How to Save Journalism
Our research suggests that press subsidies may well have been the second greatest expense of the federal budget of the early Republic, following the military. This commitment to nurturing and sustaining a free press was what was truly distinctive about America compared with European nations that had little press subsidy, fewer newspapers and magazines per capita, and far less democracy. This history was forgotten by the late nineteenth century, when commercial interests realized that newspaper publishing bankrolled by advertising was a goldmine, especially in monopolistic markets. Huge subsidies continued to the present, albeit at lower rates than during the first few generations of the Republic. But today's direct and indirect subsidies--which include postal subsidies, business tax deductions for advertising, subsidies for journalism education, legal notices in papers, free monopoly licenses to scarce and lucrative radio and TV channels, and lax enforcement of anti-trust laws--have been pocketed by commercial interests even as they and their minions have lectured us on the importance of keeping the hands of government off the press. It was the hypocrisy of the current system--with subsidies and government policies made ostensibly in the public interest but actually carved out behind closed doors to benefit powerful commercial interests--that fueled the extraordinary growth of the media reform movement over the past decade.
The argument for restoring the democracy-sustaining subsidies of old--as opposed to the corporation-sustaining ones of recent decades--need not rest on models from two centuries ago. When the United States occupied Germany and Japan after World War II, Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur instituted lavish subsidies to spawn a vibrant, independent press in both nations. The generals recognized that a docile press had been the handmaiden of fascism and that a stable democracy requires diverse and competitive news media. They encouraged news media that questioned and dissented, even at times criticized US occupation forces. They did not gamble on the "free market" magically producing the desired outcome.
In moments of crisis, our wisest leaders have always recognized the indispensible role of journalism in democracy. We are in such a crisis now. It is the character of the crisis, and the urgency of the moment, that should make Americans impatient with blanket condemnations of subsidies. State support is vital to higher education; on rare occasions professors have been harassed by governors or legislators over the content of their research or lectures. But only an extreme libertarian or a nihilist would argue to end all public support of higher education to eliminate the threat of this kind of government abuse. Likewise, the government does not tax church property or income, which is in effect a massive subsidy of organized religion. Yet the government has not favored particular religions or required people to hold religious views.
As for the notion that public broadcasting is a more propagandistic or insidious force than commercial broadcasting because of the small measure of direct state support it receives, the evidence suggests otherwise. When the United States geared up to invade Iraq in 2002, commercial broadcast news media, with only a few brave exceptions, parroted Bush administration talking points for war that were easily identified as lies. In contrast, public and community broadcast coverage, while far from perfect, featured many more critical voices at exactly the moment a democracy requires a feisty Fourth Estate. Not surprisingly, public broadcasting is the most consistently trusted major news source, with Americans telling pollsters it deserves far greater public funding.
Perhaps the strongest contemporary case for journalism subsidies is provided by other democracies. The evidence shows that subsidies do not infringe on liberty or justice; they correlate with the indicators of a good society. In The Economist's annual Democracy Index, which evaluates nations on the basis of the functioning of government, civic participation, civil liberties, political culture and pluralism, the six top-ranked nations maintain some of the most generous journalism subsidies on the planet. If the United States, No. 18 in the index, spent the same per capita on public media and journalism subsidies as Sweden and Norway, which rank 1 and 2, we would be spending as much as $30 billion a year. Sweden and Norway are also in the top tier of the pro-business Legatum Group's Prosperity Index, which measures health, individual freedom, security, the quality of governance and transparency, in addition to material wealth. The United States ranks ninth.
The evidence is also clear that huge journalism subsidies and strong public media need not open the door to censorship or threaten private and commercial media. Consider the annual evaluation from Freedom House, the pro-private media organization that annually ranks international press freedom. It has the keenest antennas for government infringement of private press freedoms and routinely places nondemocratic and communist nations in its lowest, "not free" category. (It ranks Venezuela, for example--highly regarded by some on the democratic left for its commitment to elections and an open society as well as its wide-ranging adversarial media--as having a "not free" press.) Strikingly, Freedom House ranks the heavy subsidizing nations of Northern Europe in the top six spots on its 2008 list of nations with the freest news media. The United States ties for twenty-first. Research by communications professor Daniel Hallin demonstrates that increases in subsidies in Northern Europe led not to a docile and uncritical news media but to a "more adversarial press." In short, massive press subsidies can promote democratic political cultures and systems.