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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"When Government Supports Journalism"

Increasingly the discussion is around whether there should be more direct government funding for journalism and media organizations.

One of the most eloquent advocates for an increased government presence is James Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. Nichols argues here that so-called free enterprise journalism is so unwell that it should be on (government) life support. It's a powerful argument and one worth considering.

Despite being a life-long public broadcaster, I would strongly disagree with Nichols on certain aspects of his position.

As Nichols acknowledges, in the United States, there is a tradition of government support for various media, going back as far as funding for the telegraph and ham radio. The abolitionist press was initially supported by government before the civil war until southern members of Congress removed the subsidy.

But Nichols does not address the complication of the First Amendment of the US Constitution which states in part, that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

That is usually interpreted to mean that Congress shall not place itself in a position where it might unduly influence freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Would government's financial support for journalism indicate that it plays favorites? Would all media be eligible? Would certain media be ineligible? And if so, why? Members of SCOTUS has their work cut out for them.

Professor Alan Stavitsky and I have explored this issue for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In our position paper entitled, "Public Media: Journalism When Government Supports the Enterprise," we argued that while America has often supported a free press and in many instances has backed that up financially, there is also a considerable tradition of political meddling and pressure. This has been especially true as Republican administrations have fought hard to ensure that commercial interests predominate in American media over government supported ventures.

Could Nichols' notion of government support for journalism be realized? Not until Congress agrees that political influence must be banned by law and that a strong "arm's length relationship" between Congress and media be understood and established.

That is what the First Amendment might still provide, more than two hundred years after it was first enacted.

Another issue that should be raised is whether government support for journalism might result in self-censorship. Too often in the US and increasingly in Canada as well, public broadcasters won't challenge power directly.

In my experience, no one in management tells the journalists what not to say. Management doesn't have to. Self-preservation in these dangerous times is the elephant in the room.


  1. You are SOOO right, professor!

  2. I couldn't agree more on Jeffrey's final point: no one has to tell the public media to tread lightly with the powers that be -- that happens automatically, and is a horrific disservice to democracy. There's the rub that makes a calamity out of "insulated" government funding of journalism.

    Mike Starling, Esq.
    Media Law Adjunct Professor, Towson, University