Should states subsidise news media?

I listened a few days ago to a lecture devoted to arguing that the economic crisis of news media in America is so bad that the government should be giving journalism direct financial support. I’m very wary of these arguments. But because I think this is a subject which is going to keep cropping up, it’s worth pausing to look at this case in full.

The speaker was Robert McChesney, an American journalism professor (and much more unusual in the US, a socialist) who argues that journalism is a public good and that as such it needs and deserves public support. McChesney has recently edited a collection of essays arguing variations on this theme.

McChesney’s key points were:

  • The frequent, instant dismissal of subsidy is wrong because assuming that journalism can be a business is the wrong starting point. Journalism is essential for democracy and as a public good deserves to be sustained by public funds. The idea that journalism can be solvent is an illusion. Just because for one period in recent history advertising cross-subsidised news, doesn’t mean that solvency is attainable. Journalism is too important to depend on the accidents of business.
  • When anyone raises the idea of subsidy, scare tactics suggest that this is the start of something which will end in media control as practised by Stalin or Pol Pot. This is absurd, considering that many European states subsidise news. In fact the top five or six countries in The Economist’s annual quality-of-democracy league are the top media subsidisers. The same overlap occurs in the Freedom House democracy table.
  • The crisis of the press is part of a wider democratic decline. The three worst political sleaze scandals in recent years in Washington were Abramoff, Cunningham (both lobbyists) and Tom DeLay (congressman). The three reporters who broke those stories are now all unemployed. A business-dependent press has failed in its duty of making politicians and policymakers accountable, especially when covering (or failing to cover properly) the making of war and the steering of the economy.
  • An American BBC is not the answer: the BBC’s monolithic structure and entrenched monopoly itself causes a problem. Independent, multiple public-service broadcasters would be better.

His case is open to a few immediate comebacks:

  • Who decides what deserves subsidy? In answer to a question of mine, McChesney said that he favoured paying the subsidy to consumers of journalism, rather than to producers: giving every citizen, say, $200 annually to spend on the media of their choice. Quite apart from the objections that this isn’t really the ideal moment to persuade the US government to start new expenditure programmes on that scale and that monitoring the spending might be a hassle, this simply shifts the dilemma to different shoulders. Who decides what’s journalism?
  • Is it really a good idea to prop up business models – print and perhaps terrestrial television – that are failing?
  • While McChesney admires European countries and their support for journalism, he hasn’t quite grasped that the bulk of this support is for public service broadcasting and very little is for print. The situation in six European countries is well laid out in this recent report by Rasmus Nielsen and Geert Linnebank.

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  1. I think he main problem is that Robert McChesney thinks he should decide who gets the money.