Submitted by Walter Block, Chair and Professor of Economics Loyola University New Orleans
In this era of the pandemic, it is even more important than otherwise that the general public has unbiased information at its disposal. Unhappily, most of the major media is located on the left side of the political spectrum. There is nothing that can be done about the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and that ilk. They are all private concerns, and, hence, at least quasi-legitimate. However, at least the lack of balance can be addressed, if only in a small marginal way.
Journalists have long and properly been called members of the fourth estate. What are the other three? That’s easy: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. All four are necessary and important, at least according to the democratic theory which undergirds the political economy of most civilized nations on the planet.
But there is a crucial difference between the first three estates and the fourth. All members of the former are elected either directly or indirectly through the ballot box. No one casts any political vote for journalists. Any writer can stand up on his two hind legs and declare himself a member of this crucially important group.
In days gone by, all that was needed was some paper and ink and perhaps, in the more modern era, a mimeograph machine (remember those?). Nowadays, the prerequisites are electricity, internet connection and perhaps a computer.
The function of the legislature is to pass laws; the executive is to carry them out. The judiciary settles any disputes that may arise between the other two, and interprets the laws and the constitution. What is the function of the fourth estate?
It is to keep an eye, an eagle eye if you will, on the other three. Yes, this estate is not part of government, but it is no less indispensable in keeping that institution under strict surveillance.
This leads us to the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. The PBS and the NPR are strongly associated with government. Their budgets are to a great degree predicated upon tax revenues. Therefore, it cannot at all function as an investigative tool for the latter. No dog bites the hand that feed it, at least not for long. How, then, can we expect PBS and the NPR to “bite” their master? Ok, maybe there will be a few slight nips at its ankles from time to time in order to establish their “independence” but there will not be any heavy chomping, at least not to a degree deemed dangerous by the powers that be.
There is an aphorism in law: you cannot be a judge in your own case. To be sure, this “public” media is not a judge in its own case. But it is indeed a judge in the case of the entity to which it is beholden. As such, it cannot be expected to fully function in its role as watchdog over the first three estates.
If the PBS and the NPR do not bite deeply into government failures, mismanagements, and there are certainly such from time to time, they do not deserve to be a member of the fourth estate. It is not an independent media institution. It is akin to an arm of government. What is needed is an arm’s length distance between the fourth, and the first three estates.
Let me try again. The media is like a referee in a hockey game. If he picks up the stick and tries to shoot the puck through the net, the “game” is ruined. If the fourth estate is beholden to the state, it cannot function in its proper role.
Then, there is the minor point of economics. As in the case of the post office and other parts and parcels of government, these organizations need never go broke if they does not satisfy their paying customers or advertisers. In sharp contrast, this is not at all the case for the periodical which brings you this op ed. It is entirely vulnerable to market forces.
PBS and the NPR should be cut off from the public trough and thereby be better enabled to serve customers. This should also be done if we value our democratic institutions.
Here are some words of wisdom from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” that are pertinent:
If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became a departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.”