We’re from Government and We’re Here to Help (Save Journalism)

by on March 6, 2010 · 11 comments

We’re from government and we’re here to help save journalism.”

That seems to be the hot new meme in media policy circles these days. Last week, it was the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) kicking off their “Future of Media” effort with a workshop on “Serving the Public Interest in the Digital Era.” This week, it’s the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) turn as they host the second in their series of workshops on How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age? Meanwhile, the Senate has already held hearings about “the future of journalism,” and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) recently introduced the “Newspaper Revitalization Act,” which would allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations in an effort to help them stay afloat.

I have no doubt that many of the public policymakers behind these efforts have the best of intentions and really are concerned about what many believe to be a crisis in the field of journalism. But here are my three primary concerns with Washington’s sudden interest in “saving journalism”:

  1. Policymakers are largely ignoring the role they played in created the current mess, and they won’t likely be willing to undo the damage. I’m speaking mostly of the myriad ownership restrictions and assorted other “public interest” regulations that have strangled many traditional media operators over the years and limited their ability to respond to marketplace changes. I documented these rules and their anti-innovative impacts in my 2005 book, Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership. I fear that they now won’t be willing to loosen those chains that continue to bind the media sector. Moreover, it may already be too late for some of those players.
  2. Many public officials are largely focused on the problems associated with change and are either ignoring–or, through their interventions could thwart–the opportunities associated with change. No doubt, many media operators are struggling. But it is equally true that exciting new media business models and opportunities are developing. As I pointed out in my recent Newseum debate, while we are in a gut-wrenching evolution with a great deal of creative destruction taking place, we should be careful to not to head off potentially advantageous marketplace developments, if even some are highly disruptive.
  3. Increased “assistance” from Washington will likely come with strings attached and raise troubling First Amendment implications. Sen. Cardin’s bill, for example, serves as a good example of what makes me so nervous about Washington’s growing interest in “saving journalism.”  As a condition of any any media entity receiving non-profit tax status, the bill would disallow political endorsements on newspaper editorial pages–which, like campaign finance restrictions, would be a boon for incumbents. That should serve as fair warning to journalists about the sort of strings lawmakers will attach to press-welfare efforts going forward. What else might subsidized media entities have to put up with? Free campaign ads for politicians? Fairness Doctrine or mandatory right of reply for printed editorials? Censorship for “negative” political satire or comics? Moreover, how do we define a “media entity” or “journalist” in terms of how is eligible for support?  Taken together, these considerations raise some rather profound First Amendment questions.

Stay tuned because this debate is just getting started. I suspect that policymakers will significantly step up their interest in the issue as more traditional media entities begin failing. What will be interesting is the extent to which some policymakers begin to embrace the “media reformista” agenda of greater public control that some fringe groups like Free Press favor. I’ve documented their radical agenda here before in my essays:

And I’m currently finishing up the new book by Robert McChesney & John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, which is a blueprint for how to convert media into wards of the State.  As part of their effort to create a massive “public works” program for the press, they advocate that public subsidies for media be funded by everything from a 5% tax on consumer electronics to a 3% tax on monthly ISP & cell phone bills to taxes on commercial advertising.  Truly frightening stuff. Anyway, I’ll have a complete review done shortly.


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