We need more independent scholars and public intellectuals, especially in the communications and media fields. That’s why it is disheartening to learn that well-regarded First Amendment scholar and Columbia U. president Lee C. Bollinger has agreed to become a director at the Washington Post Co. Such an involvement raises a number of critical conflicts and problems.
First, Mr. Bollinger will be working to help a company that has substantial interests and investments that run counter to a truly open and diverse communications system in the U.S. Through the Post’s Cable One subsidiary, the company is working to maintain the cable industry’s control over both the multichannel television and broadband marketplace. The Post via Cable One is a member–and has served as a –of the lobby group National Cable Telecommunications Association. The NCTA’s record is strongly anti-First Amendment in terms of the rights of the public, especially its stance against network neutrality (non-discriminatory access).
The Post is also backing the elimination of the key federal safeguard promoting diversity of media ownership–the broadcast and newspaper cross-ownership rule. Through the Post Co’s membership in the lobbying trade group Newspaper Association of America, it is helping to promote consolidation and, more critically, the further erosion of journalistic quality. Finally, the Post is a member of the board of the Interactive Advertising Bureau–a group opposed to the kind of consumer safeguards that would protect our privacy online.
Too many academics have ended up working with media conglomerates, helping their consolidation agenda. We are at a crucial moment in the history of U.S.—and global—media. Much work needs to be done to protect the First Amendment rights of the public in the digital era; ensure the openness of the Internet; and help revitalize professional journalism. The country requires independent voices from outside institutions who can speak beyond the narrow self-interests commonly evoked by media companies. We need scholars who are not schmoozing with (such current Post directors) as Melinda Gates, Barry Diller, and Warren Buffet.
Lee Bollinger is a distinguised intellectual and author. But he should be on the outside of the media lobby, examining it critically on behalf of the public interest. Instead, he will likely be swallowed up by it.