Media Matters

Mau-Mauing the Free Press

Par for the course from an Obama appointee and former host to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By 8.3.10

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Lee Bollinger, president of  Columbia University, host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and newly appointed head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, says government should get into the business of subsidizing journalism. Like other Obama appointees, he says he is concerned that, with the changes in the financial structure of journalism, Americans might be deprived "of the essential information they need as citizens."

It's not difficult to imagine that one of those "needs" would be a more "balanced" view of President Obama. Can anyone doubt that an administration that was willing to Madoff General Motors' bondholders in favor of its own union supporters would not exercise maximum bias in subsidizing the press? Mr. Bollinger, practicing the glib and oily art to speak and purpose not, is a harbinger of Venezuelan-style gangster journalism.

Bollinger writes, "American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support." It is?

"In the 1960s," he writes, "our network of public broadcasting was launched with direct public grants and a mission to produce high quality journalism free of government propaganda or censorship."

Is there anyone in the room who thinks NPR (National Public Radio, supported by the U.S. government) is not an organ of the liberal intelligentsia?

Is there anyone who does not understand why liberals agitate for the return of the "Fairness Doctrine"? That's the government regulation that used to require radio and television stations to broadcast as much liberal programming as conservative programming.

The problem for liberals was, and is, that liberal programming is not popular, which is why a liberal radio station, Air America, couldn't survive in the broadcast marketplace. Conservative talk radio, on the other hand, is hugely popular. Whatever the effect of the Fairness Doctrine when it was first promulgated in 1949, the point of reinstituting it now would be to hobble conservative radio. Because stations would have to broadcast as much unpopular (i.e., money-losing) liberal programming as popular (i.e., money-making) conservative programming, it would make sense not to broadcast either kind, and to use the time instead to broadcast popular programs that had no ideological content. Everyone, roughly speaking, knows that. The Fairness Doctrine was -- and may be again -- an example of brazen government manipulation of the media.

Who can think it would be any different if the ideas of people like Lee Bollinger were put into effect to subsidize print journalism?

Bollinger writes: "There are examples of other institutions in the U.S. where state support does not translate into official control. The most compelling are our public universities and our federal programs for dispensing billions of dollars annually for research."

We must hope this man Bollinger is only naïve. When I was general counsel of the Department of Education in the early '80s, we sought to have an open competition for the awarding of millions of dollars to organizations that did research on educational issues. When Congress found out about the proposed competition, it blocked it, and required the department to continue to fund the organizations that had been awarded grants by the Carter administration.  In other words, the point of the program was not research. It was payola, to favored constituents. Is it really possible that a university president doesn't understand that?

Government financing without government influence?  It can't be done. Who decides which organizations get the money? What are the odds Bollinger and his colleagues would have financed upstart William F. Buckley Jr.'s upstart magazine, National Review (described by George Will as "the most consequential journal of opinion ever") or its modern-day equivalent? About the same as finding a chaste maid in Cheapside.

Bollinger writes: "Trusting the market alone to provide all the news coverage we need would mean venturing into the unknown -- a risky proposition with a vital public institution hanging in the balance." Come again?

It would be comforting to say that this is the most extraordinary statement from a government official we have seen in a generation.

Alas, it is not so.  Dr. Donald Berwick, who, in a recess appointment, has just been made head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has said things just as extraordinary. Daniel Henninger collected a great swatch of them in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, which I referred to in my own piece on Berwick.

Said Dr. Berwick: "I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do."

And:  "Please don't put your faith in market forces. It's a popular idea: that Adam Smith's invisible hand would do a better job of designing [health] care than leaders with plans can."

And this: "A progressive policy regime will control and rationalize financing -- control supply."

There are many more Berwick quotes -- Henninger's piece is one of the most important to be published this year -- and they clearly demonstrate the mindset of this administration and its cronies, and, no doubt, of the experts who would be involved in "designing" journalism for the American people.

Berwick, of course, is talking about health care, which is important: it is one-sixth of the U.S. economy. But is it as important as journalism? Surely not. Journalism is what permits a democracy to function in any polity larger than a village. That's why the Founding Fathers included freedom of the press in the First Amendment.

All the more reason, then -- for socialists like Berwick and Bollinger and Obama -- to have government finance the press. That will enable the leaders of a progressive policy regime to design the proper configuration of the free-press system, which a free market has failed to do.

Besides, putting government in charge of the press may be the only way to get Obama's popularity numbers up.

On the other hand, that hasn't worked for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.