Washington Post Column: Subsidize Journalists

It's bad enough we have to bailout banks and auto manufacturers or spread around subsidies for wasteful, inefficient forms of energy like ethanol and morally reprehensible institutions like ACORN and Planned Parenthood. 

However, now a couple of the wizards of smart that have managed to land a spot in the editorial pages of The Washington Post are lobbying for journalism subsidies.

In the Oct. 30 Post, the co-founders of Free Press, John Nichols of the liberal publication, the Nation and Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggested it's time for the government to prop-up beleaguered journalists to "spawn" so-called independent media. Nichols and McChesney make the case that newspapers are important for two reasons - one not-so important one and one arguably legitimate one. They maintain President Barack Obama believes newspapers are important and that they play an important part keeping government in check. But in order for them to sustain this vital role in our culture, they say it's time for the government to lend a hand.

"We seek to renew a rich if largely forgotten legacy of the American free-press tradition, one that speaks directly to today's crisis," Nichols and McChesney. "The First Amendment necessarily prohibits state censorship, but it does not prevent citizens from using their government to subsidize and spawn independent media."

They also argue early on in American history the government subsidized journalism by supporting the postal system, which led to "America's progress."

"Indeed, the post-colonial press system was built on massive postal and printing subsidies," Nichols and McChesney wrote. "The first generations of Americans never imagined that the market would provide sound or sufficient journalism. The notion was unthinkable. They established enlightened subsidies, which broadened the marketplace of ideas and enhanced and protected core freedoms. Their initiatives were essential to America's progress. The value of federal journalism subsidies as a percentage of gross domestic product in the first half of the 19th century ran, by our calculations, to about $30 billion per year in current dollars. It is this sort of commitment, established by Jefferson and Madison, that we must imagine to address the current crisis."

But they're not arguing for a newspaper bailout per se, but instead subsidies for journalists of all sorts, specifically those that use digital outlets to spread their message.

"Saving newspapers may be impossible," Nichols and McChesney wrote. "But we can save journalism. Step one is to begin debating ways for enlightened public subsidies to provide a competitive and independent digital news media. Also, we should greatly expand funding for public and community media, and establish policies that help convert dying daily newspapers into post-corporate low-profit news operations that realize the potential of the Internet. If we do so, journalism and democracy will not just survive. They will flourish."

But as a recent report by the MRC's Business & Media Institute points out, increasing government involvement in the media "is wrong-headed and dangerous" because it would increase the government's influence over so-called "independent media."

"The government is already too involved in media. The First Amendment clearly states: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.' Getting government more involved in the media - either through regulations or outright funding - would have horrible long-term consequences," the report argues.