Lee Bollinger: the man from Fruitcake City

Lee C Bollinger, the President of Columbia University in New York, is an important man in American academia and has opined in the Wall St Journal that it is time to start considering state subsidy as a solution to the economic crisis in US news media. He is, alas, not alone in raising the idea.

Lateral thinking and fresh examination of prejudices are fine. But Bollinger’s argument is foolish and dangerous. Mercifully, what he suggests isn’t likely to happen. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell said in a different context: this is an idea so stupid it could only come from a clever man.

Bollinger points out, reasonably enough, that news media in the US and elsewhere are already entangled with the government by way of subsidies to public broadcasters and regulation. His argument boils down to saying that what America needs is a version of the BBC.

Leaving aside the flippant rejoinder that pretty well any American who wants to access the BBC’s news output can now do so either through the internet or the BBC’s worldwide outlets, Bollinger’s case for state subsidy falls on two grounds.

News media in the modern sense came into existence at the moment when newspapers left government control. Many forms of government intervention are left (state subsidies in France, taxation income for the BBC, regulation of all news providers or some) but generally they have been shrinking throughout the last century in the developed world. To point, as Bollinger does, to China’s state news agency Xinhua as an argument for an American equivalent is hardly persuasive.

Media not supported by government and in the private-sector economy are, by definition, at risk. As the business model for daily printed newspapers runs into deeper and deeper trouble, the damage done to the expertise housed in long-standing publications is undeniably great.

But if the media wants to remains outside government influence or interference, this crisis is the media’s to solve. And while many jobs will be lost and newspapers will fail, new stuff is being built, designed, tried out which will eventually shift the news media to new ways of staying independent of government while being able to do good, difficult and expensive journalism. Many of these tryouts will fail. The experiments are scattered in fragments so small and widespread that Mr Bollinger can’t see them. But if he’d care to consult the journalism school in his own university, they can fill him in.

Bollinger’s second misunderstanding, about the BBC, is more understandable. Perhaps there could be an American version, although I’d be surprised if a US government would try starting a “TV news tax” in economic conditions as tough as the present ones. (Sharp commentary on this aspect of Bollinger’s argument from Jeff Jarvis here.)

The BBC’s peculiar combination of editorial independence and tax funding is a historical miracle. It might be hard to reproduce in Britain now, let alone anywhere else. Combinations of unusual factors – the culture and habits of the 1920s when it was founded, determined individuals, luck – have made it one element in British news media which are a “mixed economy” of  public service and privately-owned media. I’d hazard a guess that many people value the BBC for its place in this mixed news economy, rather than because they would prefer all news media to be like the BBC.

News media are not like universities; they need to be at one remove from goverment for reasons which don’t apply to scholars. The fact that government is involved in media already is no reason at all to make that situation worse.

Update 15/7/10: Thoughtful reflection on all these views by my colleague Professor Roy Greenslade here.

17/7/10: A few more links in this NiemanLab summary from their invaluable weekly roundup.

26/7/10: Commentary in Spanish remarking that if journalism academics (Jarvis, Greenslade, me) don’t teach people how to run new businesses we should make way for people who will.

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6 comments

  1. “The BBC’s peculiar combination of editorial independence and tax funding is a historical miracle.”

    It’s surprising to see an academic refer to any social phenomenon as a miracle. This is, in any case, an unsupported assertion in your article.

    “News media are not like universities; they need to be at one remove from goverment for reasons which don’t apply to scholars.”

    News media are exactly like universities in one respect: they are knowledge-producing organisations, in which the knowledge producers have greater or lesser degrees of autonomy from the state. The existence of publicly-funded universities whose faculty display a high degree of autonomy from the state should be enough to dismiss the argument that public funding equals political interference. The BBC shows that this can also work, to a large extent, in the media. The BBC is far more politically autonomous than, say, Fox News. Rather than claim that this is a “miracle”, why not look at the precise institutional arrangements that make it possible? Perhaps you’ll find that they’re not so miraculous after all, and are indeed similar to the institutional arrangements that make academic freedom possible in state-funded universities.

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