A “Public Option” for Media? The Free Press Plan to Put Journalists on the Public Dole

by on November 24, 2009 · 25 comments

Free Press, the radical pro-regulatory media activist group, recently filed comments with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the agency’s upcoming workshop on “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?”  The Free Press comments provide an enlightening glimpse into the mind of how many on the Left now think about media policy in America.  Their approach can be summarized as follows:

  1. Nothing the private sector can do will save journalism (unless it is entirely non-profit / non-commercial in nature);
  2. Even if there was something that private players could do to save journalism, Free Press would likely have federal authorities forbid it anyway (especially if it involved new business ownership patterns or combinations); and,
  3. The only thing that can really save journalism is a “public option” for the press in the form of massive state subsidization of media in this country.

To elaborate on the last point, here’s how Free Press summarizes what they are looking for:

For U.S. public media to become a truly world-class system will require a substantial increase in funding. This could be accomplished by an increase in direct congressional appropriations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With increased funding — to as little as $5 per person, increasing annual appropriations to some $1.5 billion — the American public media system could dramatically increase its capacity, reach, diversity and relevance.

But they stress that a simple expansion of the PBS/NPR/CPB non-commercial model will not be enough since that system is “vulnerable to repeated threats of funding cuts” and too “reliant on corporate backing, via the underwriting process.” They want to go well beyond non-commercial media, therefore, and have the state start building a massive public media infrastructure.  Here’s where their pitch for a public option for the press comes in:

A better and more durable solution would be to create and fund a public trust, seeded with a large endowment and operated by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or other NGO. The money for such a trust could be provided directly through an act of Congress or perhaps by placing a small tax on advertising. We estimate that a trust fund would require $50 billion to create sufficient revenue. If that figure seems high, consider that since last year, more than $173 billion in tax money has been sunk into just one corporation, AIG. Given that Congress just passed a nearly trillion-dollar economic recovery package, $50 billion for public media seems like a smart investment.

Basically, because everybody else is on the public dole these days–including undeserving Wall Street idiots–that justifies putting media operators and journalist on the dole, too.  Some pretty twisted logic there.  But the Free Press plan doesn’t end with public bailouts for media. A welfare system for journalists is next on the list:

Another form of government investment that could help spark new competition in the news ecosystem is the creation of research and development fund for journalistic innovation and experimentation. We need to think about the new media marketplace as an incubator for innovation. Just as government invests in medical research to heal the ails of the body, we need government to invest in experimentation with news models to heal the democratic ails of the body politic.

We should explore the creation of a government-seeded innovation fund for journalism — a taxpayer-supported venture capital firm that invests in new business models. As a starting point, we are proposing a $50 million per year budget. This new venture capital firm could be set up as a public-private partnership, with federal matching funds for foundation-supported projects, or designed to provide guaranteed loans at low or no interest to start-up initiatives.

But wait, there’s more!  Free Press also wants:

  • “a journalism jobs program to support veteran, qualified reporters and simultaneously to engage young people in journalism” that would be part of AmeriCorps.
  • special tax status for journalism institutions along the lines of Sen. Ben Cardin‘s “Newspaper Revitalization Act,” which “would offer tax benefits to philanthropic groups and individuals that donate to newspapers, while providing the newspapers themselves with the tax benefits enjoyed by all tax-exempt organizations.” [Somehow Free Press fails to mention how that bill would also forbid political editorializing by those organizations as a condition of the deal!  So much for a "free press."]
  • a collection of government incentives to encourage local ownership and media divestiture: They explain… “The idea is to create, via changes to the federal tax and bankruptcy laws, a number of targeted ‘sweeteners’ that could be invoked — alone or in combination — when media properties are being put up for sale that would make new owners or ownership structures… more attractive than traditional corporate ownership models.” … “Newspaper owners might be more inclined to sell to socially motivated parties if the government offered certain subsidies or other incentives to facilitate the transactions. Perhaps the IRS could guarantee nonprofits a reduced buyout rate. In addition, government-guaranteed loans and bidding credits could be offered to nonprofits to help them purchase failing news organizations.”  A “minority media tax credit” is also proposed.

No word on how much more those programs and proposals add to the $50 billion price tag. Nor do they ever get around to explaining exactly how we’ll pay for it all, but I suppose bumping Rupert Murdoch’s marginal tax rate up to 99% would probably be where they’ll start.  The rest of us will be expected to pay our “fair share” eventually. There is, however, that one brief mention of “a small tax on advertising” as a way to pay for some of their plans.  Isn’t that just lovely.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the one traditionally successful method of supporting private media operations would be the first thing Free Press would look to tax! After all, if you’re really out to destroy private media, it’s not enough to subsidize a public press option… no, you have to force the private players to pay into the scheme, too, thereby subsidizing their own competition!   You gotta hand it to these Free Press people; when they set out on a seek-and-destroy mission, they know how to get the job done.

Taken in the aggregate, the Free Press proposal reads like a Soviet-style 5-year plan for the media sector. [Hey, why not appoint another White House "czar" to oversee it all!]  In practice, such a public option for media raises many troubling questions.  The prospect of a large swath of the American media sector being treated as a publicly funded ward of the State isn’t just a small leak in the important wall between Press and State, it is the end of that wall.  It would dynamite that wall to the ground. It could potentially open the door to a fundamental corruption of the journalistic profession by public officials who would not likely be able to resist the urge to pressure those who are subservient to the State.  As such, the plan is an affront to our traditional First Amendment values and the importance of press independence in particular. And it is an affront to the taxpayers who would be stuck paying for a lot of journalism that they may not even want, like, or see.  As I noted in a previous essay, you can file all of this under the general theme: “Socializing Media in Order to Save It.”

But hey, it’s a new era, baby!  So get ready to pay your fair share to “save journalism” because Free Press and their founder Robert McChesney appear ready to make good on their promise to socialize all media and make it everybody’s collective responsibility via their public option for the press.

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