Two Very Troubling Anti-Media Freedom Books

by Adam Thierer on July 22, 2010

I recently reviewed two books with some very troubling ramifications for the future of media freedom. The first was authored by Robert W. McChesney, the prolific neo-Marxist media scholar and the intellectual ring-leader of the cyber-collectivism movement.  Along with co-author John Nichols, an editor at The Nation, McChesney has penned a manifesto for media takeover: The Death and Life of American Journalism. Their book is horrifying in its imperial ambitions since it invites the government become the High Lord and Protector of the Fourth Estate.  You will recall, of course, that McChesney and Nichols are the founders of the regulatory activist group FreePress, and together with that merry band of radical  media “reformistas,” McChesney and Nichols are scripting out a blueprint for complete State control of the press. This book is the most complete elucidation to date of their plans.  I penned a formal review of the book for City Journal. It’s online here and I’ve also pasted it down below the fold.

The second book I’d like to bring to everyone’s attention is Lee C. Bollinger’s Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-open: A Free Press for a New Century.  Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, proposes the creation of a massive U.S. propaganda machine. Bollinger doesn’t just want our government to help out a bit at the margins like it currently does; he wants the State to get under the covers, cuddle tight and become intimate lovers with the Press. And then he wants the Big Press to project itself more, especially overseas, to compete with other State-owned or subsidized media enterprises. Again, it’s a propaganda machine, pure and simple. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial entitled, “Journalism Needs Government Help,” he even used China’s CCTV and Xinhua news as well as Qatar’s Al Jazeera as a model for what he thought the U.S. should do! As Jeff Jarvis rightly asks in his terrific response essay, “No American BBC,”: “In what sane world is the Chinese government’s relationship with news a model?” Indeed, this is frightening stuff. Has Bollinger not studied the Chinese system of state media meddling? Needless to say, it’s not pretty. And while I would agree that the BBC model shows that some State-funded media can be quite impressive and free of most meddling, that’s not been the case across the board.

Incidentally, Bollinger seems oblivious to the fact that one reason those Voice of America and Radio Free Europe have generally been restricted from being rebroadcast in the U.S. is because they were thought of State propaganda machines intended to serve strategic military ends. (Moreover, they were just so damn boring no one domestically wanted to listen anyway!)

Unsurprisingly, however, the radical band of media reformistas over at (un)Free Press are already touting Bollinger’s piece since they savor any move toward greater State control of the Press. I wonder though, how will the folks at Free Press and others on the Left feel about the Propaganda Press they wish to create once the next Dick Cheney gains hold of the reins? Oh, and can you imagine the fun Dick Nixon would have had with this?! Let’s not forget, Nixon wanted to use FCC licensing authority to try to intimidate The Washington Post when the Watergate scandal broke. Yet the subsidy-happy Left seems to naively believe that everything will be different when their pure-as-driven snow and well-intentioned liberal philosopher kings are running the show. But what values will guide this effort? Who decides?

Even if the propaganda machine isn’t all that bad, someone needs to explain to me why my tax dollars should support viewpoints I find distasteful, even offensive. And this isn’t just about me being selfish with my tax dollars. As Randy May explains:

when government-supported media—that is, media supported with our tax dollars—decide what content should be filtered or amplified regarding issues of public importance… government’s involvement tends to exacerbate public tensions in a way that makes civil discourse more difficult. This is because government content decisions are seen by many as tilting the public policy playing field in a way inconsistent with their beliefs.

One could argue, of course, that this fight has always been with us in the debates over funding of National Public Radio, the Public Broadcast Service, and even the National Endowment for the Arts. Importantly, however, the narrow, targeted subsidies of the past were subtle and small enough that they could operate without generating public outrage / tension. By contrast, the scale of the intervention and subsidization being envisioned by Bollinger and Free Press would likely bring fights over compulsory funding to the center of the political discourse. Indeed, a massive infusion of state meddling in media markets likely will raise the stakes in this already heated debate. And it will also raise the re-emrgence of potential for meddlesome strings on the media: Fairness Doctrine-like mandates on one hand; indecency regs on the other.

