Media Matters

A Free Press Means Free From Government Control

If journalism needs "government help," it's not journalism.

By and 10.4.10

Send to Kindle

In a new interview with Rolling Stone magazine, President Obama admits that media bias is a problem. "The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history."

Obama was addressing a question about Fox News, but it's the rest of the old media that are the problem. And that problem begins even before journalists get out of school. Since so many in the media have supported the president, perhaps they will heed his complaint and learn from it.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's July 14 commentary in the Wall Street Journal is a classic example of how bad things have gotten in journalism. Bollinger actually confused freedom of the press with freedom to oppress. The man who heads up a college with one of the most well-known journalism schools actually argued against freedom of the press.

A free press is a foundation of a free society. For any university president to argue against it would seem unusual. When it's also the head of the Columbia School of Journalism, then people on both left and the right have reason to scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Bollinger has called for federal funding of the media in a piece with the terrifying headline: "Journalism Needs Government Help." He advocates for the creation of an "American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters." And he wants government to pay for it.

This is not just a bad idea, it's a dangerous one. Bollinger naively thinks that government can serve the roles of guardian and supporter of the free press without endangering the very freedom he claims to regard.

To make his case that the U.S. needs to "strengthen our public broadcasting role in the global arena," Bollinger cites state-run operations in Communist China, Qatar's al Jazeera and the BBC, all with their own biases. State control, propaganda and spin are the new models for American journalism according to the man in charge of one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the United States.

But Bollinger's commentary piece was only a hint at his disturbing agenda for the news. His book Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century is actually far more alarming. It is a treatise on how government should control media. That's a position also embraced by the current administration, from the FCC to looking at the future of the entire news industry.

In furtherance of a "free press," the book calls for an "end to the regulation of 'indecent' languages and images in broadcast programming." He is a social libertine, perfectly comfortable to have full nudity or foul language at any time on the broadcast networks with millions of children in the audience. The overwhelming majority of parents object to this smut on the airwaves they own. Bollinger wants the networks to be free… of the public.

At the same time he wants to end regulation that protects families, especially children, Bollinger calls for the Fairness Doctrine to be restored. Any attempts to resurrect that failed and censorial doctrine should offend a press advocate like Bollinger. But his intent is clearly designed to inhibit speech with which he doesn't agree. He adds that "we need a renewed national debate about how to help make broadcasting more of a medium for meaningful public discussion." Apparently, talk radio and TV aren't performing to the Bollinger standard. Radio especially is driven entirely by public demands, and public tastes. These, however, are not "meaningful" enough. So again: The public be damned.

His book goes further into governmental control of content, adding that "the FCC should now also require or encourage broadcasters to cover international and global issues." It's up to the FCC to tell ABC, CBS and NBC or even cable TV and radio networks what news they need to cover? In the old Soviet Union perhaps -- but not here.

That's where Bollinger truly goes off the tracks -- government control. Along with content control, he wants government to have funding authority over the media. "First and foremost, we must develop a better system of public funding of the press," he wrote. Then Bollinger chastises journalists for daring to oppose such a plan:

[T]here is a perception that the press is not publicly funded and, at least among print journalists, a sense that government funding is antithetical to the spirit of an independent press. This view needs to change…

He wants government "to create public funding grants to help finance the operations of foreign bureaus." Those grants would be so extensive, they'd even include money for security.

To keep the tradition of separation between the business side and news alive, he proposes the possibility of a "system for peer review." The same peers who have guided journalism down a path of economic disaster would get to decide on billions of dollars in new taxpayer funding. The public's voice is no longer important. It is what this Star Chamber of "peer review" elites deem to be important. It is the antithesis of a free press.

Instead of being laughed out of the industry, Bollinger has proven support. Top people in the media are increasing calls to have government bail them out because "the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core," to use Bollinger's words. In other words, when journalism enterprises fail because of a lack of public support, they need to be rescued -- by taking the public's money through forced taxation.

Groups like Free Press on the left give strong support to that cause because it isn't just about money, it's about control and their liberal agenda. Two of their leading lights, Robert McChesney and John Nichols, want to "save" journalism and have tried to rationalize an annual $35 billion -- yes billion -- budget for government-funded media.

All policy roads lead to Washington. In recent months, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and both houses of Congress have held hearings on the future of journalism. Such hearings include the occasional bright light like media author Jeff Jarvis, who told the government to "get off my lawn." But rational minds are few and far between.

At the heart of the debate, some of the most well-known names in the news business are pushing for government intervention in the press. Bollinger serves as a director for The Washington Post Company and as a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board. Former Washington Post editor Len Downie, now a vice president with the paper, sounded like Bollinger in his call for direct government funding for journalism. Downie hasn't just proposed "A national Fund for Local News," he's proposed taxation (fees) on "telecom users, broadcast licensees or Internet service providers." That's a perpetual bailout.

The Knight Commission issued a report with similar conclusions and ambitious goals. Its recommendations included: government funding national broadband, a potentially $350 billion cost, as well as tax breaks, legal benefits and more for journalists. An "Executive Director's Memo" held out its hand for cash as a "potential action item." "Authorize increased support for public media, including increases for news and information at the local level," read the report.

That commission was filled with a powerful mix of political and media figures. It was co-chaired by former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson and Marissa Mayer of Google. Others members included NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, former Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun Editor John Carroll and former FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell. Another 80 "informal advisors" show the reach of the commission across all types of media, journalism organizations and schools, as well as those from Free Press.

That is the makings of a lobby powerful enough to balloon the $420 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received this year into something truly monstrous. Even before they rake in the new government cheese, NPR and PBS have proven themselves consistently left-wing, pro-government operations -- and they are cited by Bollinger as his examples of a "free press."

PBS and NPR are filled with liberals like Bonnie Erbe, Gwen Ifill, and Diane Rehm and the programs filled with criticisms of conservatives, biased election coverage, and anti-family stories. Would giving them more money make those networks even the slightest bit more neutral? It would accomplish the opposite.

No one is disputing the huge problems the news media now face. Perhaps if publishers had invested in new models instead of taking 20-30 percent profits for years, that would not be the case. There are other solutions. Non-profit journalism, foundations, new web start-ups, local news and more are all being pursued with an entrepreneurial fervor. The worst possible "solution" would be to surrender our free press to government control.

Journalists could take a lesson from a great president and stop following the lead of those who would destroy their profession in an attempt to save it. Ronald Reagan understood the danger of government trying to help and said the scariest words in the English language are: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." The kind of "help" Bollinger and his supporters propose would not only destroy American journalism, it would take down democracy at the same time.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

L. Brent Bozell III is the founder and President of the Media Research Center.

About the Author

Dan Gainor is the Media Research Center's Vice President for Business and Culture and testified before the House on this issue.