-access rules, and the Fairness Doctrine are only a few examples. If the FCC received grant-making authority to dole out subsidies to media operators as Nichols and McChesney desire, it's hard to imagine how journalists won't be expected to surrender something in exchange. (Consider in this light the bill that Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) introduced this week that would allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations in an effort to help them stay afloat, but would also disallow political endorsements on their editorial pages.)
Nichols and McChesney in fact do envision strings being attached to public financing. They call, for example, for an annual tax credit for the first $200 each American spends on daily newspapers. To be eligible for this indirect subsidy, though, the reader must purchase media that meet criteria set by . . . Nichols and McChesney: "Newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week and maintain a substantial ‘news hole,' say at least twenty-four broad pages each day, with less than 50 percent advertising." Missing, moreover, is any mention of who defines what constitutes "news." It wouldn't take long for such a process to become a politicized nightmare.
Nichols and McChesney would also require that recipients of this "stimulus subsidy" make at least 90 percent of their content immediately available, free of charge, online. That's an underhanded way of converting journalism into a giant, government-sponsored commons. (Incidentally, I can't help but notice how many of Nichols's essays are locked down on the Nation website, available only to subscribers.)
Nichols's and McChesney's argument shouldn't simply be dismissed as radical, pie-in-the-sky theorizing. The authors have successfully spearheaded an increasingly influential media-reform movement through Free Press, the activist group they cofounded in 2002. The organization's boisterous band of reformistas work tirelessly to mobilize troops whenever the slightest whiff of media liberalization is in the air. Nichols's and McChesney's new article gives us a taste of what we might expect their reform allies in Congress to propose next.
Nichols and McChesney are right about one thing: America's media operators are struggling in the face of unprecedented competition and unexpected technological change. But the medicine they prescribe is far worse than the disease—for both the profession of journalism and for democracy itself.