Everybody is doing it....
So who funds the media?

In Britain the funding for the BBC comes partially from the government, even though the BBC has a long-time reputation as an excellent and independent news source. Recently that independence is under attack as the Blair government and the BBC are now at war over whether the government has, as The Economist magazine writes, “…sexed up the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

The problem is that the BBC may have “sexed up” the evidence that the government “sexed up” its evidence. Accusations flew back and forth about the credibility of anonymous sources in the Blair government who leaked information about the WMDs. The BBC claimed the evidence was no good. The Blair government claimed their source was no good.

Caught in the middle between the Blair government and the BBC was David Kelly, a respected British intelligence analyst who pointed fingers at both, and who turned out to be the anonymous source. Just hours after Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed a joint session of Congress, David Kelly brought an end to being caught in the middle between the government and the BBC when he committed suicide.

Writes The Economist about the affair, “Neither the government nor the BBC will emerge from this scandal untainted.”

In America this kind of scandal/war between the government and the media is avoided because our government, with the minor exception of PBS, does not fund media. In America, advertisers fund media, especially radio and television. So why does it matter who funds media? Because the sources that fund media determine who gets to play the role of censor.

In Britain where the government funds a larger part of the media, this kind of conflict that would damage both institutions was inevitable. In our country, if certain advertisers want to pay for Peter Jennings and Dan Rather being openly hostile to Republican Presidents, then so be it. The discipline of accountability is not with the government but with those advertisers. American readers, viewers and listeners may bemoan the large and increasing censorship role that advertisers play in our media, and they may bemoan the continuing mergers forming monolithic media empires, but most would agree: it’s still better than having government play the role of news censor. And that is exactly what is creating the explosive controversy today in Britain.

Did the Blair government feed false information to the BBC or did the BBC manipulate their government sources? Is there reliable, independent news media in Britain to help resolve the issue? The latter question is most certainly the larger problem.

Without getting too arcane about it, one of the unwritten rules in American press is that providers of media don’t call for censorship of one another. Print, radio and television outlets have historically rallied around one another when advertisers or the government wanted to censor a free media. Almost all of American media rallied around The New York Times and The Washington Post when they published Daniel Ellsberg’s classified Pentagon Papers.

Closer to home, The Oregonian has, predictably, a long record of defending free speech, going after Lon Mabon and the OCA when Mabon’s organization suggested banning certain books from Oregon libraries, and defending the right of Portland school children to read the American literary master Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn when Portland school board member Derry Jackson wanted the book removed in 2002. Likewise they were quick to jump on the bandwagon with Multnomah County library in their suit to defend their right to have unfettered Internet access (pornography included) for all their patrons.

One of the reasons that media has stuck together on first amendment issues is because together they all face the battle of just how much freedom their advertisers will permit in producing their news products. Which brings us to today. On the last Saturday in July, the Oregonian decided to jump ship from its long-held position of being an advocate of free speech, instead becoming a community leader for censorship. They made the jump with a simple headline which read: “Broadcasts of University of Oregon sports shouldn’t share air space with an outrageous radio talk show.” Translated:
The Oregonian wants/is demanding that the University of Oregon drop KXL radio as their Portland station because the Portland news radio station happens to carry the Michael Savage show. Egads.

The Oregonian offered up as evidence that age-old anti-democratic mantra:

“Everybody’s doing it.” The paper cites the cable news network MSNBC that recently dropped the Savage show. What the paper fails to mention is that Savage was dumped at MSNBC because advertisers wanted him dumped, not because a news editor or producer was offended.

Wanting a censorship victory to add to their reputation as newspaper power broker, the Oregonian attempted to muscle U of O Vice President Dan Williams into dropping KXL from the Duck network. When Williams reminded the paper that “free speech laws bar public agencies from using contracts to attempt to regulate expression,” that incredible irony appeared to be lost on Portland’s new news censors.

The masthead above the “Letters” page at the Oregon Journal throughout the 60’s and much of the 70’s (years Portland’s former afternoon paper was owned by Newhouse) led with this Voltaire quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Yet another irony lost on the newspaper’s local or East Coast corporate headquarters.

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