Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Media Bailout?

You hear occasional talk of some of the “stimulus” spending being used to shore up faltering old-media organizations (as Saif Ammous reminds me), an idea that should be considered alarming. If, say, Bloomberg succeeded in steering a billion dollars of government money to the New York Times, do we really believe there’d be no risk of it affecting their coverage of him? (It’s bad enough they have to keep in mind he’s mayor — or that, say, Disney and the governor of Florida are aware of their mutual dependence.)

Free speech in an ostensibly-intelligent society must never depend upon the capacity of the written-about to legally humiliate or control the writers.

Compounding the injustice if old media got bailout money, of course, is the fact that they suck. Take, for example, the recent controversy over the Times’ hilarious bungling of (ACSH associate) Walter Cronkite’s obituary, complete with nigh-parodic errors such as getting the dates of the MLK assassination and moon landing wrong, along with the assertion Cronkite stormed the beach at Normandy. The Times’ own (admittedly great) article about the fiasco also happens to feature a cameo by gruff but lovable editor Sam Sifton, who is not only the grandson of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr but was my editor at New York Press over a decade ago, so you might want to be worried about my training and background, too — trust no one (and be suspicious of things like a supposedly objective news organization like Reuters inviting its readers to join their crusade against global warming).

Perhaps more important, don’t allow the government to bribe these institutions (private institutions bribing politicians when necessary, to get the politicians out of the way, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for, but not the other way around).

On a related note, I often recall a completely bland-sounding summary I once read of an American sociology text, described as being intended to clear up a “misunderstanding” some Americans have about the press. We sometimes think the press in the U.S. is “free” and the press in many foreign countries “unfree.” In fact, the book endeavored to explain, these other countries simply believe that journalists must be licensed and approved by the government before they are allowed to publish, a simple case of equally free peoples using the term “free” differently. This is, of course, Chinese-level sophistry and nihilistic cultural relativism to boot, but perhaps the publishers of that book will nonetheless get some bailout money.

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