Columbia University's $1.38 million-a-year president, Lee Bollinger, has an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal today calling for increased taxpayer subsidies for journalists. It's worth a careful deconstruction.
Mr. Bollinger: "foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future."
A few dozen full-time foreign correspondents in China is far more than we had from 1949 until the 1970s. Time had plenty of correspondents in China in the 1940s but still got the story wrong because Henry Luce wouldn't listen to Teddy White. What matters isn't how many full-time foreign correspondents one has somewhere but how accurate the coverage is.
Mr. Bollinger: "American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support.... In the 1960s, our network of public broadcasting was launched with direct public grants and a mission to produce high quality journalism free of government propaganda or censorship. The institutions of the press we have inherited are the result of a mixed system of public and private cooperation. 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."
This "trusting the market alone" is a straw man. Hardly anyone is calling for the abolition of public broadcasting. In fact, the 2012 appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, at $445 million, is a record -- an 89-fold increase from the CPB's initial appropriation of $5 million in 1969, under the Nixon administration. Truth is, though, there was plenty of fine American journalism committed before 1969, when, contrary to Mr. Bollinger's claim, such journalism was provided by the market alone.
Mr. Bollinger: "Ironically, we already depend to some extent on publicly funded foreign news media for much of our international news—especially through broadcasts of the BBC and BBC World Service on PBS and NPR. Such news comes to us courtesy of British citizens who pay a TV license fee to support the BBC and taxes to support the World Service. The reliable public funding structure, as well as a set of professional norms that protect editorial freedom, has yielded a highly respected and globally powerful journalistic institution."
Mr. Bollinger holds the BBC up as an example. He should read Josh Chafetz's Weekly Standard article, The Disgrace of the BBC:
as Christopher Hitchens noted in a perceptive Slate essay, you can no longer depend on BBC journalists even for proper pronunciation. The Beeb's announcers habitually mangle Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's last name (pronounced exactly as it looks) to make it more Jewish-sounding: Vulfervitz.
Hitchens isn't the only one who has noticed something not quite kosher in the BBC's treatment of Jews. The Israeli government, responding to a persistent demonization which it says "verges on the anti-Semitic"--including a documentary which erroneously claimed that the Israeli army uses nerve gas on the Palestinians--recently announced that it would no longer cooperate with the BBC in any way. Israel does not impose similar sanctions on any other news organization.
Why, the BBC is almost as anti-Israel as Mr. Bollinger's own Middle East studies department at Columbia! Even the British are calling for privatizing the BBC. Only 41% of Brits polled support the license fee that fund the BBC, and 58% said they think there is no difference between news on the BBC and other, privately funded channels.
Mr. Bollinger holds up government funding of university research as an example of where "where state support does not translate into official control." Tell it to the professors who lost their jobs during the loyalty scares of the 1940s and 1950s. As for the current situation, what Mr. Bollinger hails as a lack of "official control" could just as easily be described as a lack of "any accountability."
Mr. Bollinger writes: "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. To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company's environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment."
There you have it in a nutshell: in Mr. Bollinger's view, the real threat to journalistic integrity isn't government control but the profit motive.
Mr. Bollinger writes: "In addition to the BBC, there is China's CCTV and Xinhua news, as well as Qatar's Al Jazeera. The U.S. government's international broadcasters, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, were developed during the Cold War as tools of our anticommunist foreign policy. In a sign of how anachronistic our system is in a digital age, these broadcasters are legally forbidden from airing within the U.S. This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters."
I've already addressed the BBC case, but Mr. Bollinger's use of Qatar and Communist China as examples gives away the game. Here's Freedom House on Al Jazeera:
Al-Jazeera satellite television, a private station heavily reliant on Qatari government subsidies, is vocal and critical in its coverage of the United States and other Arab states but practices considerable self-censorship when covering Qatari news. Al-Jazeera airs a number of programs on women's rights and women's global equality issues, in addition to covering the issues of displaced and refugee women, but the station does not highlight the domestic problems of Qatar's women migrant workers. Domestic politics and policy are usually avoided or presented in a positive light.
Here's Freedom House on China:
China's media environment remains extremely restrictive. The authorities employ sophisticated means to control news reporting, particularly on sensitive topics. This includes setting the agenda by allowing key state-run media outlets to cover events—including negative news—in a timely but selective manner, and requiring that other outlets restrict their coverage to such approved accounts. Party directives in 2009 curbed reporting related to sensitive anniversaries, public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, foreign policy, and other topics. Journalists who fail to comply with official guidance are harassed, fired, or jailed. According to international watchdog groups, at least 30 journalists, mostly freelancers, and 68 cyberdissidents remained imprisoned at year's end for disseminating proscribed information, though the actual number is likely much higher. In one prominent case, online activist Huang Qi was sentenced in November to three years in prison for publishing criticism of the authorities' response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. ..
Do Americans really want to re-model their press along the lines of unfree countries like Qatar and Communist China, taking tax dollars from ordinary Americans working in fields that don't get government subsidies (okay, not banking, autos, green energy, or agriculture, but there must be something left, right?) and giving them to graduates of Columbia Journalism School? Maybe Professor Bollinger thinks this is a good idea, but even Steven Brill thinks it's ridiculous.
Thanks to reader-watchdog-participant-community member-content co-creator E. for sending the link.