A hungry free press doesn’t need a free meal from taxpayers

Richard Russell Contributor
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There is little question that the era of print is over.  Witness Amazon sales of Kindle books outstripping print volumes on Christmas. The launch of this site, while newspapers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor eliminate their print editions, is further proof that the market has moved on.

This is sad news for those of us who enjoy our coffee with a paper edition of the news.  Inside the Beltway, however, mourning the death of print has quickly morphed from technophobia into a plea to rescue journalism.

On Oct. 19, the Washington Post published an op-ed calling for concerted federal action to save journalism, including the creation of a new local news tax collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). On Oct. 30, the Post followed-up with a second op-ed appropriately entitled “Yes, Journalists Deserve Subsidies Too” helpfully proposing federal outlays in the range of $30 billion a year to save the news. Last month, Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, testified before the Federal Trade Commission suggesting the need to explore, among other things, “the prospect of public funding for quality journalism as a means to preserve a critical mass of resources and assets devoted to public media.”

It’s easy for Republicans to condemn a federal bailout of journalism as an effort by Democrats to save the left-leaning media.  But the notion of making the free press reliant on the state should set off alarm bells on the left as well.

If the government props up journalism, writers and their employers will become reliant on the government. If the government plows anywhere near $30 billion dollars a year into the news, how can we possibly expect subsidized news outlets to remain truly independent from their new benefactors?

Statistics corroborate this point.  An October 2009 study of Argentina’s subsidized media in the National Bureau of Economic Research identifies considerable correlation between the receipt of government funding (in the case of Argentina, through advertising revenue) and the reduction of coverage of government corruption.

Since any federal subsidy would be devised and funded by Congress, how and how much funding flows to “quality journalism” would be decided by members of the House and Senate with input from the Administration. The question, then, is whether Members would use this new power-of-the-purse to promote news organizations that give them favorable coverage or punish those that do not.  Speaking from personal experience, the answer is clearly yes.

During my tenure at the White House, I was responsible for policy issues before the FCC. In 2003, the FCC updated the ownership limitations for newspapers, radio stations and TV stations to reflect the fact that cable TV and the Internet had fundamentally changed the way Americans got their news.

Congressmen and Senators on the right and left blasted the decision and set about to overrule the FCC. Despite various arguments about the dangers of media consolidation, the lack of sufficient “voices” in the press, and the need for more local news coverage –some of the same arguments now made to support subsidizing the news — when we spent time talking to Members, Senators and their staff, it became clear that underlying all these practiced policy arguments was a much more basic desire. Democrats wanted to overturn the FCC’s decision to prevent FOX from expanding the number of its network-owned affiliates. At the same time, some Republicans also wanted to reverse the decision, but with a different target in mind: CBS, whose nightly news was still anchored by Dan Rather. In addition, a handful of Congressmen and Senators were disenchanted with their local papers for endorsing their opponents and hoped to deny them any benefit from the new FCC rules.

In the end, Congress rolled back part of the FCC’s decision.  The lesson is clear.  It is impossible to divorce politicians from their desire to influence the press.   They will favor outlets that favor them and penalize those that are unsympathetic to their cause.  This is not surprising; witness the Obama Administration’s aborted attempts to ostracize FOX news. Giving the U.S. government the power to decide on a national scale which news outlets or journalist survive would fundamentally change the balance of power between government and the press.  It is important to note that the Obama Administration lost its fight with FOX. If billions of dollars of subsidies had been on the line, would other news outlets have rallied to FOX’s defense?

If the federal government subsidizes news coverage, it will gain substantial new leverage over the press. It is hard to image how this could ever be conducive to quality journalism.

Richard Russell is CEO and managing partner of VIAforward.