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.