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Just Say No to Government-Funded Journalism

People who believe in a truly free press have to believe in the free market

I could hardly believe my eyes as I read the commentary by Candace Clement of Free Press, “Why We Need a New Public Media.”

In a nutshell, she asserts that for-profit journalism is rapidly dying, and that therefore the government should implement billions of dollars in new taxes to fund public media.

To the contrary, journalism is thriving and the number of journalists is growing rapidly. Traditional media outlets should be arguing for less government involvement in media, not more.

The author argues that raditional media outlets should be arguing for less government involvement in media, not more. iStockphoto/Bart Sadowski Better served?

The article claims that the federal government allocates $1.43 per person each year to public broadcasting. It says many other countries spend a lot more, and that we should too.

Spending more money on something does not equate to better service.

For example, I have experience working with software vendors who develop custom online registration sites that collect information and payments from customers, and then provide the collected information to me in the form of a spreadsheet.

Based on this experience I am quite confident that it would be easy to set up a site to collect broadcast station ownership information for about $6,000. This includes payment to the contractor to set up the site, a small amount of my time to work with the contractor, and credit card processing fees.

There are more than 12,600 commercial broadcasters in the United States. Spreading the $6,000 cost of this site out amongst us would mean a cost of about $0.48 per station. The FCC’s processing fee for this service is $60, or 125 times that.

Are we better served because the FCC spends over $756,000 each time it collects ownership data from us? No.

You cannot measure success by how much money you spend, period.

‘Public’ media

Money aside, the assertion that commercial journalism is dying is simply not true.

Yes, it is changing, but for the better. Services like Google’s YouTube now let people with a particular passion for a subject report to the entire world themselves. This is a very effective way to keep the public informed.

While I have great respect for professional journalists, and in fact was drawn toward media myself because of its journalism component, I have experienced firsthand how professional journalists do not always convey all aspects of a story. They usually report accurate facts, but it’s what they don’t report that can leave the reader, viewer or listener with the wrong impression.

For example, a while back a developer and two citizens groups with different positions were vociferously arguing their positions on a local zoning issue before my local county board. An article appeared in the local paper that presented the story as a developer vs. an anti-development neighborhood, when in fact more people in the neighborhood supported the developer than not.

It was obvious from the article that the professional reporter covering the county board for the local paper had not even attended the hearings. Instead she spoke to one of the citizens groups and presented that view as that of the neighborhood.

If this had happened today all of us could have gone directly to the Internet with our own stories, unedited. In fact, on WHDX(FM) right now I’m running a nearly three-hour special about some very contentious government restrictions on beach access, and about 90 percent of the content in this special is audio from YouTube clips of local citizens providing their perspectives.

There’s no question that journalism is changing, but it’s changing for the better, better for the public anyway. I know it may not be better for those of us who miss the days when there were a select few people who were the “official” sources of news in a particular area, on a particular subject. But those days are fading into the past. The government should not be taxing us just so a few people can cling to them for a little while longer.

Ironically, the term “public media,” traditionally meaning publicly funded professional media, seems to also fit services like YouTube, where the public creates its own reports. It’s also ironic that an organization that calls itself “Free Press” wants to force us to pay for “the kind of local, national and international journalism” that it deems appropriate. Where’s the “free” in that?

People who believe in a truly free press have to believe in the free market. Reporters whose livelihoods do not depend on what they say have more freedom in their speech than those whose livelihoods depend on their words.

The free speech that has been unleashed by the Internet is awesome. Efforts to improve the future of journalism should be focused on harnessing it, not on creating government funded bureaucracies to compete with it.

The author is the owner of WHDX(FM) and WHDZ(FM) on Hatteras Island, N.C.; his commentaries appear regularly in Radio World. He is also senior director, technology & standards at the Consumer Electronics Association. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of RW, CEA or its member companies.