I've been thinking a lot recently about the subject of a media bailout. It's something that has been discussed for a little while now, but support for the idea seems to be building all the time. Ezra Klein recently came right out and wrote that newspapers should get public funding. He points to the BBC and NPR as examples that a government that supports the media doesn't necessarily mean a media that supports the government.
Many people wouldn't find too comforting the examples of the BBC and NPR as the paragons of government-supported media. Far from being obvious signs that public media is unbiased, these are two of the most controversial sources out there. Conservatives have long demonized NPR as an echo chamber for latte-sipping liberals. The BBC gets beat up on both sides--Thatcherites complained it campaigned against their PM, and left-wing British politician George Galloway called it the Bush & Blair Corporation. Now anti-EU activists call it the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation.
The point is not to argue about whether or not these accusations of bias are correct. The point is it seems to go against our ideas of free expression to force taxpayers to support viewpoints with which they often strongly disagree. In fact, I think the BBC and NPR are no more biased than countless other mainstream news sources. Bias is inevitable. But that's all the more reason why we should be careful before we give that bias the public stamp of approval.
What about when Klein says that "many European countries have solved that problem by developing automatic funding structures free of government influence."? At Cato Unbound, there has been an interesting discussion of how to devise a subsidy for journalism that could be viewpoint-neutral. Paul Starr uses the example of how in early American history, Congress set postal rates for newspapers at below-cost, effectively subsidizing their spread. A modern-day equivalent, Starr suggests, could be exempting all "recognized news gatherers" from payroll taxes. So that's less outright favoritism than creating a stateside BBC, but it's still far from "viewpoint neutral." Who is going to decide who is big enough to be considered "recognized"? The FCC? Why should established newspapers get public support, but not independent bloggers who might be doing even better reporting? This money isn't "really automatic"--the government still needs to pick who deserves to be eligible, and who doesn't. Like it or not, that's government influence.
You might say that yes, there are problems with public support of the media, but what other choice do we have? Either bail the newspapers out, or the market will undersupply their services. But it seems far too early to conclude that substantive, original reporting won't be able to survive in the market. It indeed looks grim right now. But just because we do not know yet what business models will arise from this tumultuous period does not mean that they won't be created. The economy in places like Michigan has not been helped by the federal government's insistence to prop up outmoded economies. Let's not subject the media to the same fate.
Shouldn't we at least give new models a chance to blossom before we start looking for the next bailout?