In a past life, Lee Bollinger was a lawyer and law professor specializing in First Amendment issues. He was the author of scholarly works advocating and celebrating freedom of the press. Today, Lee Bollinger is the president of Columbia University, which collects millions of dollars from students looking for jobs as journalists.
One suspects that past life Lee Bollinger must be spinning in his grave at what present day Lee Bollinger is writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are undertaking studies of ways to ensure the steep economic decline faced by newspapers and broadcast news does not deprive Americans of the essential information they need as citizens. One idea under consideration is enhanced public funding for journalism.
In other words, Bollinger wants a bailout for journalism. Someone's got to hire all of those J-school grads, and the newspapers sure aren't doing it now.
But perhaps bailout's not the best term. A "bailout" is hopefully a singular event, like a bridge loan to help a friend get back on his feet. One time only, unless you're Chrysler. What Bollinger actually proposes is more like the farm subsidy, an ongoing, perpetual wealth transfer from taxpayers to a favored class.
Bollinger confesses unease.
The idea of public funding for the press stirs deep unease in American culture. To many it seems inconsistent with our strong commitment, embodied in the First Amendment, to having a free press capable of speaking truth to power and to all of us. This press is a kind of public trust, a fourth branch of government. Can it be trusted when the state helps pay for it?
I submit that a better question would be, "Can the public trust the government not to dominate and control the press when Congress is writing the checks?" Why not ask a scientist!
Of course Bollinger's question makes me uneasy as well, as does his inability to answer it. He poses it, just to show kids back in the free speech hood that he hasn't sold out to The Man, then proceeds to, well, sell out to The Man.
American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support. By the middle of the last century, daily newspapers were becoming natural monopolies in cities and communities across the country.
They did it by selling the public what it wanted, and selling it better than the competition. Not with a handout coerced from people who didn't want to buy their product.
Publishers and editors drew on the revenue to develop highly specialized expertise that enhanced coverage of economics, law, architecture, medicine, science and technology, foreign affairs and many other fields.
Again, they earned that revenue by selling customers a quality product at an affordable price, just as GM once did. The same way that Studebaker once dominated the horse buggy industry.
Ironically, we already depend to some extent on publicly funded foreign news media for much of our international news—especially through broadcasts of the BBC and BBC World Service on PBS and NPR. Such news comes to us courtesy of British citizens who pay a TV license fee to support the BBC and taxes to support the World Service. The reliable public funding structure, as well as a set of professional norms that protect editorial freedom, has yielded a highly respected and globally powerful journalistic institution.
But that's the United Kingdom! The British government is too honorable to interfere with the BBC. What about a country where the people elect Texas oilmen, or Chicago machine politicians, to high office?
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.
To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company's environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.
I have a counter-theory.
My counter-theory is that for years, perhaps decades, BP ran a slipshod, dangerous operation in the gulf (you do remember that the American arm of British Petroleum is a merger, that there was once a company known as "Gulf Oil"?), and that for years, perhaps decades, our great newspapers did not report one single, solitary fucking word about BP/Gulf's environmental record. Partially because our great newspapers accepted millions of dollars in advertising revenue from BP/Gulf, and partially because reporting on oil rig safety hazards isn't sexy, unless there's an oil rig disaster. Combine the two, and you have a snooze story ("There hasn't been a spill. Can't you find a dead bird?") that alienates a major advertiser.
Now imagine the government as the dominant partner with big journalism: "Problems with the Minerals and Mine Agency? There hasn't been a spill. Can't you find a dead coal miner?"
As for why the papers are reporting on BP/Gulf's environmental and safety records now, well, DUH. The people demand it, and if BP complains, the New York Times and Washington Post will write a story about editorial threats from a despised foreign corporation, earning a Pulitzer, and the plaudits of people like Lee Bollinger and Barack Obama in the process.
Speaking of the gulf, I commend CNN, which has been nearly alone among big media types in seriously complaining about government restrictions in reporting on the disaster. Would CNN have the guts to do so if it was expecting a big check from a very political administration at the end of the quarter? Probably, but I wonder…
Or consider another area where we have well established mechanisms of government support for even the most oppositional views: defense counsel in our courts, where government-paid lawyers (including those in uniform military courts) will do their utmost to undermine cases brought by the government itself. Playing the role of calling our government to account is an accepted ethic of the legal profession despite the political hostility it can sometimes generate.
You flatter me Mr. Bollinger. You know I'm a lawyer too.
But riddle me this, Batman: Government pays for indigent defense because it's constitutionally required to do so. The logic of Gideon, which I accept, is that when the government pursues the poor criminal with the sword of its own attorneys, due process and the right to counsel require that the poor criminal be provided a shield with which to defend himself.
But the poor don't have, constitutionally, a right to newspapers. The Constitution only guarantees freedom of the press, not a free press. Or does it? Should the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, highbrow papers, be required to hand out free editions to poor people in the Bronx and Compton? That's a helluva subsidy, don't you think?
And if there is such a requirement, shouldn't the Timeses be required to report on matters of interest to the poor? You know, trash media, things the poor care about, things like Lindsay Lohan's jail sentence and Britney Spears' fat ass and John Edwards' marital infidelity.
Well, scratch that last one. The Times on both coasts had plenty of opportunities to report on Edwards but refused, even though the work had been done for them. Maybe that kind of business judgment is why the Enquirer has cash to pay for stories, while the Times, New York and Los Angeles, need a taxpayer handout. Still, if the people are writing the checks, don't they have the right to demand bread and circuses, through funded mandates and regulation, from those who accept the money? I rather think they do.
To me a key priority is to strengthen our public broadcasting role in the global arena. In today's rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, other countries are developing a strong media presence. In addition to the BBC, there is China's CCTV and Xinhua news …
Funny you should bring up the Chinese media while claiming that state subsidies won't impair freedom of the press.
Oh well, as others have pointed out, you'll come to your senses around 2012. Under the Palin-Huckabee administration.