This was inevitable with the economic crisis. In The Nation magazine, leftist media critics John Nichols and Robert McChesney announce their utopian intentions to have the government intervene heavily in the media sphere and spread their tentacles all over the project of insuring an "independent" media in every American city and town. It’s time for an "immediate journalism economic stimulus," and then a much bigger government "investment" in public broadcasting. If that sounds like jamming the accelerator on funding a feistier left-wing PBS/NPR/Pacifica axis, you would be exactly right:
We begin with the notion that journalism is a public good, that it has broad social benefits far beyond that between buyer and seller. Like all public goods, we need the resources to get it produced. This is the role of the state and public policy. It will require a subsidy and should be regarded as similar to the education system or the military in that regard. Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. With the collapse of the commercial news system, the same logic applies.
Just as there came a moment when policy-makers recognized the necessity of investing tax dollars to create a public education system to teach our children, so a moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens.
So, if we can accept the need for government intervention to save American journalism, what form should it take? In the near term, we need to think about an immediate journalism economic stimulus, to be revisited after three years, and we need to think big. Let's eliminate postal rates for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of their revenues from advertising. This keeps alive all sorts of magazines and journals of opinion that are being devastated by distribution costs. It is these publications that often do investigative, cutting-edge, politically provocative journalism.
What to do about newspapers? Let's give all Americans an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers. The newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week and maintain a substantial "news hole," say at least twenty-four broad pages each day, with less than 50 percent advertising. In effect, this means the government will pay for every citizen who so desires to get a free daily newspaper subscription, but the taxpayer gets to pick the newspaper--this is an indirect subsidy, because the government does not control who gets the money. This will buy time for our old media newsrooms--and for us citizens--to develop a plan to establish journalism in the digital era. We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well.
None of these proposed subsidies favor or censor any particular viewpoint. The primary condition on media recipients of this stimulus subsidy would be a mild one: that they make at least 90 percent of their content immediately available free online. In this way, the subsidies would benefit citizens and taxpayers, expanding the public domain and providing the Internet with a rich vein of material available to all.
What should be done about the disconnect between young people and journalism? Have the government allocate funds so every middle school, high school and college has a well-funded student newspaper and a low-power FM radio station, all of them with substantial websites. We need to get young people accustomed to producing journalism and to appreciating what differentiates good journalism from the other stuff.
The essential component for the immediate stimulus should be an exponential expansion of funding for public and community broadcasting, with the requirement that most of the funds be used for journalism, especially at the local level, and that all programming be available for free online. Other democracies outspend the United States by whopping margins per capita on public media: Canada sixteen times more; Germany twenty times more; Japan forty-three times more; Britain sixty times more; Finland and Denmark seventy-five times more. These investments have produced dramatically more detailed and incisive international reporting, as well as programming to serve young people, women, linguistic and ethnic minorities and regions that might otherwise be neglected by for-profit media.
Perhaps in the past the paucity of public media in the United States could be justified by the enormous corporate media presence. But as the corporate sector shrivels we need something to replace it, and fast. Public and community broadcasters are in a position to be just that, and to keep alive the practice of news gathering in countless communities across the nation. Indeed, if a regional daily like the San Francisco Chronicle fails this year, why not try a federally funded experiment: maintain the newsroom as a digital extension of the local public broadcasting system?
Currently the government spends less than $450 million annually on public media. (To put matters in perspective, it spends several times that much on Pentagon public relations designed, among other things, to encourage favorable press coverage of the wars that the vast majority of Americans oppose.) Based on what other highly democratic and free countries do, the allocation from the government should be closer to $10 billion. All totaled, the suggestions we make here for subscription subsidies, postal reforms, youth media and investment in public broadcasting have a price tag in the range of $60 billion over the next three years.
This is a substantial amount of money. In normal times it might be too much to ask. But in a time of national crisis, when an informed and engaged citizenry is America's best hope, $20 billion a year is chicken feed for building what would essentially be a bridge across which journalism might pass from dying old media to the promise of something new. Think of it as a free press "infrastructure project" that is necessary to maintain an informed citizenry, and democracy itself. It would keep the press system alive. And it has the added benefit of providing an economic stimulus. If these journalists (and the tens of thousands of production and distribution workers associated with newspapers) are not put to work through the programs we propose, their knowledge and expertise will be lost. They will be unemployed, and their unemployment will contribute to further stagnation and economic decline – especially in big cities where newspapers are major employers.
If these names are not familiar, they are certainly well known on the radical left. Together, they wrote a book called Tragedy and Farce lamenting coverage of Iraq and the re-election of George Bush: they argued "that during the 2004 election and throughout the Iraq war and occupation, Americans have been starved of democracy’s oxygen: accurate information. More than anything John Kerry, George Bush, or even Karl Rove did, the media’s miscoverage of the campaign and war decided the election."