For those unaware of our own rich history in this area – which means, regrettably, most Americans of recent times – the problem is unsolvable. Government subsidies of journalism lead inevitably and inexorably to authoritarian, even totalitarian, outcomes. I am sympathetic to the position; enlightened policymaking must never sacrifice our commitment to having a robust, open and uncensored Fourth Estate. It is a reason for why I never embraced or advocated the Fairness Doctrine; like my libertarian friends I do not like policies that call for the government to evaluate journalism content qualitatively.
But perhaps we can learn valuable lessons about journalism subsidies by looking at the record of all those nations with similar economies, freedoms, democratic practices, and civil liberties? Nations like Canada, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Slovenia, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Australia and France. What are these guys doing?
What we find is that all of these nations explicitly subsidize public media and journalism at far greater rates per capita than does the United States. If we funded public media and journalism annually at the same per capita levels as these nations our federal subsidy would be anywhere from $7 billion to $35 billion annually. Most of the above nations listed above are closer to the latter figure than the former. Contrast that with our present $400 million federal subsidy for public and community broadcasting.
What about the threat of governments using these subsidies to limit democracy and our freedoms? According to the annual ranking of The Economist magazine, those countries with the largest public media and press subsidies are the freest and most democratic nations in the world, ahead of the United States. According to Freedom House, those nations with the largest government press subsidies also have the most flourishing and uncensored private news media, again far ahead of the United States. Indeed, recent research demonstrates that as press subsidies have increased in European nations, the content of the news has become more adversarial toward the party in power and the government in general.
In sum, government press subsidies can work, and come with sufficient protection from government meddling. We can have our cake and eat it too. We can study other nations as well as our own history, and adapt the lessons to our current conditions and technologies. We will have to spend a great deal more than we currently do, but possibly not as much as we did in the past or some European countries do today. One advantage of the Internet is that it has lowered costs in some areas sharply. The one area it has not eliminated, however, is compensated labor. Any way you slice it, compensated labor in competing independent newsrooms is the basis of a strong free press. We are learning the hard way that you get what you pay for.
I have taken the time to provide this background regarding the current crisis and our own history in order to contextualize and justify what follows, but also to emphasize that I offer this to begin the conversation, not end it. Everything that follows is in rough form, and none of the details have been ironed out. I present them as broad brush strokes, and I ask that they be understood and criticized in that manner. I suspect if the people in this room, in this town, in this country, devoted themselves to establishing great public subsidies for journalism we could surpass anything John Nichols and I have developed or adapted. That is the job before us all if we are to address the crisis in a satisfactory manner.