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Next Up in Washington, a Media Czar?

July 14th, 2010 - 2:33 am

You think there are problems now with the mainstream media? Just wait. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger joins the drumbeat of those proposing fixes that are guaranteed to make the MSM much, much worse — and he wants to do it with your tax dollars.

In a July 14th op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Bollinger argues that the time has come to rescue the declining fortunes of newspapers and broadcast news with “enhanced public funding for journalism.” He envisions the future of American journalism as a “mixed system,” part public, part private. Otherwise, worries Bollinger, Americans might not get the news they need. Absent a pipeline of government money, he fears the Fourth Estate cannot continue to perform its fabled function as a watchdog, prowling the globe and speaking truth to power.

But wouldn’t public money compromise the independence and impair the integrity of American journalism? Not to worry, says Bollinger, who believes the mission in mixing public money with news reporting is simply “to get the balance right.” As examples of what he considers terrific balance, he points to American public universities, and the British taxpayer-supported BBC. That’s a hoot, because both are notorious hotbeds of leftist bias. Maybe he should check out the 2007 report that  the BBC commissioned to look into itself — which concluded, as summarized in the UK by the Sunday Times — that the BBC “is an organization with a liberal, anti-American bias and an almost teen-age fascination with fashionable causes.” Or has Bollinger not worked around to reading any of the multiple private news sources that might have enlightened him on the rot at the BBC?

Behind Bollinger’s tender concern for the welfare of the Fourth Estate is a gross disregard for another institution vital to both the freedom and prosperity of American society: the free market. The most pernicious sentence in Bollinger’s article sounds weirdly akin to statements I heard in Russia 15 years ago from the dinosaur leftovers of the Soviet Communist Party, as they lamented the days when all truth was handed down by the Communist Party’s Central Committee newspaper, Pravda (this was during the brief window before the Russian government got back into the business of controlling the media).

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.”

Yikes! Venturing into the unknown! Perhaps it is a truth undiscovered in the ivied turrets of Morningside Heights, but it is precisely in venturing into the unknown that private enterprise tends to excel. Markets give people the latitude to invent, take risks, pay for their own mistakes, and strive to make profits by producing things people will value. That’s why capitalist America has led the modern world in invention. Advances in technology have led to a shakeout in recent years in the handling of news coverage. (Anyone in pajamas with a laptop can now broadcast to the world.) The industry is now grappling with the question of how to make money in a far more fast-paced, multi-tiered competitive scene than anything we knew in the days of three TV channels, a couple of major newspapers, and no internet. But if the government simply refrains from sticking its clammy hands any deeper into the market, it’s a very good bet that people will devise ways to profit and prosper by competing to deliver the news people need (and want). Competition will do far more than any Washington media czar to preserve the institution of a healthy free press (or internet, or what-have-you). Fox News seems to be doing all right, via the amazing feat of recognizing that there’s a national audience for coverage that does not automatically tilt to the left.

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