Bob Franken

Dan Rather’s Presidential Media Commission: Giving Up?


Here’s a question for Dan Rather: How could you be so right and yet so wrong? More specifically: What would possess you to call for the government to stick its nose into journalism?

You’re right on the money when you decry the sorry state of the media in this country. But you are amazingly off base when you suggest a commission appointed by the president to study the problem.

He is the very last person who should appoint one, along with everybody else in government. When the First Amendment refers to “freedom of speech or of the press,” it means freedom from government interference. I thought you knew that.

Imagine how astonished your old viewers must feel as they read your Washington Post Op-Ed piece, “The News Americans Need.” You repeat the call you recently shouted from the mountaintop of the Aspen Institute: President Obama should “form a commission to address the perilous state of America’s news media.”

You provide a long list of particulars: Corporate ownership and consolidation, driving a never-ending quest for profits, have reduced most media to empty shells lacking the resources to adequately cover what people need to know, and also lacking any appetite to do so for fear of making waves.

You describe a dismal future where effective reporting will have become a thing of the past: “What you will see, instead, is more opinion, commentary and marketing, masquerading as news. You will get more in-studio shouting matches between partisans, moderated by openly partisan talking heads.” As the late football coach George Allen once said, “The future is now.”

You correctly go on to describe the inherent conflicts of interest affecting conglomerate-owned newspapers and television outlets because they have “at any given moment, multiple regulatory, procurement and legislative matters before various arms of the federal government; their interests, therefore can often run contrary to the interests of the citizens.” Right on, Dan!!

Your solution though, is to open the door to more overlap — more government meddling. Do you honestly believe that any president who bristles at coverage, as they all do, is going to participate in any effort to restore media to their role of making life miserable for him and his millions of other colleagues in government?

“The old news model is crumbling,” you complain, and you certainly have that nailed. And you raise the alarm in an eloquent way: “This is a crisis that, with no exaggeration, threatens our democratic republic at its core.” But then you recommend an approach that would do just what you describe — threaten our democratic republic at its core.

From our constitutional beginnings, we have always battled for the separation of press and state. You write, “I am not calling for any sort of bailout for media companies. Nor am I encouraging any government control over them.” But your proposal would do just that — encourage government control. In fact, it might be a big step toward undermining what little independence and effectiveness that journalism in this country still has.

It is true: Many media are in dire straits. Your proposal, Dan, would embolden government to place a straitjacket on them. You have always tried to leave a strong impression you were among those leading the fight. Was that for real? If so, are you surrendering?

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