Ari Armstrong, Media, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The tax dollar temptation of journalism

A man wandering the desert was famished, as he had barely eaten in a month. A tempter came to him, showed him visions of wealth and splendor, and said, “All this I will give you, and I cross-my-heart promise that I will never ask you to say nice things about me in return or even tone down your nasty and unwarranted criticisms.” The man, foreseeing how this would play out, said, “Away with you, for I must serve only the truth.”

Surprisingly, some journalists seem to think they can take government funds to produce news without that affecting their critical reporting of government—one of their most important jobs.

As Corey Hutchins writes for the Colorado Independent (notice the name of the publication), Senator Michael Bennet is promoting the Future of Local News Commission Act, which will, among other things, explore “potential new mechanisms for public funding for the production of local news to meet the critical information needs of the people of the United States and address systemic inequities in media coverage and representation throughout the country.” Recently Bennet joined “a Zoom call with dozens of Colorado journalists and local media publishers” to discuss the bill, Hutchins writes.

Already we can see that this is politically fraught. Who is to decide what is “critical information” and what is not? Who is to decide which “inequities” merit correction? Does this mean publications will be tax-funded only if they hire more conservatives, who are woefully underrepresented in Colorado’s news media landscape? Of course we know that is not what Senator Bennet means. In practice, this probably means tax-promoted affirmative action for “critical studies” graduates who happen to be members of racial or gender minorities.

Who is to decide which media outlets shall receive tax subsidies? The local equivalent of Fox News? Breitbart? InfoWars? Every day I get an email from the anonymous producers of the red-meat conservative “Citizen Press”—will they be eligible for tax financing if they jump through the right hoops? What about this overtly conservative-libertarian publication, Complete Colorado (which, I hope, wouldn’t accept the funds anyway)? What about the hard-left Colorado Times Recorder?

Now we get to the heart of the matter. Someone—in this case, a politically appointed bureaucrat—shall decide what constitutes real news and what does not. That anyone could imagine that this wouldn’t ultimately influence news production in a direction more sympathetic to politicians and bureaucrats is astonishing to me. What happened to journalists’ basic skepticism? What happened to “follow the money?”

Of course, the journalists tempted by this have clearly in mind the sort of journalists who should be first in line for these tax subsidies: themselves. Undoubtedly they produce “critical information” and already “address systemic inequities” through their timely and unbiased reporting. They know the difference between real news and fake and they know who produces the former. So all we need to do is convince politicians to direct tax dollars via politically appointed bureaucrats to the sort of journalists that these journalists already know would produce high-quality news. What’s the problem?

Leaving aside the astonishing elitism and hubris behind politicians, their appointed bureaucrats, and their media cronies seeking to serve as gatekeepers of the news, have the journalists supporting this idea not paid any attention, at all, to what’s been going on in the world the past few years? Do they not actually read the news they produce and publish? Do they think that nothing can go wrong in politics? Do they think that politics cannot be subverted to serve the narrow interests of those pulling the strings?

When we imagine politicians (indirectly) handing tax dollars to journalists, we should imagine not only our favored politicians and our favored journalists in ideal times; we should imagine the worst possible politicians and the sort of “journalists” who excel at gaming the political system. Because, inevitably, that is what we will get when times get rough. When politics goes sideways is precisely when civilized people most need an independent press to hold political actors accountable.

Here’s another little detail that some news journalists might have picked up on: America is extraordinarily polarized. Joe Biden got the most (popular) votes for president in the history of the country; Donald Trump got the second-most votes. This has been an extremely traumatic year politically, to the extent that it is not out of line to wonder whether, long term, America can hang together as a country.

Meanwhile, public trust of news media is very low. Tax-subsidized news would only exacerbate the country’s polarization and the public’s distrust of the media. Fairly or not, many people on both right and left would view tax subsidies of journalists as yet another reason to distrust their reporting.

