The Right Opinion

And Now Government Press

By Paul Greenberg · Sep. 21, 2010

It had to happen. At a time when we’ve seen the birth of Government Motors and even Government Hedge Fund, aka AIG, it was only a matter of time before it was seriously proposed that we have a Government Press, too. This time the idea came from the distinguished president of an Ivy League university, another well-cushioned part of the American establishment.

It takes nerve to suggest that the way to preserve a free press – the very phrase connotes a press free of government – is to have government get into the news-and-opinion business. With your money, naturally, Gentle and much abused Taxpayer.

Under such a proposal, newspapers that accepted public funds would no longer be allowed to run their own editorials, at least openly. They’d have to do what NPR does – insinuate opinions into their “objective” news coverage.

The advocates of ever more government may not have noticed that Washington is a little short of funds these days. Note the federal government’s trillion-dollar deficit – but it can always borrow still more. From us and our posterity.

This year’s record for chutzpah, which might be loosely defined as nerve to the nth degree, may have been set by the CEO of Government Motors, formerly General Motors, one Edward Whitacre. “We don’t like this label of Government Motors,” he complained the other day. “It turns us off.”

How’s that for gratitude? We the (taxpaying) People bail out his failing company, but it irritates him to acknowledge it.

Sir, there was a simple way to avoid being labeled Government Motors: Don’t take our money. But that may have been too much to expect of such a paragon of free enterprise.

A close runner-up in this Chutzpah Derby was Robert Benmosche, AIG’s CEO.

You may remember AIG. How could anyone forget it? It was at the center of the bubble that went bust during the Great Financial Panic of 2008-09, sharing billing with those evil twins, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two other fine examples of your government at work. It was their mountain of sub-prime mortgages that eventually sank the housing market and led to the government’s take-over of AIG.

That giant insurance company had to be bailed out because it was trading in credit default swaps without sufficient collateral. Now that it’s been rescued by the government – that’s you and me – its CEO regularly complains that the new financial rules adopted to protect the markets against another such collapse are too restrictive. Why, they could force his company to raise enough capital to cover its bets in the derivatives market. Like that’s a bad thing. This guy sounds like chutzpah personified.

Another entry in the Chutzpah sweepstakes is Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University. He’s wants to add a Government Press to Government Motors. The man is a master of unintended satire, too, Note the title of his book proposing government-provided news and opinion: “Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century.”

Lee Bollinger makes his case on the same grounds the journalistic establishment was citing half a century ago: Newspapers are failing, the sky is falling, and all is lost unless the government subsidizes the press. Much like President Bollinger today, those earlier diagnosticians of the press didn’t foresee the rise of new, competing and highly successful institutions that would fill the gap as old media gave way to new.

Those doomsayers of the last century failed to take into account the innovative spirit of Americans when facing new challenges. Much as Lee Bollinger overlooks the power of the World Wide Web, the profusion of bloggers, and the dynamism of the free market. Joseph Schumpeter’s term for it was creative destruction.

The masterminds who propose a Government Press tend to overlook the ever-inventive spirit of a free, not to say rambunctious, people. How else explain the rise of, among other highly successful enterprises, Fox News and the ever newer, bigger and better Wall Street Journal, which replaced the New York Times as the country’s premier newspaper some time ago?

Lee Bollinger confuses the sad fate of failing newspapers – some of which, let’s face it, deserved to fail – with that of journalism itself. Much like someone worrying about what’s going to happen to the buggy-whip business once those awful horseless carriages take over the road.

As an example to follow, President Bollinger thinks the British system is just dandy, complete with its requirement that the public be obliged to support the BBC. To heck with the paying public’s own preferences. Government, or at least a journalistic elite, will know what’s best for We the mere People to see and hear.

Mr. Bollinger can’t see that the Internet has moved the press back to the uninhibited, robust and wide-open days of the founding fathers, when anyone with a printing press could publish his own news and opinion, advertisements and manifestos. Today they may be bloggers, or, as one outraged and outdated TV executive called them, guys sitting in their living room in their pajamas. And occasionally taking down an imperious Dan Rather.

The little people are definitely getting out of hand when they start exposing American journalism’s leading pomposities. What’s worse in Lee Bollinger’s chummy little world, these amateurs are … uncredentialed! Much like John Peter Zenger or Elijah Lovejoy or H. L. Mencken or … well, name your own journalistic hero. Strangely enough, none of those champions of a truly free press were subsidized by the U.S. government.

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