So, uh, about that “Freedom of the Press” thing

21 09 2009

Americans of all political persuasions cherish and exploit our basic human right to freedom of speech in all forms, established pretty explicitly in the First Amendment, at any available opportunity.  There are innumerable ways of doing this—you can stand on a soapbox in the U of M Diag whining about the evils of capitalism, you could start a blog, you could make a movie about a presidential assassination (so long as it’s the right president getting assassinated), or you might found a magazine or a newspaper.  If, in the process of speaking your mind freely, you add nothing to the national debate, people will stop listening to you.  If you’re the guy in the Diag, you’ll look like a moron.  If you’re a newspaper, you’ll go out of business.

Or at least you used to.  The New York Times isn’t exactly riding high these days; increasing numbers of the American public have apparently decided that they will not support a publication in which a prominent columnist recently praised the right kind of authoritarianism. The Detroit papers have cut back on their print editions, and many newspapers have simply stopped publishing.  It’s definitely sad to see formerly great print institutions reduced to shadows of their previous glory or forced to shut down entirely, but if they aren’t providing a service that people can’t get elsewhere at a competitive rate, too bad—the right to a free press does not imply the right to keep your presses running even when no-one buys your paper.

Until, perhaps, now: Obama is reportedly “happy to look at” proposals to effectively bail out newspapers.  One form this bailout might take is in allowing newspapers to restructure as non-profits.  Unless this non-profit restructuring effort is extended to all news sources—radio stations, network news, for-profit blogs and web news agencies, etc.—I’m not sure how this can be justified on the grounds of “fairness.”  It seems more likely that the current administration is looking to extend the helping hand of government to yet another interest group that helped ensure the ascendancy, however short-lived it might ultimately be, of the left in this country.

Whatever the motive behind any newspaper bailout may be, it creates (at least) a couple of major problems.

First, it gives a papers a majorly unfair advantage over all other forms of media; everyone else still has to pay taxes and produce a product that people actually want to spend money or time on, while papers will exist in a kind of pathetic, NPR-like state of irrelevance thanks to the kindness of the IRS.  Further, it works to stifle the development of new forms of media that we can’t even imagine at this point.  Blogs would have probably seemed ridiculous when the internet was first developed, let alone fifty years ago—who really cares to read what some non-credentialed blithering moron on the web has to say about anything?  We have no idea what blogs will look like in the future, as the influence of the blogosphere (God, I hate that term) grows.  With a dinosaur-media bailout, we may never get the opportunity to find out.

Second, it is naive beyond belief to think that papers surviving at the whim of the state won’t act as to defend the interest of the state, even if only out of some sense of self-preservation.  After all, it’s hard to openly criticize the institutions that are keeping you afloat.  And no politician ever proposes something that doesn’t have, to some degree, his or her best interest at heart.  We have plenty of examples of what “independent” papers that are official state mouthpieces look like, but few from this country:

Hey, Pravda was a non-profit paper too, so I don't think this if off-limits.

Hey, Pravda was a non-profit paper too, so I don't think this if off-limits.

And before you get caught up in the romantic vision of a staff writer spending late nights, sleeves rolled up, pursuing the truth for some hallowed print institution with a blackletter masthead, remember that such  old-fashioned journalistic integrity remains alive and well today; you just have to step outside of the New York Times building to find it.  The two kids who singlehandedly (doublehandedly?) blew the lid off ACORN were independent investigative journalists in a grand tradition—a tradition that seems to have been handed off to new media.  Few if any major papers saw fit to give the ACORN story the attention it deserved until after it had been thoroughly covered on the web.  And none saw fit to investigate ACORN on their own.

That should tell you more or less all you need to know about why so many papers are where they are, and why they deserve no special dispensation to aid their survival.




One response

21 09 2009

You’re obviously feeling better. Excellent points. Although, as a fellow blogger, I assume the emphasis is on “some” in the “some non-credentialed blithering moron” reference. 😉

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