Tax-subsidized news also subverts the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of conscience, the broad principle behind the amendment. Integral to the right to speak is the right not to speak. As various Colorado journalists are at pains to remind us, news reporting inherently involves numerous judgment calls that draw on moral beliefs. Some Colorado journalists enthusiastically throw off the “yoke” of objectivity in their reporting. Taking someone’s money by force to finance the propagation of news stories, when the person does not wish to participate in such propagation, inherently violates the person’s rights. That government similarly violates people’s rights in other areas is not a valid reason to expand such rights violations. In the end, journalists who violate others’ right not to speak cannot coherently defend their own right to speak. In this way, tax-subsidized journalism is an open invitation to censorship.

But wait a minute: Hasn’t this ship already sailed? After all, Colorado Public Radio already gets tax subsidies via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So what’s the problem? Go ahead and ask any conservative or libertarian if they think CPR produces unbiased news. My own view is that, although CPR produces much great content, the organization is on net heavily slanted in a pro-government direction to the point of sycophancy.

Consider this shamefully self-serving lie from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: “Federal funding is essential to the funding mix that supports public broadcasting. Public media is a public-private partnership in the best tradition of America’s free enterprise system.” Calling tax-subsidized news “free enterprise” is a sickening perversion of language worthy of an Orwell novel. Can tax subsidies pervert the news? They already do! The solution is not to expand this perversion but to end all such subsidies.

Am I making too big a deal of this? I mean, look at all the other things government finances. For example, here is what Larry Ryckman of the Colorado Sun told Bennet (as recorded by Hutchins): “I’ve had some misgivings about government funding. I think my thinking about that is evolving. I’m certainly eager to join in a conversation about it. The reality is that legacy media has been funded by the government in some way or another for decades—through legal notices and through other things. So, it’s not a foreign concept that there’s some government funding that goes to media.”

But government paying for a service—in this case, the publication of government notices—is not nearly as corrosive as government subsidizing journalists expressly for the production of news. Indeed, we should expect that subsidies inevitably do demand some “service” by the publication, specifically, news that is more sympathetic to government actors. We hear constantly with respect to “free” social media services, “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Imagine if Facebook paid people to use it—would we think that Facebook would do such a thing for the benefit of the subsidized user? Of course not. Yet, somehow, the same journalists who can see plain as day the corruptive influences of money often at work in the subjects of their stories, are blinded to the potential of such corruption when it comes to themselves and the lure of tax funds.

What about the CARES Act for Covid relief? Radio news director Gavin Dahl told Bennet (again via Hutchins): “At KVNF a reporter resigned and that position would have gone unfilled without knowing that this onetime funding was coming in.” And KSUT “is actually building on their news department this year in part thanks to these funds. So, straight up, it was a lifesaver for our newsrooms.”

We can talk about the general propriety of business subsidies another time. My view is that all such subsidies are bad policy and that, with respect to COVID-19, government’s proper job, in which it failed massively, was to facilitate the the rapid mass testing that would have kept the economy far healthier. Instead, government actively hindered mass testing in various ways. Be that as it may, a general subsidy that goes out to all business, irrespective of what a business produces (although there were some “inequities” even there), is far different than a subsidy specifically for the production of news.

What about the fact that private businesses advertise with many media outlets? Is that not also corruptive? Again, there is a difference between buying an ad and buying news. Usually a given business is only a minor funder of a small number of news outlets. And often businesses are far more sensitive to bad PR than are incumbent politicians and generally-unknown government bureaucrats. Plus, as the Sun has demonstrated with its “public benefit” corporate model (and as CPR also illustrates insofar as it is privately funded), a base of many donors and subscribers can create a strong financial foundation for a publication. I’d like to see more such models for consensual funding of news.

Bennet told the journalists, “Certainly, what you guys wouldn’t want, and what I wouldn’t want, is for the press to become beholden to government for support.” I’m not at all certain of that anymore; it seems like that’s exactly what some journalists want. Regardless, the best laid plans of mice, politicians, and journalists often go awry. You’d think that news journalists, of all people, would anticipate that.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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