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Blunt Words About The Soft Press

Several of these young journalists said that the average Serb heard more critical reporting about Milosevic during the height of his power here than the average American hears about the Bush White House today. Nikola Jovanovic, from the Belgrade daily Blic, sounded personally affronted by this state of affairs: "You have freedom of information, which we didn't have. You can question the government -- but you don't do that. I would love to have that opportunity every day."

When Vrzic asked one editor if his paper would publish an article critical of a big advertiser, he was stunned by the shamelessness of the response: "Of course not," the editor told him, "we're here to make a profit." Vrzic blanched.

Such lovely outrage got me thinking about an old idea I've bandied at least to myself: Take media out of the moneymaking business altogether. Why can't news coverage be strictly a nonprofit activity, funded perhaps by philanthropists if not taxpayers? Why not view it as primarily altruistic, more like social work than like marketing sneakers.

The point about the timidity of American news coverage is well-taken. Whether the press is said to be biased toward the left, the right, or its own laziness, it's become such a cliche to point out that the American press has been long on repeating both sides' spin and short on real journalism that it takes something like Serbian criticism to get anyone's attention.

But the author's suggestions for a solution seem misguided. Even if we limit ourselves to the timidity born of advertisers' pressure (which I'm far from convinced is the major factor), why would changing the funding source make things any different? Instead of being beholden to advertisers, the media would be beholden to rich donors or to the government. The rich donors may very well be the same people as the advertisers, since we don't have much wealthy landed gentry around anymore to counterbalance the wealthy corporate CEOs. And government-funded media is a spineless spin machine waiting to happen. The BBC manages to buck the trend quite admirably, and is able to do so because of its long tradition of editorial independence. Further, the UK doesn't have the large political faction that wants to eliminate such social expenditures as the national endowment for the arts and NPR. NPR survives and maintains a left-slanted critique of the government, I think, because it's small and drowned out by right-wing radio, and because its listeners can be dismissed as out-of-touch left-wing academics. A taxpayer-funded US media on the scale of the BBC, regardless of what supposed protections of editorial independence are built into its charter, would be careful not to anger a Republican party whose core would rather eliminate public media just on principle.

Ideally, if the press is beholden to anyone it would be to the public. In a roundabout sense they are under the current model, as advertising revenue depends on good circulation numbers. The fear of criticizing an advertiser described in the article short-circuits that dependence. So a press directly dependent on revenue from subscribers would seem to alleviate the problem (assuming that subscribers actually want decent journalism -- and I suspect too many Americans aren't media-savvy enough to use their power in the market to encourage the highest caliber reporting). But it would create other problems. A subscriber-based business model would be unable to compete with advertiser-based companies, since the price hikes necessary to cover the difference would be steep. And even if the whole industry eschewed advertising, it would contract the consumer base served by the media, thus leaving poor people uninformed (as well as people who buy the paper in part because of the ads).

So I don't think hard-hitting journalism can really be enforced by any external financial pressure on the media. The only solution left would be the media's internal culture -- somehow socializing editors and reporters to value good journalism over everything else. That's a much easier culture to foster when you can see the larger consequences more clearly, as the Serbian journalists could from being in an environment where the free press is stifled. So in that sense it's no irony at all that the country with the most freedom of the press makes use of it the least.


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