Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Morning Coffee - 7 April 2009 | Main | AIG counterparty obligations may not be enforceable, but we're paying them anyway »

April 07, 2009

Reply to Kinsley: The government must subsidize the news because nobody else will

Michael Kinsley argues that the government shouldn't subsidize the news:

Trouble is, I don't think it's a legitimate purpose of government to try to affect what you read. Preventing you from reading something (censorship) is obviously worse than causing you to read something (via subsidy), but the latter is still troublesome. In fact, it may even be unconstitutional. Who decides what communication/speech gets subsidized? If the Times gets a subsidy, does the Daily Worker? It smacks of an "establishment" of speech analogous to the establishment of religion.

Of course one key thing about the First Amendment is that its religion protection is the only one that goes both ways -- ie, you can't restrict it and you can't establish it -- so it may not be literally unconstitutional for the government to "establish" a set of high-minded bullshit beliefs in the name of a free press. But it would be pretty perverse, and it would bother me for the same reason an establishment of religion would bother me.

I find this argument very odd.

If Kinsley is saying that the feds shouldn't bail out existing newspapers, then I agree. These papers are, after all, private companies. Many have been profoundly mismanaged or gutted by venture capital firms hoping to turn a quick profit. Pouring public money into these ailing firms would be short-sighted, not to mention unfair to emerging media outlets that aren't big enough to get subsidized.

But I think Kinsley's making a much broader claim about the proper role of the government. "Trouble is, I don't think it's a legitimate purpose of government to try to affect what you read," he writes. By that logic, not only public broadcasting but also public health outreach, and even public education should be considered suspect. I'm going to assume that as a liberal, Kinsley is comfortable with the existence of NPR, CDC outreach, funding to develop public school curricula.

Hard news is a public good, like a publicly funded NOAA weather report. We need this kind of reporting to keep democracy functioning. Unfortunately, most private news outlets are struggling to pay for this kind of coverage because Craigslist wiped out their classified ad revenue and the Internet abolished their local monopolies.

It's a classic economic bind. Everybody needs news, but nobody's prepared to pay for it. Either we get the government to pay for it, or we go without. You could never run the NOAA on a subscription model, and doing so would sort of defeat the purpose which is to keep as many people as possible abreast of the weather. 

The examples of the BBC in the UK and the CBC in Canada prove that it is possible to get solid reporting out of a government-financed news service.

It's interesting that we have public broadcasting but not public newspapers. The discrepancy might be a holdover from an earlier technological upheaval in media when broadcasting gave a single outlet national reach.

What we need is a publicly-funded web-based news service from which readers could access free video, audio, and print content. Low overhead and cheap distribution would allow more money to be spent on reporting.

Of course, the news service must be structured to give it maximum insulation from political interference. For example, the BBC is funded by a license fee, essentially a special tax earmarked to support the corporation. That means that the BBC isn't constantly having to suck up to lawmakers for yearly funding.

This new public model shouldn't try to replicate a whole newspaper with its op/ed page, style section, and comics. We don't need to subsidize opinion writing or lifestyle journalism.

Opinion journalism is already thriving on-line. (People love to offer their opinions for free.) This burgeoning independent opinion sector will help critique and contextualize the products of a public news service in real time, and help keep the news service honest.

If the government news service isn't meeting the needs of consumers, enterprising entrepreneurs will develop new business models to sell news at a profit. When they figure out how to make money selling news, maybe publicly funded journalism won't be necessary anymore, but so far, the question has vexed the best minds in the business and we can't afford to wait.

All news models introduce biases. Sure, there's a structural risk that a government-sponsored news service might slip into propaganda. Then again, the current model is to use news as bait to attract consumers who might buy the products advertised therein. Non-profits of various ideological stripes are underwriting more reporting these days, which is great, but hardly bias-free.

At least, if a news service is controlled by a democratic government, it's ultimately accountable to the people. We can rail at private news companies all we like, but at the end of the day, freedom of the press rightly belongs to them that own 'em. A public news service would give us all of us a share of a press.

Remember, it's not a question of government sponsored news vs. the status quo. Newspapers are dying off so fast that we're looking at underwriting or a virtual national monopoly for whatever dinosaur is left standing.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef01156f055916970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Reply to Kinsley: The government must subsidize the news because nobody else will:

Comments

NPR may be doing more harm than good . . . maybe we would have some decent radio if Wait wait don't tell me! and Morning Edition weren't hogging the high end of the market.

But NPR also gave us "The Global Pool of Money" and the rest of Alex Blumberg's brilliant financial reporting which is getting cited everywhere from blogs to the floor of Congress. I pitch articles for a living and I can't think of a a single for-profit private outlet that would invest the resources that NPR has that Planet Money series.

I'm envisioning something more along the lines of the BBC's website.

Well, maybe Mr. Craiglist should take one for the team and close down so that the newspapers get their advertising dollars back, eh?

Basically you're arguing for the gubmint to give you a job, and you can FOAD as far as I'm concerned with that. The BBC is not a model to emulated. It is certainly not accountable to the British public, is it? There is no way you can assert that with a straight face.

And what makes you think Mr. Blumberg's reporting is 'brilliant'? How can you objectively evaluate that? If you could do math, you wouldn't be doing this gig right now; you'd have a real job. You reporters are all the same. You used to have a cushy set up, regurgitating press releases as chosen by your gate-keeping editors, and now that's not the case anymore. And waah waah waah.

Tell you what, you really want to influence public policy and the like? Get yourself elected to office. Or better yet, start a business and get rich and buy a politician like everybody else does.

So, EB, you're saying that the government should nationalize the private company Craigslist and shut it down to protect newspapers? That's crazy and hardly something I'd expect from someone who is as skeptical of government as you claim to be.

Eric, I'm curious if you're a mathematician at all. Your comment suggests to me you're not - the people I go to grad school with, even the more libertarian ones, are way too smart to say things like "If you could do math, you wouldn't be doing this gig right now." And at least those I've argued with are smart enough that they understand that asserting "The BBC is not a model to be emulated... there is no way you can assert that with a straight face" requires some supporting evidence. But what do I know - all the people I know are actual math people, as opposed to people who failed to do math and are now working as hedge fund quants and think they're smarter than they actually are.

No, Lindsay, he's saying that the BBC still insists on placing the nation of Guyana in South America, though a clear majority of the British public feels its a part of Africa. That's not what you call "accountability".

He's saying that we're sick of reporters like you, who are all the same, reminiscing about Pan American flights to Tangiers and those hilarious "highball lunches" with Jane Hamsher and Ben Bradlee. You want to report the news? Get elected to office, or better yet, open a steam-cleaning operation with your husband's dowry. Just stop guitar-pedaling us with your
stupid complaints.

NPR is not a government entity. It does receive some of its funding from the government (though less so starting in 1995 and progressing during the Bush Administration), but it is a private non-profit entity, donations to it are tax-deductible.

The US has a long tradition of the government NOT reporting news. The USIA and Voice of America are prohibited from transmitting inside the US. I shudder at the thought of an accepted news channel controlled by the Bush Administration.

Government funding of non-profit, private news reporting organizations does occur, but not without attempts to control the message.

How does the CBC hold off partisan (left, middle or right) attempts at influencing the news they report?

No Lindsay, I'm not saying the government should shut down Craiglist. (Where the hell did you get that?) I'm suggesting that Mr.Craiglist should shut himself down, since he's making all those newspapers all fail, and since that's such a societal distaster, he ought sacrifice his business for the commmon good and all. Right?

Alon, you don't read the BBC do you? And you don't know any reporters either, do you?

I do read the BBC - it's better than anything else in the English-speaking world, except sometimes the WSJ and Financial Times. And you weren't attacking reporters; you were attacking Lindsay personally, who I do know.

Okay, then you're not inconsistent, you're just incoherent. Asking Craig, a businessman, to shut down his company for the greater good won't solve the problem. a) It's never going to happen, (write and ask him yourself, see how far you get) and, b) Even if Craig agreed to retire, someone else would just replace his extremely useful service with their own version and we'd be back where we started. The age of the printed classified ad over, that technology has been superseded.

While I don't think direct government to newspaper funding is a good idea, perhaps some sort of "journalism fund" could be created, like an arts fund, and funding for independent journalists could come out of that, allowing them to operate independently. Journalists could apply for funding and be accepted by a community of public *and* private entities, and there could be financing by private news organizations who'd get to have the services of those journalists.

