Public option for press should get the red pen

Adam Thierer Contributor
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A major American industry is struggling. Some are calling for subsidies to prop it up; potentially even a bailout. Assistance for displaced workers is also recommended. And a variety of new regulations are proposed to avoid future calamities.

Is it the auto industry? The financial sector? The housing market?

No, it’s the media. With many traditional media providers—newspapers, broadcasters, and others—languishing in the midst of unprecedented marketplace changes and technological upheaval, some regulatory activists are suggesting government should take steps to “save journalism” before venerable news-gathering institutions and reporters are swept away by the ongoing digital tsunami.

While it’s easy to sympathize with the plight many media providers find themselves in, the prospect of the media being treated as a publicly funded ward of the State isn’t just a small leak in the important wall between Press and State, it is the end of that wall. It would potentially open the door to a fundamental corruption of the journalistic profession by public officials, who would not likely be able to resist the urge to pressure those who are subservient to them. And it would force taxpayers to prop up media outlets and personalities they want no part of.

Ironically, many of the same “liberal” groups now calling for government invention to “help” struggling media companies bear much of the blame for their infirmity, having spent years tying their hands at every juncture. Groups like Free Press, the Media Access Project, the Center for Digital Democracy, and others, have vociferously protested any attempt to liberalize archaic media ownership rules and other regulations from the “I Love Lucy” era. Indeed, few appreciate how America’s media marketplace is subjected to almost constant meddling— especially by bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission—or how difficult this pervasive government intervention makes it for traditional media companies to adapt to the rapidly changing media landscape. A crazy-quilt of rules govern almost every aspect of the media business: how many outlets a firm can own; who can partner with whom; who must carry a competitor’s signal; under what terms channels can be carried; what wireless operators can use their spectrum for; when commercials can be aired; and what words can be uttered at certain times of the day.

While liberalization is desperately needed—indeed, there is the risk it is already too late—the sort of “media reform” that many Left-leaning regulatory activists have in mind would simply give government (and these “media reformista” groups) more control over media in America. The reformista blueprint has two components. First, continue to smother private media platforms with old rules and layer-on some new ones. Second, having foreclosed private restructuring efforts by blocking real regulatory reform, they claim “market failure” and call for the equivalent of a “public option” for the press. Unsurprisingly, massive government subsidies and investment in news and entertainment are the recommended cure.

Free Press, the most vocal and radical of all these reformista groups, recently proposed a comprehensive plan for “saving the news” that reads like a Soviet 5-year plan. Their industrial policy for journalism includes over $50 billion in subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other bureaucracies, a “journalism jobs program” for that would be part of AmeriCorps, a variety of new tax incentives for struggling media operations or individuals who support favored institutions, and an assortment of government incentives to encourage local ownership and media divestiture (by handing over control to smaller operators or minority-owned groups). The group’s founder, the prolific neo-Marxist media scholar Robert W. McChesney, has spoken of “the urgency to assert public control over the media” and has argued that “unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution.” That revolution will, no doubt, be easier once more journalists are on the public dole.

In an essay McChesney penned with John Nichols of The Nation last year, the radical scope of their ambitions become clear: Saving journalism essentially requires that media become an appendage of the state. Journalism, they claim, is a “public good,” which—like education and defense—requires constant government oversight and support: “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.” They ask us to consider the $60 billion in government spending they propose as a “free press ‘infrastructure project,’” that “would keep the press system alive. And it has the added benefit of providing an economic stimulus.” (Apparently, everything stimulates the economy these days!)

Some in Congress seem willing to listen. The Senate has already held hearings about the future of journalism. And Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) recently introduced the “Newspaper Revitalization Act,” which would allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations in an effort to help them stay afloat. Importantly, however, the bill would also disallow political endorsements on newspaper editorial pages—which, like campaign finance restrictions, would be a boon for incumbents. That should serve as fair warning to journalists about the sort of strings lawmakers will attach to press-welfare efforts going forward. What else might subsidized media entities have to put up with? Free campaign ads for politicians? A Fairness Doctrine or mandatory right of reply for printed editorials? Censorship for “negative” political satire or comics?

Regulatory agencies are getting into the act, too. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently hosted a workshop asking “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” but didn’t bother first answering the question of where it even gets the authority to explore the issue. Ditto for the FCC, which has also gotten in on the action with “an agency-wide initiative to assess the state of media in these challenging economic times”—ironic, since the agency created much of this mess itself.

How would a public option for the press be paid for? The reformistas rarely get around to explaining that. They’ll probably start by bumping Rupert Murdoch’s marginal tax rate up to 99% and then expect the rest of us to pay our “fair share” eventually. However, in recent comments filed with the FTC, Free Press floated “a small tax on advertising” as one way to pay for a press bailout. Thus, with one hand Free Press blocks media liberalization efforts and, with the other, they take away the one traditionally successful method of supporting private media operations! Any way you cut it, the Free Press plan to “save journalism” reads more like a death warrant for private media. As the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its latest State of the News Media report, “The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem—the decoupling… of advertising from news.” There’s probably no way policymakers can stem the migration of ad dollars to other platforms, nor should they try. But they shouldn’t be creating new obstacles to the survival of traditional media creators, either.

Finally, the case for government intervention is even less persuasive in light of the exciting new media business models and entities that are developing today. The Daily Caller is just one of many examples of the ingenuity that can still be supported by advertising, rather than taxation. The creative destruction some older providers are coping with isn’t pretty, but new media platforms and delivery methods are sprouting like wild flowers, and no one is certain of what the future holds. If the Free Press and other regulatory activist groups get their way, however, we will all be picking up the tab for a public press system few of us actually demand.

Adam Thierer is the president of The Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC (www.pff.org) and the co-author with Brian Anderson of A Manifesto for Media Freedom (Encounter Books, 2008).