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A Taxing Solution

A troubling read in the current Broadcasting and Cable magazine spells it out in no uncertain terms: this Iraq war is bad for business.

According to the piece:

After more than four years into the war in Iraq, television news organizations have awakened to their own grim reality: They're spending millions of dollars a year to operate in a country where security costs them thousands of dollars a day….

And despite the fact that Iraq remains the largest single news story in the world and an obligation for U.S. news organizations, coverage has devolved into a tired drumbeat of insurgent mayhem—and viewers are tuning out. Not only are ratings stagnating, but Iraq reports are not bringing in the new viewers that the declining genre so desperately needs.

The bottom line in all this, of course, is the bottom line. Media companies are in a profit business, and if they're not going to give their investors a steady return … they're not going to stick around.

We all know this and we're all familiar with the basic economics of the issue. And while much hand-wringing is done over the problem – TimesSelect is dead, newsrooms are shrinking, etc – very little is suggested along the lines of solutions. So in the interest of airing different ideas along those lines, Professor Julian Friedland offers his suggestion in today's Denver Post: Get the government involved. (Gulp.)

[T]here is a solution. Media represent an essential service like education and infrastructure. As such, media need to be protected from the corrupting influence of private interest, which has finally grown so massive as to exert a crushing grip on journalistic independence.

If we look to Europe we can see media independence there is protected by public funds. Take the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which is mostly funded by taxes, permitting it to hold every corporation and government's feet to the fire. In France, two out of the three major networks receive no more than 40 percent of their operational funds from ads. The rest come from taxes. On our end, we have the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), but its budget pales in comparison to the BBC, which has bureaus all over the world. The CPB, which funds both PBS and NPR, has a yearly budget of only $480 million compared to $3.2 billion for the BBC. Still, PBS is widely considered our most trusted news service.

Would Americans ever allow their tax dollars to be put into the media? No. Would Americans be comfortable with governmental influence in the nation's newspapers and TV stations? Not likely. Is it possible to view, as the professor implies, news media as a public service like sewers and schoolhouses? From a purely academic standpoint, sure. But not outside the campus, I'm afraid.

Is there anything workable in Professor Friedland's view? As someone who's seen the funding battles for the National Endowment for the Arts and the fights over investigating governmental activities, not in my view. But heck, while some are content rearranging the deck chairs, at least he's addressing the leak.

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