As it often does, The Wall Street Journal this morning offers us an op-ed with which it surely must disagree, entitled “Journalism Needs Government Help” – bringing to mind the fabled knock on the door: “Hi. I’m from the IRS and I’m here to help.” The author is no less than Lee Bollinger, former dean of the law school at the University of Michigan and now president of Columbia University, my undergraduate alma mater. As with many an academic, Bollinger has long been a friend of public-private partnerships: indeed, one could say he has lived by them. But the partnership at issue here is so fraught with peril that one wonders how it can be advanced as uncritically as it is in this little piece.
The argument, in essence, is this. The communications revolution has decimated media budgets. Indeed, “the proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers,” leading to shrunken newsrooms, especially in foreign bureaus. Thus the FCC and FTC are now studying the idea of enhanced public funding for journalism. Not to worry, Bollinger assures us, since “we already have a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support” – to wit, public regulation of the broadcast news industry and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And the most compelling example of state support not translating into official control, he continues, can be found in our public and private research universities, which receive billions of government dollars annually with no apparent problem.
Really? Try getting your hands on some of those funds, or an appointment in one of those departments, if you have reservations about global warming. Or do we need any better example than the case of Elena Kagan, now before us. When the good dean took her principled stand against admitting military recruiters to the Harvard Law School, the larger university community reminded her of the government funds that were thus put in jeopardy, and she adjusted her position accordingly.
But here comes the kicker: Like those who imagine that there’d be no art without the National Endowment for the Arts, Bollinger tells us that “trusting the market alone to provide all the news coverage we need would mean venturing into the unknown—a risky proposition with a vital public institution hanging in the balance.” Was there no news before the invention of NPR, all things considered? And back on the academic analogy, he adds, “Indeed, the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector. This reinforces the point that all media systems, whether advertiser-based or governmental, come with potential editorial risks.” True, but government is categorically different than private businesses, of which there is no shortage. Yet those who fail to notice that difference, or discount it, are forever drawn to government because it is, as we say, so easy to get in bed with.