The Columbia Journalism Review, published by my alma mater, makes a disturbing case for government aid for journalism.
The CJR editors attempt to qualify their argument:
We are not in favor of a bailout for the newspaper business, and we certainly don’t support subsidies that would simply prop up the status quo. But it seems increasingly clear that, at least in the short term, sustaining the kind of accountability journalism that our society needs—and that newspapers have been the chief producers of—will require some creative help from Uncle Sam. And not because newspapers failed to adapt to the digital age. Ultimately, this isn’t about newspapers.
The editorial argues that diminishing sources of revenue have reduced the amount of money available to finance “accountability journalism,” and thus we need to consider “smart” strategies to make sure such journalism is being done. The editors cite the magazine’s cover story, in which Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudso suggest “requir[ing] broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country.”
The editorial also notes that, “Media historian Paul Starr, in testimony in September before a congressional committee, made a similar case for subsidies. He suggested that they be ‘viewpoint-neutral,’ ‘platform-neutral,’ and ‘neutral’ or at least reasonably balanced as to organizational form.”
The problem, of course, is who is going to determine what is considered “accountability journalism”? Who is going to decide what’s “viewpoint neutral”? Or “reasonably balanced”? Once you put government in a position to make such judgments, everything becomes politicized. Would a government body determine that exposing ACORN is a valid example of “accountability journalism,” or would that qualify as a right-wing political crusade? Should health care coverage be more critical of the cost estimates put out by Democrats, or put more emphasis on abusive practices by the insurance industry?
CJR editors advocate government help because they want people like Paul Starr to determine what’s “viewpoint neutral.” But while they see Starr as a “media historian,” I see him as a liberal activist and co-editor of the left-wing magazine the American Prospect. If CJR editors were to get their wish, they may come to regret it one day. Conservatives are outraged about liberal media bias as it is, but wait until government officials decide what constitutes fair and balanced coverage. Suddenly, news coverage would become a political issue, and candidates stumping in Iowa would be promising to confront media bias. And at some point, conservative lawmakers would be in a position to appoint the government media monitors. Suddenly, these same CJR types would be complaining about how the journalism regulatory process was becoming too “politicized.” The challenges facing journalism are real, but the solution is not more government meddling that would ultimately compromise the independence of the press.
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