HARPER: Not buying into idea of government subsidizing media

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The leftist duo of a college professor and a journalist has begun crisscrossing the country again, arguing the media should get sizable subsidies from the government.

Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois, and John Nichols, a Washington correspondent for the Nation magazine, started a nationwide tour for another one of their tomes on what’s wrong with journalism and democracy, “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.”

“We examine the forces — billionaires, corporations, the politicians who do their bidding and the media conglomerates that facilitated the abuse — that have sapped elections of their meaning and of their democratic potential,” they write.

Over the past two decades, Mr. McChesney has become a darling of academics and the media for his views on government and the press, with the Utne Reader, for example, calling him one of the “50 visionaries who are changing the world.” I listened to his screed last week in Philadelphia, but the authors may be coming to your town, particularly if there is a major university nearby.

Mr. McChesney and his co-author argue that federal funding to noncorporate media should play an important role in reshaping the press the way they think it should be. They estimate the cost would amount to roughly $35 billion, which they contend is the equivalent of subsidies in the 1840s.

Let me repeat that: $35 billion in government subsidies to the media, or roughly the state budget for Massachusetts or New Jersey. In 1840 dollars, for example, that $35 billion would be roughly $1.3 billion, or about 50 times the entire budget for the federal government back then. I think the authors need to get their calculators out to add up the subsidies a bit more precisely, apportioning the costs for building roads and train rails, for example, that aided sectors of the U.S. economy other than journalism.

More important, however, the notion that tax dollars will somehow save the media in America is wrong-headed and inadequately argued, particularly since such an approach would give government much more influence over the press.

The authors often fail to provide the context for many of the arguments about the media and politics. In an earlier book, for example, Mr. McChesney quotes Justice Louis Brandeis’ opinion in a U.S. Supreme Court case Whitney v. California. Although the justice eloquently expounded on freedom of speech in the 1927 opinion, Brandeis actually joined a unanimous decision that suppressed that constitutional right and was later overturned.

The authors consistently fail in this current book and past treatises to explain the details of the decision of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, a freedom-of-speech case in 2010 that expands the ability of businesses and labor unions to contribute money to political campaigns. The writers tend to cherry-pick information to fit the paradigm that business is bad for politics rather than looking at how other key factors, such as FEC and Internal Revenue Service actions, have influenced campaign funding.

In this current book, Fox News faces the usual rant as a right-wing operation aimed at creating democratic chaos. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the authors appear regularly on MSNBC and National Public Radio — something they fail to acknowledge in the body of the attack on Fox.

But that’s one of the less egregious of the errors and omissions put forward by the authors.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. Twitter: @charper51

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