A Newspaper Bailout Helps 'Diversity of Opinion'? Or Would It Underwrite More Bias?

Real Clear Politics reports that the Democrats are heavily talking about newspaper bailouts, no matter how bad that idea sounds. Sen. John Kerry wants to play Superman for The Boston Globe, and Rep. John Conyers held a hearing yesterday (at which MRC exec Dan Gainor testified -- read his statement here.)

It's incredibly rich for Sen. Kerry to insist he must save the Globe or else "there will also be serious consequences for our democracy where diversity of opinion and strong debate are paramount." As if the Globe is a role model for vividly bipartisan news and editorial pages (although we're Jeff Jacoby fans.)

How awful an idea is a newspaper bailout? You can’t fix the newspaper readership problem just by keeping a failing business on life support. But it's especially unfair to burden conservative taxpayers with another pile of bills to fund liberal media outlets that trash them and their ideas and heroes.

One persistent readership problem with large newspapers is the scandals in recent times over the reliability of their reporting. Jayson Blair turned the New York Times inside out by pressing imaginary reports easily past the supposedly professional guardians of fact in the newsroom. Jack Kelley created the same problem with vividly overwrought foreign reporting at USA Today. One bad apple can spoil a whole bunch of readers.

But a bigger, more everyday problem is the loss of conservative readers with an incessant liberal bias. Start with the New York Times, which earned itself a Pulitzer Prize by undermining an important national terrorist-surveillance program (and then forcing the end of another). They put their scoops and their prizes ahead of the citizenry – and some of the citizens revolted by cancelling their subscriptions.

Liberals insist that the federal government needs to get involved to subsidize the robust "independence" of the press corps. That's code for "free to punish conservatives without any fear of offending corporate advertisers." They would insist that newspaper reporters operate more like partisan journalists at PBS and NPR. They are federally funded, and look at how "independent" they looked in their documentary reports on how Dick Cheney represented "The Dark Side" (an actual title on PBS’s "Frontline"). But when President Obama won the presidency, the same program ran a gooey tribute to the new leader on the night of his inauguration called "Dreams of Obama." He was saluted as "very idealistic, very romantic, very symbolic and very much charisma-driven."

Is there censorship? No. Congress hasn’t overtly pressed PBS or NPR. Even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting professes a hands-off approach to news content, despite legislative language that assigned them explicitly to insure fairness and balance in "all programming of a controversial nature."

What naturally occurs is that government-subsidized news outlets know which party is most likely to increase their budgets (Democrats) and which party is most likely to cut or even talk of abolishing their funding as an improper use of government resources (Republicans). Over the last forty years, it’s become obvious that government broadcasters are nicer to the party of more government. The same pattern would inevitably occur with federally subsidized newspapers.

Some proposals to bail out newspapers are subtler. Sen. Ben Cardin has a bill encouraging newspapers to go nonprofit – or to apply for nonprofit status as they continue for-profit operations. Cardin insisted, "I am confident that citizens or foundations in communities across the nation would be willing to step in and preserve their local papers."

Liberals dream of daily newspapers freed of the alleged conservative bias of corporate advertisers. Having a struggling newspaper saved by a crusading liberal philanthropist like George Soros or a hardline leftist group like the MacArthur Foundation might preserve a functioning newspaper – but the idea that it would report "without fear or favor" of those citizens or foundations is a very shaky proposition.

A news media is important to our democracy, but that doesn’t mean each individual newspaper is priceless. We need reporters who hold our government accountable. But we also need newspapers who work to solve their own credibility and business problems instead of looking for a government crutch. Newspapers, heal yourselves.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis