Bailout for the First Amendment vs. Preservation of Competing Biases

Clearly many groups contend there’s a “crisis” in journalism, even to the extent of advocating government support of news organizations, despite the dangers inherent in the concept of government-funded ideas and their impact on critique and dissent.

Georgetown is hosting a conference today called “The Crisis In Journalism: What should Government Do,” (at which Adam Thierer is speaking), with the defining question, “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. Georgetown, your conference host, was founded January 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 industry 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 December 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 and step aside, even though there were no TVs or radios, or 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.

What this feigned crisis signifies is, on the one hand, pure indulgence of a wealthy society struggling with “creative destruction” in media; and, on the other, the desire 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 are ultimately far more important than pretended objectivity in both the preservation of our liberties and in the creation of “information wealth.” Too often, the class interest of intellectuals is statism (continue reading Schumpeter for details, I’m not doing it here); and the journalism industry, far from alone among myriad economic endeavors, is highly vulnerable to those same collectivist impulses.

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 demeaning calls for public funding of journalism, public spaces, information commons, artificial “crises” and other such manipulative indulgences draw their energy from the flawed 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 Amendment precisely 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, yet another notion to discuss later) ultimately does the same and enhances liberties. Government funding removes the element of competition, on purpose.

This crisis is phony, except obviously for the specific businesses that are being upended. Media, information, journalism, whatever it gets called, can only be irreparably damaged by censorship, the only crisis to which journalism is ever vulnerable. But it also counts as censorship if progressives control information or succeed in funding it politically and prevent proprietary business models in the content, reporting and infrastructure of the future. A Bailout for the First Amendment is catastrophic policy, even if it’s advocates’ stated goals are merely to make us all enlightened (somewhat left-leaning?) citizens.

(Hat tip to my colleague Alex Nowrasteh for helping me find ratification dates.)