"He not busy being born is being dying." -- Bob Dylan
In their new book The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols make what they like to frame as "the patriotic case for government action" as a proposed remedy for "the malaise of the media."
In a recent Manhattan forum sponsored by The Nation magazine, Nichols and McChesney discussed and debated the linked crises of hope, vision and lost revenue models currently afflicting American journalists - and by extension every other citizen. Other "media experts" on the panel included Pamela Newkirk of New York University Journalism School and columnist David Carr of the New York Times. To my surprise, I found myself more in agreement with the Timesman than with Nichols and McChesney, founders of the advocacy group Free Press.
The notion that a free society requires a free press is almost universally acknowledged. So is the fact that many legacy media outlets -- the New York Times and The Nation among them -- now face a resource emergency. The industry's "lost revenue model" - the subject of seemingly endless posts, articles, speeches, books and above all industry conferences -- has made it increasingly difficult to pay for newsgathering. But the question raised by the Nation forum - "So how do we save journalism?" -- and the specific solutions offered by Nichols and McChesney - massive government subsidies to the tune of thirty billion dollars, a number they say correlates in today's dollars with what was spent on media subsidies in the 1800s -- are revealing new fault lines and dividing journalists and media-reform activists into sometimes unlikely camps.
As Nation editor/publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel noted, she and many others like Nichols and McChesney have been trying to raise the twinned issues of media and democracy for years.
And the notion that what Nichols dubbed "enlightened public subsidies" for mediamakers like myself is, on first blush, undeniably attractive. After all, when the building is on fire, it can be awfully hard to question where the water should come from...
It's also hard to question the McChesney/Nichols assertion that "creating a viable free press is the first duty... of the democratic state." But can a vibrant press be kept free of government interference and censorship while being sustained by massive government subsidies? And even if the answer is yes -- should it be? Increasingly media practitioners are weighing in on the subject - and many are saying "No."
Among them are two former colleagues of mine, media critic and journalism professor Dan Kennedy and Open Source host Christopher Lydon. Writing in the Huffington Post, Lydon noted that "the Internet is already the government's accidental gift" to journalism, "worth much more than $30 billion to have wiped out the cost of paper, printing, delivery and all the capital barriers to a worldwide marketplace of ideas." For good measure Lydon added, "My guess is that Thomas Jefferson, a blogger in retirement, would be reading and reveling in the digital miracle that has enabled kindred spirits like Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Joshua Micah Marshall and Arianna Huffington... not to mention Robert McChesney, John Nichols and their admirable creation, FreePress.Net."
Meanwhile Kennedy, one of new media's most astute observers, also questioned the McChesney/Nichols prescription. "What role should the government have in preserving public-interest journalism? If you're a First Amendment absolutist (and I consider myself to be pretty close), you might immediately respond with a resounding 'none,'" Kennedy wrote on his Media Nation blog.
As Kennedy concluded, "the real problem with government assistance" may well be that "once you start relying on it, you are forever subject to the vagaries of the political moment."
David Carr made much the same point during the Nation panel discussion. "Government versus market -- which is more dependable and efficient?" Carr asked, adding that giving government money to the press at a time when "we can't fund schools, hospitals or infrastructure" might be a tough sell. He concluded by denouncing as "preposterous" the notion that "great journalism will come from government subsidies."
Instead of depending "on Uncle Sam for handouts," Carr opined, we would all be better off asking -and answering - the following question: "What are our cultural priorities?"
Makes sense to me -- what do you think?
"And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine."