Posts about government

Our notion of nations

Consider: I a matter of a year, the leaders of Italy, Greece, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia have all been ousted not in the normal course of governance and not at the polls. Who’s in charge there? In the Middle EAst, it’s the people, at last (but can they retain power?). In Europe, its bondholders and neighboring nations. Meanwhile, in Spain and the #occupywallstreet movements, disgruntled, disorganized citizens are making their voices heard. In Iceland they’re rewriting their constitution using Facebook.

What is becoming of our notion of nations?

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Georges Papandreou’s short-lived threat to hold a plebiscite over the EU’s insistence of austerity as a condition of bail from fiscal jail set off a debate among the paper’s editor, Frank Schirrmacher; the esteemed political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and economic writer Rainer Hank.

Far be it from me to translate the language or its subtleties and ironies, but it’s clear that they are debating who’s in charge in Europe: government? bond-holders and bankers? the people? Hank notes that “the governments of Europe are under dual supervision.” He questions whether Europe is facing “dictatorship of the people versus dictatorship of financial markets” or a question of “democracy versus rule of law.”

At the same time I (tried to) read all that, Martin Gurri wrote a most eloquent review of and rumination on Public Parts (his son, Adam, happened to do likewise). Gurri père raises many thoughtful points about the value of publicness and its support of trust. I recommend reading both posts. But for purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on Martin Gurri’s trepidation about government. To quote:

In the existential struggle between the public and the old structures of authority, Jarvis is a participant, not an observer.  At times, he makes it sound as if the public can bypass authority and strike out on its own.  The larger argument of Public Parts, however, is that the conflict can only be resolved when authority regains the public’s trust by aligning its practices with those of the new information environment.  Though optimistic in tone, Jarvis doesn’t directly venture an opinion about the cost of this transformation, possibly because he views it as inevitable.  In the manner of a conqueror he proclaims, “Resistance is futile.”

It’s an easy guess that the collision with the public will transform the old institutions.  The question is the social and political pain involved:  whether the process will resemble gradual evolution or, as I suspect, an extinction event.  (There are those who theorize that such a cataclysm has already struck the global economy.)

Because of their immense inherited weight, business and government have a vested interest in inertia.  In this context, resistance may be futile in the long term, but rational for the moment.  As an old government hand, I can attest to the accuracy of Jarvis’ portrayal of the bureaucracy – but he fails to note the profound emotional investment in existing institutions by the people who inhabit them.  Even the most up-to-date bureaucrats, in my experience, will resist the advance of the public until retirement day.
Bending the massive structures of authority to the ideals promoted in Public Parts may well be impossible without a traumatic fracturing of the status quo.

And a traumatic fracturing of the state itself?

That is the question I want to raise here: Are we seeing such cracks begin to open before our eyes?

Is Europe’s crisis of economics and government structure — even of the legitimacy and power of government — a signal?

Is the Arab Spring and its ability to tear down government without a clear notion of what will be built in its place an opportunity to rethink government?

Is Iceland as a startup nation a legitimate effort to show that course?

Did Spain attempt to organize a revolution without organization?

Is #occupywallstreet an effort to reassert the authority of the people outside the structure of politics and government? (Some say they make a mistake not becoming overtly political with candidates and platforms. I am coming to believe they are right to stand outside government and demand attention and reform from that distance. Its platform perspective might be: ‘We don’t want to get any on us.’)

Will we question the idea of what a nation is? Are Greece and Italy still sovereign nations when bankers can overthrow their governments and neighbors can dictate the terms of governance? Are the hashtag rebels of Spain then the U.S. then other nations establishing a new society (albeit one even more unsure in its structure than Egypt’s and Tunisia’s next forms)?

Says Gurri Senior:

Particularly unsettling are the prospects for government.  The extraordinary outcomes today demanded from politics, Paul Ormerod has shown, lie beyond the reach of human power.  We simply don’t know how to “solve” unemployment or inequality.  The more we expect to impose such outcomes on a complex world, the deeper our disenchantment will be.  Transparency and citizen participation, in such circumstances, will only aggravate the friction between a triumphant public and its failed institutions.  Modern government, outwardly so imposing, will be revealed in its nakedness to be a feeble and incapable organ, unable to rise to the hopes of the citizenry.  The consequence is likely to be turbulence for every ruling principle, including liberal democracy.

Gurri might have begun wondering whether I went to far. Then he went even farther.

Wikileaks: Power shifts from secrecy to transparency

Welt am Sontag in Germany asked me for an op-ed on Wikileaks. Here it is, auf Englisch. Hier, auf Deutsch.

Government should be transparent by default, secret by necessity. Of course, it is not. Too much of government is secret. Why? Because those who hold secrets hold power.

Now Wikileaks has punctured that power. Whether or not it ever reveals another document—and we can be certain that it will—Wikileaks has made us all aware that no secret is safe. If something is known by one person, it can be known by the world.

But that has always been the case. The internet did not kill secrecy. It only makes copying and spreading information easier and faster. It weakens secrecy. Or as a friend of mine says, the internet democratizes leaking. It used to be, only the powerful could hold and uncover knowledge. Now many can.

Of course, we need secrets in society. In issues of security and criminal investigation as well as the privacy of citizens and some matters of operating the state—such as diplomacy—sunlight can damage. If government limited secrecy to that standard—necessity—there would be nothing for Wikileaks to leak.

But as we can see from what has been leaked, there is much we should know—actions taken in our name—that government holds from us. We also know that the revelation of these secrets has not been devastating. America’s and Germany’s relationship has not collapsed because one undiplomatic diplomat called Angela Merkel uncreative. Wikileaks head Julian Assange told the Guardian that in four years, “there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon, that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities.”

So perhaps the lesson of Wikileaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought. That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.

But that is not what’s happening. In the U.S., the White House announced a new security initiative to clamp down on information. The White House even warned government workers not to look at Wikileaks documents online because they were still officially secret, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of secret as something people do not know. I fear that one legacy of Wikileaks’ work will be that officials will communicate less in writing and more by phone, diminishing the written record for journalism and history.

I have become an advocate of openness in government, business, and even our personal lives and relationships. The internet has taught me the benefits of sharing and connecting information.

This is why I have urged caution in not going overboard with the privacy mania sweeping much of modern society and especially Germany. Beware the precedents we set, defaulting to closed and secret, whether in pixelating public views in Google Street View, or in disabling the advertising targeting that makes online marketing more valuable and will pay for much of the web’s free content.

I fear that a pixel fog may overcome us, blurring what should be becoming clearer. I had hoped instead that we would pull back the curtain on society, letting the sunlight in. That is our choice.

In researching my book on the benefits of publicnness (to be published as Public Parts in the U.S. and Das Deutsche Paraoxon in Germany), I have found that new technology often leads to fears about exposure of privacy. The invention of the Gutenberg press, the camera, the mass press, the miniature microphone, and now the internet have all sparked such worry.

Now, in Wikileaks, we see a new concern: that secrecy dies. It does not; secrecy lives. But it is wounded. And it should be. Let us use this episode to examine as citizens just how secret and how transparent our governments should be. For today, in the internet age, power shifts from those who hold secrets to those to create openness. That is our emerging reality.

Business, be warned: You are next.

: More: This Economist post thinks likewise.

With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personel, technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.

: Jay Rosen is concerned that Julian Assange ducked the question of how diplomacy can operate without assurances of secure communication.

: My friend who suggested that Wikileaks democratizes the leak is Dave Morgan. I spared him German notoriety. And here’s Dave’s related column.

: Me on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz Sunday morning:

Big Brother’s Big Brother

Here are paragraphs about Wikileaks I just inserted into the chapter of Public Parts that I happen to be writing right now about government. Very much beta. Take a look:

* * *

Wikileaks has pushed the definition and question of transparency to its limit and beyond, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through media organizations including the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and OWNI, a French site devoted to digital journalism that built a crowdsourcing tool so readers could cull through the docs to find important bits. The U.S. government screeched indignantly about the leaks, calling them illegal and dangerous. But then, the leaks revealed government actions that are or should be illegal. Who holds the higher ground?

The media organizations Wikileaks worked through said they redacted names and published only documents that would not endanger individuals. So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press? And does it much matter now that any whistleblower has the power to leak information anonymously via computers that run in countries beyond the arm of the law from other countries? Wikileaks’ Twitter profile lists its location as “everywhere.” Now nothing, not even war, can be carried out in assured secrecy.

The only solution to leaks is then not more secrecy but more transparency. If we trusted government to determine what needed to be secret—if its default were public and it had nothing else to hide but things that would be harmful if public—then leaks would be a clear violation of our norms and of the common good.

One way or another—by force of through sanity—we are at the dawn of the transparent age. But it’s not going to be a pretty or easy transition. For the first facts to be dragged into the sunlight will be the ugly ones that somebody thinks need to be exposed. Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad. Only when governments realize that their citizens can now watch them—better than they can watch their citizens, we hope—will we see transparency bring deterrence to bad actors and bad acts. Then we become Big Brother’s Big Brother. Or we can hope.

Oh, those Germans

I was gobsmacked sitting on a stage in Berlin when the privacy commissioner for a German state erupted in an attack on Google—which, by the way, has the highest market penetration in Germany of anywhere in the world (97.4% there vs. 65.4% in the U.S.).

“As long as Germans are stupid enough to use this search engine,” he spat, “they don’t deserve any better.”

This from Thilo Weichert, privacy maven for Schleswig-Holstein, brought to the stage, with me, by the Green Party for a discussion about privacy last week, where we were joined by Renate Künast, head of the party’s delegation in parliament, and Konstantin von Notz, their MP overseeing matters digital.

Before I went to Berlin I asked why the Germans are so bonkers about Google and privacy. But now I wonder whether it’s the Germans or their media and politicians.

Witness that moment: Here a public official charged with representing and protecting the public so cavalierly—no, so hostilely—dismisses and insults his own constituents and thinks he should tell them what to do. I ask him what harm Google has done him. He has no answer. He complains that “Google uses information to manipulate me.” Any more than any marketer … or politician?

Weichert also stood on stage supporting the German government’s move to require digital ID cards with embedded RFID. The Greens don’t agree; they are worried about the card. But Weichert goes farther: He says the ID cards should be used to verify identity on the internet. Now he’s spooking *me* about privacy.

As I listen in German, I hear the card called an “Ausweis” and I shiver just a bit that no one seems to recognize the ghost in the word. In America watching war movies, there was never a more frightening phrase than “Ausweis, bitte” — “papers, please” (see this from Arizona). When I talk about going too far with privacy, Germans remind me about their Stasi and Nazi past. Yet here is the government instituting electronic ID with technology that makes some American go nutty if it’s attached anonymously to pants!

This is the other German paradox — or as someone said at the Re:publica conference in Berlin after my talk about publicness, this is the American paradox: Americans mistrust government more than Europeans even though we have arguably had better governments than they have. And we trust companies more than Europeans even though we have arguably had worse companies.

I heard much mistrust of companies — well, especially one company: Google — in Berlin. “Google is the worst example of openness and transparency and the willingness to serve the democratic needs of society,” Weichert said on stage. He had what seems to be a legitimate complaint, saying that Google refused to meet with him an other privacy commissioners. But then again, a friend in the audience this night was twittering with a Google public affairs person in Germany who was watching the event on the web and was wondering why he hadn’t been invited to respond. Nonetheless, it’s unquestionably the case that Google has a PR problem in Germany.

You’d think Google would be better at PR given that Weichert insisted the company’s decision to end its censorship in China was “nothing but a PR trick.” He went farther, equating Google as an unsurveilled surveiller with China and Iran! “Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he said, as if shocked. That was a theme of the night: Google dares to make money. A Green journalist in the audience complained that Google uses data “to sell me.” I asked what newspaper doesn’t do that. Google, he said, “misuses my data to become too big.” Show me the line marked “too big,” I asked.

So is Google’s problem hostility to business or to America? Weichert denied both. But he complained that “no secret service is more secretive than the Americans’.” (I suspect the CIA would take that as a compliment.) He said the U.S. is focused too much on freedom of information and openness and not enough on privacy.

There may be nascent anti-Americanism but I don’t think that’s the root of this. Is it a misunderstanding of the
ways of the new digital world? Perhaps. Künast, whom I found to be a reasonable politician, launched into an odd discourse on taking pictures of the Bundestag and whether, if those pictures are sold in a souvenir shop online, a share of the profits ought to go to the German people and government since they own the building. Eh?

Maybe the problem is the concept of the public and the idea of control over the public. Künast is talking about controlling ownership and use of what is public. Weichert’s talking about limiting what’s public in public; he gets mad at me mocking the German movement toward a “Verpixelungsrecht” — a right to be pixelated, even for buildings! Weichert says we should all default to private and I ask whether we should default to public. I think that publicness is defined by openness and a lack of restriction. When you diminish what’s public you take from us, the public. For we own what’s public.

There’s additional historical irony having this conversation in Germany, where Jürgen Habermas is credited with defining the concept of the public sphere, though in my book I’ll argue that Habermas corrupted an earlier concept of making publics — plural. The internet returns us to the idea of making public gives us all the power to do so — and I don’t want to see that taken for granted or taken away.

So I argue that we need to protect our tool of publicness. That’s what we should be talking about. There, at last, there is some agreement: to the need to have a discussion about a charter of rights online. I propose mine, knowing it’s inadequate. Künast says government should begin by legislating essential rights.

Well, OK, but I said on stage that, with all due respect, I didn’t want either government or business claiming dominion over the public’s tool of publicness, our internet. I called on John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. I don’t want Google and Verizon carving up the internet like the Sudetenland without us, its citizens, at that table. I sure as hell don’t want Herr Weichert telling me how I should use his internet. I implore the crowd to take charge of this charter themselves.

If they don’t, if the internet gets locked down and cemented up, I fear it will look like this bunker that — oh, photographic irony — stands just outside the Heinrich Böll Foundation where we are speaking:

That’s a World War II bunker now owned by a millionnaire who built a penthouse on top and put an art gallery into the floors below behind doors that are opened for guided tours by appointment. The metaphor is too obvious even for an American.

What gives me some hope is that folks in the audience — digital folks — are fighting the good fight and they’re doing it with humor. Jens Best started a movement to shoot photos of all the pixelated buildings in Google Street View and link them to those addresses. And here’s a video (watch to the end) about the pixelated man:

At the start of the evening, Künast says that “freedom can comprise anonymity.” Yes, but freedom also comprises publicness. Publicness may be our highest right of freedom — to stand up and say what we think and be who we are and join together and act without fear of oppression. Surely, that should resonate here. That is just the sort of balancing discussion we must have so people know they have a choice and protect that choice. We need to protect their right to be private. But we also must protect the rights of the public.

I challenge Künast — who, rumor has it, may next become the mayor of Berlin (she says nothing) — to make the city a model of openness, a monument to the public and I suggest that her party should call a conference to begin discussion of our rights. Just make it our discussion.

: LATER: Thanks to Stecki in the comments, here is Weichert calling his constituents “dumm” (auf Deutsch) and my challenge (in English):

: LATER STILL: Here is audio of the event. Sorry that it’s a mix of German and English.

Privacy paranoia dramatized

The German Consumers’ Union—funded by the German government—has put out a video warning internet users about their privacy under a campaign called Surfers Have Rights. You don’t need to speak a word of German to get the gist:

(At the end, the text says: “You do this every day … on the internet.” And the shopper is asking simply, “Excuse me, where do I find…? The store clerk needs no translation.)

The German blog Netzpolitik thinks it’s a nice video. But Martin Weigert at Netzwertig has real concerns. The video “does but than spread distrust,” he says, arguing that even the most trivial data that “has the value of a dropped sack of rice in China” (must be an idiom) is made to seem drastically overvalued. The clip presents consumers as helpless, persecuted by their cohort. “What message does this convey? Mistrust everyone and everything.”

Hmmm. One would think that the German government would be somewhat sensitive to some irony there since, in earlier form, it was quite effective at making everyone mistrust everyone.

But the metaphor is hardly just German. Last week in Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller pulled out the overused trope that navigating the internet is like shopping in a mall, being watched in every move by “a machine” (very Orwell, that). The Byron Dorgen revealed a bit too much, I think, when he extended the metaphor to wonder whether, when going to the ladies’ lingerie department, onlookers would wonder whether you were really buying some for your wife or…. “That’s a really good analogy, I think, to what is going on on the Internet today,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

No, it’s not. You are already being watched in the store. Stores have cameras watching you. They track what you buy via your credit card and frequent-shopper cards. They have floorwalkers and clerks who see what you buy. Fellow shoppers can see what you buy. So the hell what? So you like bananas. It’s a sickness in the mind of the beholder to imagine you doing something bad with the fruit.

The German clip and the Congressional “debate” reveal that the essential argument about privacy is too often purely emotional. You may — and do — go about your shopping every day feeling quite fine about it but here are government officials who want to creep you out. Government officials who have the power to creep us out in plenty of other ways. And now The Wall Street Journal is continuing the creep-out (odd, since they’d usually be the ones for business freedom against government regulation… hmmm).

In neither exposition is there any discussion of actual damage and actual danger, just nonspecific creepiness. Thus Netzwertig worries about the public’s attitude toward the internet and technology itself. I do, too. I will argue in my book that we need strong protection for privacy especially against bad actors — but I’ll go the extra step and try to define privacy and define the danger for unless we do that, all we’re doing is summoning boogeymen with warnings of nonspecific creepiness. And then I’ll argue that what we should be spending time understanding how this new world works and finding the opportunities in it because its progress is inexorable.

: LATER: Here’s an equivalent EFF video (in English):

I ask, what’s the great harm of giving me couch ads when I’m looking for a couch? Would I rather have bra ads when I can’t use them? Where’s the harm?

What if there are no secrets?

Is no secret safe?

That’s the moral to the Wikileaks war log story: you never know what might be leaked. Of course, that itself is nothing new: Whenever we reveal information to even one person, we risk it being spread. The ethic of confidentiality (and privacy) rests with the recipient of that information.

So what’s new now? There are more means to get information since it is pooled and digital. There are more means to share information; Daniel Ellsberg had to go through media to spread his Pentagon Papers while Wikileak chose to go through media so they could add value (perspective and attention) but didn’t have to. And there are new means to stay anonymous in the process.

I’m writing a book arguing that we are becoming more public and that’s good — and that institutions (government, companies) have no choice but to live up to our new standards of transparency and openness. But I am also examining when transparency goes too far.

Is the Wikileaks story an example of crossing a line? First, we have to ask where the line should be. I think it has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency. Rather than asking what should be made public we should ask why something should be kept private. Imagine if all government information and actions were public except matters of security and personal and private identification. There will be pressure to head there.

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be moved by force.

Now that they’ve made the war log public, it makes us examine the impact.

We need to ask whether the knowledge that anything written down could be made public will cause less to be written — and we lose information in the long run. That is my concern about efforts to make *all* government communication, including person-to-person email, permanent and public. I imagine that people will stop saying important things in email and instead pick up the phone and we lose the record.

We need to ask whether an ethic of transparency can be expected when leakers can be anonymous and their leaks swift.

We need to ask whether the government would have been better off making more public so that the leaker’s selective publication does not solely set the agenda and the government is stuck reacting.

In the war logs, we are learning things we should know. It’s the leakers — Wikileaks and its three media outlets — who are deciding what not to make public (with some consultation, post-leak, from government) and what should be open. So government loses the ability to decide secrets. Now leakers do. Which side do we trust to decide?

The sane response to leaks, I think, is to open up as much as possible. Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked. If we had the faith that we knew more, there’d be fewer leaks, fewer reasons to.

I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak — in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.

ANOTHER THOUGHT: This story is a step to the end of access journalism. (NO, it won’t end. Whenever people like me declare the death of something, disbelieve and discount it; we’re just saying we’re heading away from something).

But Wikileaks didn’t need, doesn’t want, won’t ever get official, journalistic, beat access. The derailing of a general in Rolling Stone didn’t come from a beat reporter who cared about access anymore. ProPublica’s work isn’t built on access.

When I talk about how little is spent on investigative reporting in America — as a proportion of total editorial spending across all media, it’s minuscule … microscopic — editors remind me that my calculation doesn’t include beats and beats are the heart of reporting. True and not true. It’s true to the extent that we want ongoing coverage and want it performed by people who build up experience if not expertise in the subject. It’s not true to the extent that reporters who depend on access from the subjects won’t ruin the relationship by breaking the subject’s secrets or the access (and the reporter’s supposed value) ends. (This is why reporters aren’t supposed to blog their opinions about their beats, according to fresh orthodoxy: They would lose access.)

In access journalism, leaks come from the subject. In unaffiliated journalism, leaks come in spite of the subject. As more reporting is done through mechanisms like Wikileaks and ProPublica and bloggers and advocates, I think we’ll see more breaking of secrets, which reinforces my point above: the best way to fight leaks is transparency (not black-out paint).

The Pentagon learned that lesson just a bit when it realized that giving more access would mean more control. Thus the embedding program in Iraq and Afghanistan. But news organizations can’t afford to have reporters embedded in the war zone. Coverage was too dependent on relationships. That honeymoon is ended.

The coverage of this war revealed much of what we know from the war logs. Alex Thomson says, though, that the logs validated what we know. They added facts we couldn’t get with access.

As news organizations shrink, we’ll be able to afford less access journalism — fewer beat reporters building relationships with their subjects — and more reporting — and subversion — from people who have a viewpoint and an agenda. The tone and means of journalism changes. It becomes more uncomfortable. But then, isn’t journalism supposed to be uncomfortable?

: MORE: Many notes from Jay Rosen here: “I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.”

Jay talks about stateless journalism. Dave Winer says the blogosphere is that. I don’t think the issue is that journalism is stateless but instead that journalism is becoming independent of organizations (pace Clay Shirky). Journalism lacks affiliation. Anybody can feed WIkileaks; Wikileaks can feed anybody. The organizational — nevermind state — point of control disappears. Journalism is everywhere and its up to the public to decide what news is.

Though from another perspective, stateless does matter as we’re seeing more of it across many sectors of society. Our enemy in this war is stateless. Businesses are stateless. Journalism now becomes stateless. I believe the tools of publicness — that is, the internet’s — enable us to organize new societies around states.

: MORE: Andrew Potter breaks down the discussion into four questions.

Disliking the public

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule. Two classic examples:

Here we have a German government official saying that it is his job to protect consumers from themselves. In other words, they don’t know best; he does. Nevermind what they do — giving up private data on Facebook or giving Google the highest market penetration anywhere — he says they should do something else. And so he’ll use his regulatory power to change their behavior to his expectation.

And here we have a columnist for the Observer (aka Guardian), Will Hutton, who says in a fit of journalistic hubris that the BBC is “the last bulwark against populist government by the mob.” So the BBC is what protects the public from itself. He further says, “The bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics.” Which is to say that the press and government were unsullied and free of bile and unfairness until these damned bloggers (read: citizens with tongues) came along to corrupt them.

In both cases, we simply see members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice. We thus see the conflict that arises out of the rise of publicness. That’s one of the topics I’m thinking through as I write my book.

No American BBC

I just don’t understand Columbia University’s apparent obsession with handing over portions of the press to government subsidy, giving up on the free market. I haven’t given up on it. Have you?

The latest raised palm comes from Columbia President Lee Bollinger in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, of all places. This could send BBC-hater Rupert Murdoch to his grave so he can spin there. Bollinger proposes that we start an American BBC by pooling (merging?) the resources of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, PBS, and NPR.

