Monday, February 1, 2010 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Another Naïve Proposal for Government Entanglement with the Fourth Estate

The Annenberg School at the University of Southern California has released a paper by Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal suggesting yet again that the government should more heavily micromanage, and fund, the news media. I am reluctant to belabor the particulars of the proposal (which must necessarily include increased regulation, direct and indirect funding for journalists and news organizations, and a variety of bureaucratic mechanisms to administer the government's oversight of media), but little of it is new and all of it is scary.

The paper is premised on the notion that the government has for many years and in many ways subsidized and/or regulated the news media, and it concludes that enhancing those efforts will forestall the decline of news and information media. The paper fails, however, to: 1) grapple with the question of whether those earlier efforts helped or hindered the media; 2) address the fundamental question of whether there is some systematic reason that news and information services cannot survive on their own merits; and 3) provide a satisfactory answer to the question of whether government entanglement with the media is consistent with a free society.

On a technical level the paper provides a short and somewhat selective history of postal subsidies and tax incentives that have one way or another benefited various forms of publication over the past two centuries. It also covers in cursory fashion federal regulations that have had an impact on purveyors of news and information. Again, the question it never asks or answers, however, is whether the government's meddling on the periphery of the news business was helpful or harmful -- it merely assumes the former. Superficially, this does not seem an unreasonable assumption. But as much as a crutch can help one stand, it can also slow one down in a race. I, at least, am not at all convinced that the government's "assistance" to the media has been a positive force over time. Indeed, some of the media's current problems may well result, at least in part, from past government policies that were intended to benefit the media or to otherwise improve the quality of news and information services provided to the American people.

If the authors are correct, however, that media would essentially have died an early death in the United States but for the various government crutches they describe, should not one ask (instead of "how can we build better crutches"), what systematic faults render this one industry, among all others, incapable of standing on its own two feet? Experience with free markets should tell us, if nothing else at this point, that business people can make a commercially viable enterprise based upon any product or service the public desires. Why is the news media different (if, in fact, it is)? Is it that Americans really do not have much interest in news? Is it just too costly to produce relative to its value in the market? Or is it, on the other hand, that there is too much news and information available in the market? That is, is it like the air we breathe, ever present and at least essentially free, such that it the product itself is difficult to monetize? The report does not even attempt to tackle these questions before leaping to the conclusion that a government subsidy of news is required.

Which leads to the paper's greatest failing - not exploring the implications of increased government entanglement with the "Fourth Estate." The authors implicitly assume that government can both subsidize and regulate the news media for benign ends using value/content free means. I am not so sanguine about the prospects for a media culture that is all but fully dependent upon government props.

To begin with, I have the perspective of having run, briefly, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB, among other things, is charged with insulating the public broadcasting system from improper government influence tied to federal funding. Whatever the theory, the reality is that it is all but impossible to provide an impenetrable wall between those who control the purse strings and those who depend upon the largess of the government for their survival. Indeed, during my time at CPB, there was a controversy surrounding the supposed efforts of the Chairman of the CPB board (all of whom are, of course, politically appointed) to influence programming in the system. That was not the first time the issue has come up and it will not be the last.

More fundamentally, 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.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 8:32 AM | Mass Media , Media Regulation