Federal subsidies for broadcasters

In Joseph Heller’s wonderful novel of bureaucracy at war, “Catch-22,” Major Major — promoted to major while still in boot camp by an IBM machine with a “sense of humor almost as keen as his father’s” — is portrayed as a staunch farm-state conservative who believes federal subsidies are a sign of despicable creeping socialism … except for farm subsidies, of course, which are ordained by God.

The joke is all the funnier because, in real life, many who rail against wasteful government programs suddenly grow quiet when you bring up a subsidy that directly benefits them.

Unfortunately, it appears many of America’s electronic broadcasters are about to fall into a similar snare.

This week, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., took the occasion of an appearance before the National Association of Broadcasters annual trade show here in Las Vegas to announce a bill she’s co-sponsoring with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that would make some radio and TV station workers eligible for government-provided food, water and fuel while covering catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina.

When the hurricane struck New Orleans, only one television station, WWL-TV, remained on the air, thanks to the foresight of the station’s owners when they invested in upgrades to their outdoor equipment, Sen. Landrieu explained. Those broadcasts were critical to keeping police and firefighters up-to-date on where they were needed, the senator said.

“Without the broadcasts, they could not have done their jobs,” Sen. Landrieu told a receptive audience of broadcasters.

But issuing the blue-shirted wretches of the press fancy new hats and credentials that make them quasi-government agents — the way airline pilots are now being dubbed “federal flight deck officers” — is unnecessary and unwise.

Are electronic broadcasters suddenly so strapped for cash that they can’t afford to make their own upgrades, as the owners of WWL-TV New Orleans did? Do they really want to enter into a “partnership” in which it’s assumed the government can access their facilities to promote whatever message they consider “best for the public order” during hurricanes or terror attacks — rather than jealously guarding the independence of the news?

Government subsidies always, always, always come with strings attached. Where do you suppose the federal government got the leverage to impose “model” helmet laws and seat belt laws and drunken driving laws on the states, not to mention “No Child Left Behind”?

Federal subsidies to the media are a very, very bad idea.

And if commentators on radio and TV remain silent because they already do not feel free to say so, that’s disturbing in and of itself.

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