Finally, practically speaking, no matter what the level of subsidy, it simply isn’t possible to make consumers “eat their (media) greens” and pay attention to the “right” media in an age of information abundance. With so many voices competing for our attention, it’s impossible make people watch, listen, or read things they don’t want to. That’s especially true with “hard news” that many policymakers might look to subsidize, which has never netted major ratings. As Ellen P. Goodman of the Rutgers-Camden School of Law (and a current adviser to the FCC “Future of Media” project) has noted: “Given the proliferation of consumer filtering and choice, these kinds of interventions are of questionable efficacy. Consumers equipped with digital selection and filtering tools are likely to avoid content they do not demand no matter what the regulatory efforts to force exposure.” As Goodman rightly argues, “regulation cannot, in a liberal democracy, force viewers to consume media products they do not think they want in the name of the public interest.” Thus, there is the potential with Bollinger’s proposal that we would just be pissing massive amounts of federal tax dollars down the drain. Isn’t it better we just decide how to spend our own media dollars?

Anyway, these are two very troubling books and they give us the clear view into the minds of the cyber-collectivist, anti-media freedom movement’s leading intellectual lights.

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[here is entire text of my City Journal review of the McChesney & Nichols book.]

A Media Welfare State?

by Adam Thierer

Imagine a world of “post-corporate” newsrooms, where the state serves as the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate. Billions flow from bureaucracies to media entities and individual journalists in the name of sustaining a “free press.” And this new media welfare state is funded by steep taxes on our mobile phones, broadband connections, and digital gadgets.

Sound Orwellian? Well, it’s the blueprint for a press takeover drawn up by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. McChesney, the prolific neo-Marxist media scholar who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Nichols, a journalist with The Nation, aren’t shy about their intentions. Along with Free Press, the absurdly misnamed regulatory activist group they co-founded, McChesney and Nichols outline a self-described “radical” agenda for what they hope will become a media “revolution.” And, shockingly, some folks in the Obama administration are listening.

McChesney and Nichols model their $35 billion annual “public works” program for the press after the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era. Their media WPA would include a “News AmeriCorps” for out-of-work journalists, a “Citizenship News Voucher” to funnel taxpayer support to struggling media entities, a significant expansion of postal subsidies, a massive new subsidy for journalism schools, corporate welfare for newspapers sufficient to pay 50 percent of the salaries of all “journalistic employees,” and more. Using its growing lobbying muscle in Washington, Free Press promotes the McChesney-Nichols plan under the framework of a “National Journalism Strategy,” a veritable industrial policy for the press that resembles a Soviet-style five-year plan.

McChesney, Nichols, and the media reformistas at Free Press rest their case for “massive public intervention” into the news business on several dubious assertions: commercial journalism is dying, and nothing can save it; news has always been a “public good” and would be better provided through noncommercial means; and America has a long history of public subsidies for the press—even the Founders would endorse an expansive role for the state to “save the news.”

That last claim is perhaps the most audacious. McChesney and Nichols spin a rich revisionist history and ask us to believe that the Founders—especially Jefferson and Madison—were practically media Marxists, enthralled with public subsidization of the press. They base that claim entirely on the existence of postal subsidies. Apparently, because we’ve had reduced rates for media mail since the Republic’s early days, we should believe that the Founders would welcome a wholesale government takeover of the press. But a modest postal subsidy for press materials doesn’t suggest that the Founders believed government should be micromanaging or massively subsidizing media. The language of the First Amendment—“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” confirms that. Having rebelled, in part, against British restrictions on free speech, the Founders’ prime directive toward the press was not subsidization, but freedom from state meddling.

Even if it is true that news has some public-good qualities, it does not necessarily follow that the state must or should fund it. Indeed, the entire history of American media belies this argument: entertainment, journalistic, and informational media of all varieties have primarily relied on private, commercial funding for over 200 years—particularly through advertising, which rewards publishers for attracting and holding on to audiences. Once one embraces the fallacy that only the state can produce high-quality public goods, sweeping calls for government intervention inevitably follow.

It’s certainly true that we’re in the midst of a major media revolution, and that many operators are struggling to cope with intensifying competition, digitization, declining advertising budgets, and fragmenting audiences. Pundits and policymakers wonder what the future holds for many traditional news providers or whether they’ll even have one. But McChesney and Nichols seize on such anxieties to suggest that nothing short of a government press takeover is required. In true Rahm Emanuel-like fashion, Free Press insists, “We have a crisis. We have an historic opportunity. We can’t let either go to waste.”

Who pays the bill and how much will the takeover cost? McChesney and Nichols take a remarkably cavalier attitude about it: “The money must be spent and we will worry about where it comes from later.” Such “we’re-all-dead-in-the-long-run” reasoning seems to be the dominant philosophy in Washington policy circles these days. But the estimated $35 billion annual price tag for a “public works” program for the press should give us pause. Moreover, like every other corporate-welfare program (think agriculture subsidies), a journalistic welfare state would no doubt grow in scope and cost over time.

McChesney and Nichols suggest several potential funding sources for the program, many of which would end up burdening commercial media providers in order to subsidize their noncommercial/public media competitors. They advocate a four-part tax plan that would include: a 5 percent tax on new purchases of consumer electronics, which they estimate would bring in $4 billion a year; a 3 percent tax on monthly ISP & mobile-service bills (estimated at $6 billion a year); a 2 percent sales tax on advertising (estimated at $5 to $6 billion a year); and a 7 percent tax on broadcasters’ spectrum licenses (estimated to sap another $3-6 billion a year from an already reeling industry). Free Press has enthusiastically endorsed these proposals. In recent FCC testimony, managing director Craig Aaron offered specific revenue projections for the creation of a “Public Media Trust Fund.”

What McChesney, Nichols, and Free Press essentially advocate is a radical form of media redistributionism—with struggling private entities and others forced to fund public or non-commercial media outlets. What these regulatory advocates seek is not so much a bailout for the familiar private media that has served America so well for two centuries, but rather a massive wealth transfer from one class of media to another, with the stipulation—which they repeat numerous times—that state-subsidized entities are to forgo private advertising revenues, copyright protection, and any affiliation with corporate parents. These restrictions are an essential part of their push for a “post-corporate,” government-controlled press. Indeed, it would virtually make such a press a self-fulfilling prophecy, since copyright laws and advertising have been core ingredients of a successful private media system in the U.S. They’re also why we haven’t had to resort to massive public subsidies for media, as many other nations have.

McChesney and Nichols want us to believe that they (or the state) wouldn’t play favorites with public funds. But it’s hard to take such claims at face value when they dedicate their book to liberal darling Bill Moyers (who has keynoted Free Press “media reform” conferences), and when every page of their book drips with derision toward commercial media. In reality, McChesney, Nichols, and Free Press are out to destroy the private provision of media in America, but they’ve softened up their recent rhetoric to cloak their true aims. In their 2002 book, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, they were more direct, arguing for “the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media.” And during a 2009 interview with the Canadian-based “Socialist Project,” McChesney confessed that “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists,” and noted that, “unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution.”

Similarly, The Death and Life of American Journalism concludes by noting that “We have responded in a time of crisis not with tinkering reforms but with revolution.” Indeed they have, but what’s more shocking is the warm reception their calls for “public control” and “revolution” are receiving within the Obama administration.

The Federal Trade Commission is holding a workshop series called “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” The agency released a 47-page discussion draft entitled “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism,” which reads like the Cliff’s Notes for the McChesney-Nichols book and Free Press’s National Journalism Strategy. The draft cites the authors over a dozen times and reproduces their proposals almost verbatim. McChesney was recently invited to deliver a major address at an FTC event on these issues. Meanwhile, Susan DeSanti, the FTC’s Director of Policy Planning, who spearheads the agency’s “media reinvention” effort, has publicly praised McChesney and Nichols’ “excellent book” despite its call for radical steps that would hobble private media and impose crushing taxes to subsidize public, state-blessed media. Isn’t the FTC supposed to safeguard marketplace competition and innovation? Finally, the Federal Communications Commission is conducting an open proceeding of its own on the “Future of Media.” So far, it has featured plenty of talk of expanded public media and “public-interest” programs.

Perhaps most insultingly, McChesney, Nichols, Free Press, the FTC, and the FCC all ignore the burdens on private media operators that they themselves have had a hand in creating or preserving. For years, the media marketplace has been smothered with layers of red tape that has hindered operators’ ability to respond promptly to new developments. In particular, a crazy-quilt of media ownership regulations has artificially restricted business models from developing that might have saved many news organizations from the fate that McChesney and Nichols now decry. Stunningly, the FCC and FTC show no sign of willingness to loosen those chains, especially with Free Press and other media reform groups aggressively hounding them and congressional lawmakers to impose even more regulation.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration implements the McChesney/Nichols blueprint for a media welfare state. But their book clearly draws the battle lines for the future of media—and provides a fresh reminder, for those of us who still care about our fundamental First Amendment freedoms and a truly free and independent press, what it is we’re fighting for.

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Adam Thierer is president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. (www.pff.org) and the coauthor, with Brian Anderson, of A Manifesto for Media Freedom (Encounter Books, 2008).

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