I like the journalism fund idea, too. A couple weeks ago, I discussed how the public could support journalism through grants perhaps modeled after the kinds of grants that support scientific research or the fine arts.

I've come at this from another angle. In certain futurist, digerati circles, there has been angst lately about how online newspapers are about to disappear, and how they provide all the hard source material which the blogosphere then circulates, annotates, and evaluates, and so the imminent disappearance of old media is going to leave us with a rudderless blog-world of amateurism. Granting for a moment the hypothesis, I asked myself what sort of external (non-user-generated) content would still exist, and it came to me: the government's! (The same conclusion was anticipated by James DeLong, last paragraph.)

But I don't buy the wholesale death-of-newspapers scenario to begin with. It's a huge shakeout, it's the failure of a business model, but the future will not be reduced to a choice between Xinhua and Myspace (even though that sounds like a good SF story). Some more complicated news-media ecology is going to take shape.

We already have a number of government news services, although we don't call them that: The National Weather Service, the economic reports of the Federal Reserve, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and many, many government reporting systems for things like comparing hospitals or automotive safety. In addition, every government agency seems to publish a stream of news and updates. Some of them are great, others are self-serving propaganda.

I think some combination of press releases, news aggregators, and blogs that will cover most of what traditional news media do right now. The one crucial exception that falls through the cracks is the one area of journalism where government-supported efforts would surely fail: Investigative reporting.

And at least [the mathematicians] I've argued with are smart enough that they understand that asserting "The BBC is not a model to be emulated... there is no way you can assert that with a straight face" requires some supporting evidence.

Alon, are you a mathematician? You have made similarly sweeping assertions without supporting evidence. Remember the one about how the Dutch believed that decriminalizing some drugs would be a panacea, or that ending the war on drugs in the U.S. would only save a few billion dollars a year?

Yes, I do. The part about the Dutch I read in an article a few years ago, in one of the endless debates about prostitution on the feminist blogosphere. I have no idea where to find it right now - I sincerely apologize for not remembering the exact citation of everything I've read. If you're interested, the blog is reclusiveleftist.com and the timeframe is March to June of 2006. If you can bear reading that blog, go nuts.

Before I go to the trouble to find it, let me make sure I understand you. You read an article--published? or just cited?--on a blog debating prostitution, and the article claimed that the Dutch believed that legalizing drugs would be a panacea? No wonder you didn't want to cite your source when you made the original claim.

Would a sincere apology for not remembering the exact citation of everything he's read suffice for Eric's claim as well, or does he need to provide similar evidence regarding the BBC--like something he vaguely remembers from an eco-blog discussion of global warming circa 2006?

I read an article, published in a credible source (maybe the BBC? I don't remember...), linked on a blog debating prostitution, which as far as I remember goes into the fact that the social problems legalization of drugs and prostitution was supposed to solve didn't go away. One of the people quoted in the article explained that all the Dutch government did was legalize and provide free condoms and clean needles. The person on the blog cited it in the context of prostitution (and then went on a rant about how this proves the only way to deal with prostitution is to ban it), but it also involved drugs.

I didn't cite the source originally because I never thought the claim that the Dutch government viewed legalization as panacea was very important for my argument.

The examples of the BBC in the UK and the CBC in Canada prove that it is possible to get solid reporting out of a government-financed news service.

Of course, there's the counterexample of Pravda and Tass in the former Soviet Union. Taken together, the examples prove that it's possible to get either solid reporting or damaging propaganda out of a government-financed news service. What convinces you that a news service funded and controlled by the US goverment would be more like the BBC and less like Pravda?

I'm not Lindsay, but I'll jump in: in liberal democracies, public news services are not used as propaganda. Even liberal democracies that engage in some censorship and media manipulation, such as Israel, have high-quality publicly owned news channels, which are not above criticizing their own government and military. The BBC and Israel's Channel 1 have both been accused of pro-government propaganda by leftists to about the same extent they've been accused of anti-government propaganda by rightists.

I'm not Lindsay, but I'll jump in: in liberal democracies, public news services are not used as propaganda

Are you a mathematician? I've heard that most mathemeticians are smart enough that they understand that asserting "in liberal democracies, public news services are not used as propaganda" requires some supporting evidence.

