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Independent Watchdog or Government Lapdog?

America’s news media are struggling in the face of many issues including financial viability.  The result has been the closing of scores of news organizations across the nation and the dismissal of hundreds of reporters.

As interested parties debate how to assure the survival of media, one proposal is to seek government funding. 

New York City recently mandated that city government agencies allocate some of their advertising expenditures to small community newspapers that serve niche audiences in the city’s boroughs.  This has kept some small newspapers alive.

But America’s tradition of a free and independent press—unfettered reporting of government proposals and actions—has enjoyed a robust history protected by the First Amendment guarantee. 

I have conducted international media training for more than 30 years in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.  I have seen firsthand the intimidation of news organizations and their publications that rely heavily on government advertising for survival.

All too often disgruntled governments threaten to withdraw advertising from media that aggressively pursue stories the government dislikes.  Intimidation results and self-censorship by the press is frequently the result.

The respected British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and America’s Voice of America (VOA) are owned and supervised by their country’s respective governments.  During the Trump administration, VOA was criticized for allegedly not verifying China’s claim about its control of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And now the BBC is under fire for what an independent reviewer asserts in a 127-page report was “deceitful behavior” in the broadcaster’s pursuit of an interview with Princess Diana in 1995.

As a result of this report, the British justice secretary says it will review government oversight rules of the BBC.

Although the thought of a steady financial lifeline from government advertising seems like an attractive solution to assure the existence of vulnerable news organizations, we all should worry about possible negative consequences.

A free and independent press that holds government officials accountable is an important watchdog to assure that our republic is fully aware of actions by our elected and appointed political leaders.

The American republic is at risk if the watchdog becomes a lapdog because of government funding and supervision.


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