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When governments fund newspapers

Jeffrey Dvorkin has been vice president of news and ombudsman at National Public Radio and managing editor of radio at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and teaches journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Should there be direct government funding for journalism and media organizations? Distinguished journalists such as former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie and journalism scholar Michael Schudson say yes. They are convinced that the fate of American democracy depends on a healthy and vigorous body of American journalism. And if this requires Washington's direct financial support, so be it.

Others have joined in arguing that free enterprise journalism is so unwell that it should be immediately placed on government life support. It's a powerful argument, but one I believe just won't work because of America's unique journalistic culture and history. Despite being a public broadcaster for many years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and National Public Radio, I strongly disagree that widespread public funding is the solution.

Britain and Canada pioneered the concept of government funding for broadcasting in the 1930s. But there is also a long tradition of Congressional support for media in the United States, going back to funding for the telegraph system in the 1840s and ham radio before World War I. In the 19th century, the abolitionist press was directly subsidized by government funding until southern members of Congress stopped it.

Public radio began in the United States in the 1920s as part of the system of land-grant universities. Through the 1930s, state legislatures and city councils eagerly supported public radio stations alongside listener and philanthropic donations. It is a system that continues to this day.

That model of public funding for public radio and television is now being proposed for newspapers in the United States. A public debate is under way in Britain, France and the Netherlands as well. In Europe, the question is not over whether to fund commercial newspapers but when. Those countries also have vigorous and well-funded public broadcasters.

But America is different because of the First Amendment. It says government may not restrict a free press. But should it also support a free press in financial trouble?

The founding fathers understood that the temptation of politicians to meddle would only be heightened when media depend on government for survival. That has been my experience at the CBC and at NPR. Journalists, especially at the Voice of America, often feel that Congressional oversight (aka meddling) seriously hinders what they do and diminishes their credibility.

Government support would further weaken journalistic independence at precisely a time when we need journalism that is more courageous - not less. Would government support result in journalistic self-censorship? Too often public broadcasters won't challenge power directly. No one tells journalists what not to say. Management doesn't have to. Self-preservation in these insecure financial times is the elephant in the room.

What about public trust in journalism, already at an all-time low? Would public funding increase public distrust of journalism? Might government financial support for certain media indicate implicit political approval? Can government-funded media ever be truly accountable and transparent? There are many questions yet unanswered.

Government funding works better in other countries, and there is a reason for this. In Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, there is the so-called arm's length relationship. It defines journalistic independence for public media. In the case of the CBC and the BBC, there is explicit legislation that states journalistic independence is sacrosanct and politicians may not attempt to influence the content of the programs.

Could government support for journalism in the United States happen? Yes, but not until Congress agrees that political influence must be banned by law. A strong "arm's length relationship" between Congress and the media must be deeply understood and strongly maintained. A public instrument of accountability through independently appointed news ombudsmen is worth exploring.

That is what the First Amendment anticipated, and might yet still provide, more than 200 years after it was first enacted.


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