He repeats the old saw that American media is already government subsidized. Except postal subsidies are meaningless as print and the post office decline. Legal ads should be going to the web for free to save taxpayers money anyway. I wish PBS and NPR did not rely on any government money so it would not be put under government pressure and could operate with true independence. And I do think broadcast spectrum should be sold so it is not seen as public airwaves (broadcast itself becoming meaningless) and so it is not subject to government censorship (see today’s victory for the First Amendment).

Bollinger argues that we’re getting the BBC thanks to the British taxpayer. Well, yes, the BBC has funded its world service for years to extend its empire; their choice. But I pay a fee on Sirius to hear them. And its TV channels in the U.S. are ad-supported, as is its web site. As BBC budgets are attacked by the Tories, I’d say it’s more likely our marketing economy will subsidize their free news — if Murdoch doesn’t stop them.

When Columbia presented its plan to save journalism — which included government subsidy — I had this discussion with Bollinger and he pointed out that I am subsidized by government as a professor at a state university. Touché. But I’d rather raise money to support my work from foundations and companies and revenue-generating activities. “Indeed,” Bollinger writes in the Journal, “the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector.”

Bollinger then questions the editorial integrity of the American press he wants to save, saying: “To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.” Who has mishandled BP more — the press or the government?

Shockingly, he mentions as models of state-supported media, not just the BBC but also China’s CCTV and Xinhua news and Qatar’s Al Jazeera. In what sane world is the Chinese government’s relationship with news a model. What would Google do?

Bollinger suggests taking down the prohibition on beaming propaganda broadcasters VoA and RFE into the U.S. “This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters,” Bollinger concludes. “The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need. Let’s demonstrate great journalism’s essential role in a free and dynamic society.”

I think we can demonstrate and build that independence by teaching tomorrow’s journalists to build strong, sustainable, and independent businesses. We just disagree.

: SEE ALSO: George Brock of the other City University (London) and Roy Greenslade of the Guardian and City as well.

Brock and I agree. The rational Greenslade wants to agree but the emotional Greenslade doesn’t. He, like Brock (and me), respects the talent, value, and experience that is trapped in dying institutions and so he, unlike Brock and me, wants to overcome what seems to be his better sense and agree with Bollinger that we should consider government rescue.

With respect, I think Greenslade’s logical leap illustrates the problem with Bollinger’s thinking: They assume that the business model of journalism is hopeless. I do not. That is what needs discussion.

Quite to the contrary, I believe — based on research, which is one of the values we add from a university — that journalism could well be more sustainable, accessible, and accountable than before because of the efficiency brought by specialization (do what you do best, etc.), free platforms (see John Paton‘s Ben Franklin Project), networks (see Growthspur), collaboration (or Alan Rusbridger would call it mutualization), not to mention the casting off of industrial ways and expenses (in the pressroom as well as in the newsroom).

Greenslade acknowledges that government support would be a regrettable idea and so he can come to it only if he believes — as he says he does — that the web is not sufficient “to act as a competent watchdog.”

Well, all four of us — Bollinger, Brock, Greenslade, and I — teach in universities. If we do not together believe that we can equip the next generation of journalists to build the structure that creates that competent watchdog, then perhaps we should not be teaching journalism, as it would be irresponsible to do so. But I don’t think any of us believes that, for we all teach or support the teaching of journalism. So I say the question we should be investigating with all the rigor and diligence we can muster is how to build that future. Perhaps Bollinger does indeed believe that the only solution is to seek government rescue but I say it is far too soon to resort to what Greenslade acknowledges should not be a first resort. We have a lot of resorts to go through first.

: AND MORE: Reason attacks, as do Mark Tapscott and Claudia Rosett, who says: “If, as Bollinger suggests, the provision of adequate news coverage cannot be entrusted to the market, then what about such vital matters as shelter and medical care?”

I’ll just bet we’ll soon hear from Bollinger or his allies that at least he sparked a discussion. But he sparked the wrong discussion. We shouldn’t be debating which desperate move to take having given up on the sustainable future of journalism. We should be discussing how to build that sustainable future, damnit.