And the fact that charges of propaganda on the BBC comes equally from the left and the right doesn't strike me as evidence of the fact that the BBC is innocent of the accusations. It may be counterintuitive, but it's certainly possible to produce centrist propaganda. It's also certainly possible, for example, that a news source regularly produces anti-left propaganda, and faces deserved criticism for that, and regularly produces factual criticism of conservative positions and gets unmerited criticism for that. Or visa versa.

What convinces you that a news service funded and controlled by the US goverment would be more like the BBC and less like Pravda?

There are a few rather significant differences between a single-party state like the USSR and democracies like Canada and the England. Not surprisingly these differences lead to significant differences in the performance of their state supported news services. The question is not why would we expect an American state supported paper to be more like the CBC or the BBC than Pravda, that's blisteringly obvious, the real question is why would you suggest that the Pravda model is even a possibility in the US.

Are you a mathematician? I've heard that most mathemeticians are smart enough that they understand that asserting "in liberal democracies, public news services are not used as propaganda" requires some supporting evidence.

Yes, and I immediately follow it with another example of a country where public news services are not used as propaganda, on top of the two you seem to accept.

Conversely, I'm struck by how for someone who keeps insisting on evidence, you fail to supply a single example of Pravda-style propaganda from a public news service in a stable liberal democracy (I make no claims about unstable or threatened democracies, like Thailand and Venezuela).

It may be counterintuitive, but it's certainly possible to produce centrist propaganda. It's also certainly possible, for example, that a news source regularly produces anti-left propaganda, and faces deserved criticism for that, and regularly produces factual criticism of conservative positions and gets unmerited criticism for that.

In practice, centrist news sources trade on their being unbiased. In fact some of the criticism the NYT and BBC have faced is that they're unwilling to take controversial positions - Krugman calls it the "The Shape of the Earth: Opinions Differ" fallacy. The New York Times was fairly prostrate toward criticism of bias until recently, without running many attacks on people calling it biased. And the BBC has gotten criticism for bias for the same coverage: leftists have accused it of not criticizing the Blair administration's case for war on Iraq enough, rightists have accused it of criticizing it too much. The Israeli media has been in similar situations to the BBC, though with domestic politics, most of its main figures seem to support Labor (the best analogy is to the mainstream US media before the rise of Fox and Limbaugh).

The question is not why would we expect an American state supported paper to be more like the CBC or the BBC than Pravda, that's blisteringly obvious, the real question is why would you suggest that the Pravda model is even a possibility in the US.

My question was Socratic rather than rhetorical. I seem to have created the impression, in both you and Alon and perhaps others that I'm arguing in favor of one particular answer to the question, so I need to be more clear. But that's why, per Alon's question, I don't offer evidence of Pravda-style propaganda in a liberal democracy---because I'm not claiming that's the case. I'm saying I won't accept an assertion like "in liberal democracies, public news services are not used as propaganda" without some supporting evidence.

Alon seems to believe that if I accept the proposition "the BBC and CBC prove it's possible to get solid reporting out of a government financed news service" I've agreed to the assertion that the BBC and CBC don't produce propaganda. I believe it's possible for a news service to produce both solid reporting and propaganda. My guess would be that Pravda produced some solid reporting. A key question is what is the ratio of solid reporting to propaganda, and you can believe that the BBC has a very good record in that respect and still object to the claim that the BBC is not used for propaganda.

Finally, Alon you can charaterize me as "someone who keeps insisting on evidence," but I think it would be more accurate in this thread to describe me as "someone who reminds Alon Levy of his own insistence on evidence from others while highlighting Levy's failure to subject his own assertions to a similarly rigorous standard."

Parse, what kind of evidence would you accept for the proposition that the BBC isn't used for propaganda? Would you like me to go through every story it's produced and show it's true? I think that would be unreasonable; it's fairly normal, I think, to look at the stories that have gotten the most criticism for bias, and compare the criticisms with reality. And to do that sketchily may not be peer-review rigorous, but it's a world apart from saying, "The BBC is not a model to emulated... there is no way you can assert that with a straight face," period.

The comments to this entry are closed.