Bailing Out The Fourth Estate?
By Howie Rich
That's the word one New Jersey political observer used earlier this week in describing the mainstream media's obsession with Barack Obama.
And while the right to a free press obviously does not protect us from the irresponsibility of a fawning press, we must take the good with the bad when it comes to our first Amendment freedoms.
After all, a fourth estate hopelessly star-struck by a master motivational speaker may be derelict in performing its public duties, but such an arrangement is infinitely preferable to a government-run (and thus government-censored) media apparatus.
Now that Obama has been successfully installed in the White House, however, whispers are circulating throughout Washington that he may be inclined to approve a massive media bailout as part of the nation's economic “rescue” program.
What better quid pro quo, right?
No formal request has been made, but a quick look at the rash of layoffs, bankruptcy filings and deteriorating market conditions faced by the traditional media behemoths paints a grim picture indeed.
Already shedding jobs at a record clip due to a fundamental reshaping of American information-gathering preferences, the global financial crisis has only accelerated this decline.
Without putting too fine a point on it, a lot of the outlets that helped deliver public opinion for President Obama are now in danger of going under.
Not surprisingly, we are already seeing the beginning of the “media bailout push,” which is coming in the form of requests for federal newspaper subsidies (ostensibly for educational purposes) and expanded government advertising.
This is precisely the approach currently being pursued by the French government, which is dramatically expanding its state advertising contracts and implementing a nearly ten-fold increase in government-purchased subscriptions.
Could America be the next nation to adopt such a thinly-veiled media bailout?
And worse still, what other measures will be lumped on to these outrageous lump sums?
One of the more frightening theories currently circulating is that Congress will use a massive media bailout as an excuse to reinstitute the “Fairness Doctrine,” an oxymoronic government regulation of free speech that was eliminated two decades ago during the Reagan administration.
The fear is that Congress will revive the notion of government-mandated “equal time” in news coverage and attach it onto a multi-billion dollar media bailout plan. This, of course, would be part of an effort to fool the public into thinking that their tax dollars aren't being used to promote one political agenda over the other.
Nothing could be further from the truth – and nothing could be more dangerous to the future of our democracy.
One of the most Orwellian concepts ever imposed upon the Fourth Estate, the “Fairness Doctrine” mandated that media outlets provide equal representation to different political views. Outlets that didn't meet their “quotas” were subjected to fines from the Federal Communications Commission.
In essence, the federal government tried to assume responsibility for determining what constituted “fair coverage” as opposed to our time-honored tradition of a “marketplace of ideas.”
This notion of the state regulating news content is every bit as anathema to our nation's founding wisdom as government picking winners and losers in the marketplace.
Frankly, nothing other than an individual American and their TV remote control, radio dial or computer mouse should ever determine the “fairness” of the Fourth Estate's reporting, and government attempting to impose its will in that process is every bit as wrong as bailing out watchdogs that have fundamentally failed in his or her responsibilities to the public.
America's slippery slope toward a pseudo-socialist state has already been sufficiently greased by trillions of bailout dollars.
Extending this flawed philosophy to our media outlets – particularly under an arbitrary, government-imposed definition of fairness – would simply push us over the edge.
The author is chairman of Americans for Limited Government.