Is the FTC's Attempt to 'Reinvent' Journalism Backward-Looking?

The Federal Trade Commission's attempt to noodle the "reinvention" of journalism sounds to many conservatives like "The Great Newspaper Bailout" -- just as Dan Gainor and Catherine Maggio wrote for the Business and Media Institute last fall. Here's Dan's latest update

Laurence Jarvik, an author of several fine books on public broadcasting like "PBS: Behind the Screen" (and a friend), shared the comments he's offering to the FTC on his blog. He says subsidizing newspapers is like supporting horsewhip vendors and buggy manufacturers:  

[T]hese FTC proposals for revisions in copyright, antitrust, and tax law appear designed to favor printed newspapers over new media. They are backward looking, regressive, unimaginative (the FTC’s proposed tax on electronics recycles a fifty-year old proposal the Johnson administration attempted to implement for public broadcasting finance) and would serve to undermine innovation, creativity, and the public’s right to know. Indeed, they would serve to stifle the progress of science and the useful arts.

Today, in the age of the Internet, anyone and everyone can be a journalist. Anyone can print anything on the web. That is progress for freedom of the press and a boon to journalism, not reason to despair.

In privileging established or failing media corporations, many of which are in trouble not due to problems with “journalism,” but because of bad investments, speculation in real estate, or general fecklessness, the FTC staff’s draft proposal calls to mind George Amberson Minafer’s cry to passing motorists in Booth Tarkington’s classic tale of American progress, The Magnificent Ambersons:

“Get a horse!”

Like Tarkington’s protagonist, the FTC appears to consider upstart competitors such as bloggers, websites, search engines, app developers, and new media companies as “riff-raff.”

Unless they wish to meet the fate of George Amberson Minafer, old-line media companies and their FTC supporters need to embrace change, rather than erect walls of government protection, subsidy or special privilege.

For, had the FTC staff’s proposed approach been adopted at the turn of the century, the US Government would have subsidized buggy manufacturers, horsewhip vendors, blacksmiths, and ostlers—paid for by taxes on automobiles and railways; protected by antitrust exemptions; and structured as “hybrid corporations” that would never die.

“Journalism” will survive the death of newspapers and the spread of the Apple iPad, just as it did the death of the mail packet boat, the Pony Express, the Western Union telegram and spread of radio broadcasting—indeed, lower costs of production and distribution, leading to economies of scale, promise a bright future for journalism in the internet age, so long as the FTC does not crush innovation in a misguided attempt at “reinvention” that is sure to discourage imagination and talent from future development of new media.

Therefore, it is my opinion that with the exception of its well thought out proposal to maximize the accessibility of government information through improvements to the Freedom of Information Act, policy recommendations in the FTC Staff Discussion Draft would promote dangerous and negative consequences for journalism in the United States.

I'm not convinced of the "death" of newspapers, although I suppose it would be a shocking sight to see a college student holding one open. I am convinced the public needs a professional media that actually attends public meetings and reports on "boring" details of government policy. But that doesn't mean it should be government policy to arrange for its own subsidized press followers. If it weren't so obviously self-serving for statists, it would seem shocking they would be so cavalier about the bald-faced lack of independence a subsidized media represents.

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