Just say no. Now.
Government subsidies for “quality journalism”? Thanks for the thought, but no thanks.
Any news media executive sniffing at the idea of easy government money must answer that temptation with an emphatic NO.
Not only is it irrefutable truth of history that widespread government funding of news inexorably leads to government control of news, easy money is what got the newspaper industry – which still employs more journalists and has more readers than any other — into this mess in the first place.
The subsidy serpent slipped into media’s garden last week during the second day of a Federal Trade Commission symposium on the future of news.
FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, said in opening the News Media Workshop, “We still need journalists to be watchdogs and do investigative reporting, for example. But they cannot keep producing the news if they are not paid for their work.”
There’s a thought. Journalism is a calling, not a career, which does not require vows of poverty and celibacy; it just works out that way.
But journalists who work long hours for low pay are not the only “self-inflicted” wounds Leibowitz referred to in his opening remarks.
Easy money in the form, ironically, of exemption from antitrust laws is the big one. The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, signed by President Nixon, legalized 37 years of so-called joint operating agreements that allowed newspapers to combine all operations except newsrooms.
That allowed newspapers in competitive markets to join those in monopoly markets in continuing a century of profit margins that would make an oil tycoon blush. Newspapers did not have to evolve because they did not have to compete for money, so when the economic climate changed they could not – or would not – adapt though they had more than 30 years to do it.
Instead they overextended, overleveraged and overvalued themselves, growing fat and lazy. Now the day of reckoning is here despite the fact a recent Scarborough Research study revealed more than 170 million American adults (while no cable news show can even beat ESPN, Nickelodean, Disney or even USA Network) read a daily newspaper in an average week, and newspaper Web sites as a category are the biggest news sites in cyberspace.
Any industry that can’t make a living off numbers like that deserves to die.
Among those gathered at the FTC conference were polar extremes such as media giant such as News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch of Fox fame, new media – and so far profitless – queen Arianna Huffington, and California Congressman Henry Waxman, Democrat extraordinaire.
Murdoch – who has referred to aggregators like Huffington as “tech tapeworms” — blames free distribution of journalist’s hard work on the Web for most of the news industry’s current problems, though studies show no rise in Web news consumption proportionate to declines in newspapers, television and radio.
In fact, it looks as if people who consume news on the Web are those who get it everywhere else they can. The problem is a decline in citizens who care about news at all, which does not bode well for our republic.
Waxman, powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman, alluded to that in his prepared remarks, “A free press plays an intrinsic role in getting the facts, reporting them, and making accountability possible in the public interest. A vigorous free press and a vigorous democracy have been inextricably linked.”
He goes on to list six ideas for consideration, including last but not least: “The prospect of public funding for quality journalism as a means to preserve a critical mass of resources and assets devoted to public media.”
There’s the catch, citizens. Who exactly decides what “quality” journalism is? Politicians?
The harsh reality is politicians define “truth” as whatever they think makes them look good and advances their interests, and “lies” as anything they think doesn’t.
Remember, Founder Thomas Jefferson as president supported prosecution of criminal libel and sedition charges against newspapers.
Waxman said, “Those advocating for public funding … need to respond to the concern that government support of journalism would lead to government control of content.”
Huffington advocates “hybrids” of old and new journalism, but as a new media mogul reportedly still in the red, she’s not sure how to pay for that.
The answer certainly will include entities such as the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a foundation funded by anonymous donors who seek to build a host of citizen watchdogs around a core of professional journalists.
In many ways that is like the media landscape in which our founders forged this nation, littered with a myriad broadsheets and pamphleteers ranging from ranting diatribes to reasoned discourse.
Certainly government action affects media, as it does every other industry. Any action it takes in changing public policy to meet 21st Century realities will have consequences, intended and unintended.
Among those America must stop by any means necessary is more government funding of news. If leaders of the industry can’t say no, it’s up to citizens to tell them.