Increasingly, somegroups contend there’s a crisis in journalism, even to the extent of advocating government support of news organizations. The dangers to freedom inherent in the concept of government-funded ideas and the impact on critique and dissent seem not to bother them.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission plays along. Its Future of Media project seeks “to help ensure that all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information that will enable them to enrich their families, communities and democracy.” Public comments are due Friday.
This fundamental misunderstanding of free speech and government’s role with respect to the institution of democracy is worrisome. We’ve descended to the level of an increasingly obsolete FCC effectively advocating a self-aggrandizing “bailout for the First Amendment” and government-enabled access to information at a time of not just instant availability of information of every kind, but instant broadcast capability at the level of the individual human being.
Not to be outdone, Georgetown University hosted a recent conference called “The Crisis In Journalism: What Should Government Do?” to ask, “How can government entities, particularly the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, help to form a sustainable 21st-century model for journalism in the United States?”
We actually resolved the question of “what government should do,” in a manner that influenced the entire world, with passage of the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment. The Constitution was ratified by nine states on June 21, 1788. Interestingly, Georgetown was founded Jan. 23, 1789. As far as I can tell, Georgetown didn’t hold a “Crisis In Journalism” conference that week, even though there was little national media to speak of and, thus, much more of a prevailing “crisis” situation than today, when you stop and think of it.
Then the Bill of Rights was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791 - and still no Georgetown conference. Amazingly, at the time, our ancestors thought it appropriate for the federal government to establish a First Amendment andstep aside, even though there were no TVs or radios, Internet and websites, iPods or stories broken by Twitter. There wasn’t even an FCC yet to ponder a “sustainable 19th-century model for journalism in the United States.”
Media at that time barely existed compared to what we have today. Yet there was no crisis. Nor is there a crisis today. The FCC’s comment period is designed to invite ways for an increasingly obsolete agency to expand its purview so it has things to regulate in the future. No surprise there, but most important, free societies do not entertain bureaucratically established “models” for functions as vital as free speech.
What this feigned crisis signifies is, on the one hand, pure indulgence of a wealthy society struggling with creative destruction in hyperintensive new media and, on the other, the desire by some for more political control of information flows and public opinion rather than enshrinement of the only condition appropriate to a free society - the preservation of competing biases. These ultimately are far more important than pretended objectivity in both the preservation of our democratic liberties and the creation of “information wealth.”
Convincing the public and policymakers that media is in crisis is essential for progressives to maintain influence now. While progressives long since successfully established government agencies with broad political control over communications, today they find themselves desperate to maintain that slipping control in the era in which media abundance undermines those agencies’ very reason for being.
Outrageous and undignified calls for public funding of journalism, “public spaces,” information commons, artificial “crises” in media and online, and other such manipulative indulgences draw their energy from the premise that capitalism and freedom are inimical to civil society and the diffusion of ideas, when they are instead the prerequisites. America established a First Amendmentprecisely because government and political machinery can threaten these precious values.
Competition in creation of goods and services creates tangible wealth; competition in creation of ideas (including scientific research) also underlies wealth creation and enhances liberties. Government “models” and taxpayer funding remove the element of competition, on purpose, while claiming to add voices.
This crisis is artificial, except obviously for the specific businesses indeed being upended by the digitization of information. Media, information, journalism - whatever it gets called - can only be damaged irreparably by censorship, the only crisis to which journalism is ever vulnerable. But it also counts as censorship if collectivists control information or succeed in funding it politically and disrupt proprietary business models in the content, reporting and communications infrastructure of the future.
A bailout for the First Amendment is catastrophic policy, even if its advocates’ purported goals are merely to make us all enlightened citizens. FCC calls this project reboot.fcc.gov. It would more appropriately be shutdown.fcc.govwhen it comes to an obsolete FCC grasping for a role to play. Appropriations for these counterdemocratic campaigns should be revoked.
Wayne Crews is vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.