Columbia president: What we need is more taxpayer-funded journalism

The best part? His plan calls for rolling Voice of America — a de facto propaganda outlet of the U.S. government — into NPR and PBS to form a star-spangled equivalent of … the BBC. (With, ahem, “full journalistic independence,” of course.) Contain your excitement, red-staters.

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?…

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. Those of us in public and private research universities care every bit as much about academic freedom as journalists care about a free press.

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.

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.

I go back and forth between thinking that state-run media is (a) a fait accompli as more papers fold and older voters who rely heavily on print news start panicking and (b) impossible in a post-TARP, post-GM political age where bailouts are about as politically popular as child molestation. I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon — too much anti-statist mojo brewing in the electorate right now — but remember, there’s already halting movement in Congress to save struggling newspapers by granting them tax-exempt status as nonprofits. And that’s without the media having fully thrown itself behind this idea yet: Imagine how public opinion will move once more Bollinger types start arguing that freedom of the press doesn’t mean much if the press can’t stay in business, in which case isn’t a publicly-subsidized media actually closer to the Founders’ ideals than the prospect of virtually no media at all? As for bias, Spruiell’s right that the big worry isn’t journalists ignoring government corruption so much as them sinking even further into tax-and-spend dogma to protect their paychecks. But lefties have an easy answer to that. According to conservatives, the media’s already hopelessly biased beyond repair. So what’ll be lost by going the whole nine yards and making them bona fide federal/state employees?

As a gloss on all this, read Andrew Ferguson’s short but incisive take on Newsweek’s ill-fated makeover as the sort of magazine journalists want to write for rather than a magazine readers want to read. Once you free the media from the pesky financial pressure of pleasing consumers, you’re bound to get lots, lots more of that. May a thousand Newsweeks bloom!