A Bailout for the First Amendment?
Dan Rather actually made the following two contradictory statements in the same speech:
I personally encourage the president to establish a White House commission on public media.
A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom.
He’s right that the free press is a “watchdog on power.” But that’s not compatible with the idea that, as reported, “the government make an effort to ensure the survival of the free press.” A press funded, promoted, propped up, subsidized by government is not a free press. Nor is it in any position to be a watchdog; it’s more likely to become a megaphone for the states preferred ideas and expansion of government in other spheres, like health care, energy, finance, telecommunications, scientific research and policy and so on.
Democracy as a concept and political system is not at stake, as Rather thinks, when a particular business model engaged in public communications and broadcasting suffers at a particular point in history. It’s been beaten to death, but everyone knows the transformative importance of the broadband Internet and its role in making voices heard that never had a chance when Rather and his two rival channels dominated the news and airwaves for 30 minutes each evening.
We already have a Public Broadcasting System that takes taxpayer money; We have a Federal Communications Commission engaged in expanding its reach and intervention rather than–why not say it–yielding to the First Amendment and the blessings of competing ideas, content and broadband business models. Dan Rather is playing with fire in advocating marriage or co-habitation between the national government and media, it’s a dangerous idea. I once got riled up about issues like this in a paper I wrote called “Is the Internet Bad for Democracy?“:
Nothing in government’s legitimate scope qualifies it as a fountain of superior, purer information or a source of social cohesion. In fact, it’s more prone to corruption. Governments are well known for censorship and propaganda, or control, like the mandating of library filters and ratings for movies, music and videogames.
Most fundamentally, [intervention] fails because it rests on the notion that capitalism and freedom are inimical to civil society and the diffusion of ideas, when they are, in fact, the prerequisites. We cherish a free press, dissent, and debate precisely because governments can threaten these values. We need markets to maximize output, including that of true and useful “public” information. The inclination of some academics and public servants to despise the commercial Internet grows tiresome, not just because they often occupy a stance parasitic with respect to the commerce they denounce, but because their notion of public spaces would enshrine a political rather than civil view of social interactions.