News Media, Save Yourselves

Originally posted: June 12, 2010

American society relies on a strong news industry to provide the information needed for self-governance. That information flow is threatened as the news industry struggles financially, cutting budgets and laying off reporters.

The problem with most of the trendy proposals on how to save journalism, however, is that they rely heavily on government intervention and funding. Further, there is a growing assumption that government must somehow be involved in “saving” journalism.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., now ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, told a workshop last winter: “Eventually, government is going to have to be responsible to help resolve these issues.” Former Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks, who left to work for the Pentagon, has called for direct government subsidy, “using tax dollars and granting licenses in ways that encourage robust and independent reporting and commentary.”

It is one thing for the government to meddle in the banking or auto industries, but jumping in to fix journalism’s problems is another. The ability of the press to independently scrutinize and report on government would be forever altered should Congress try to change the structure or financing of a free press. Government involvement necessarily brings government strings. The press simply can’t be a watchdog of government while relying on direct or even indirect federal funding.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., introduced The Newspaper Revitalization Act in 2009, which would essentially let newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. The problem with this proposed legislation is that government defines what constitutes a newspaper. A government-defined paper would be one that publishes for general circulation and carries “stories of interest to the general public.” The government should not be deciding which stories are of public interest.

A recent proposal to fund local news reporting comes from the media-reform organization, Free Press. This plan recommends that public media outlets play a larger role in covering local news, with funding coming from a trust created with government-provided revenues. An increased role for public media in journalism is worthy of discussion, but the apparatus needed to generate the billions of dollars for the trust creates concern.

A Free Press proposal for generating the money would be to assess a 1 percent tax on sales of consumer electronics, including televisions, computers and iPods. Tough economy or not, it is hard to picture the public accepting this kind of tax.

Another Free Press idea to raise money is to tax advertising revenues on television, Internet, billboards and sports stadiums. Opposition from the powerful commercial-media industry would likely stop this initiative, but even if such a plan were enacted, the costs would simply be pushed on to consumers anyway.

Then there is the matter of reforming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), as Free Press recommends, to oversee this massive journalism trust fund. This would surely be a political football, with government appointees wrestling over what constitutes good journalism.

The Federal Trade Commission also wants in on the act, with a recent report of proposals on the “reinvention of journalism.” The report discusses a journalism division of AmeriCorps, more money for CPB, a national Fund for Local News and grants to universities to conduct investigative journalism. All of this would be paid for by the government through some combination of taxes on advertising, broadcast spectrum, consumer electronics and monthly cell-phone usage.

Journalism does need to be saved. There have been big drops in the commercial news sectors of newspapers, local television and radio, and network television in the past few years. Thousands of reporting jobs have been cut, meaning that the citizenry now gets fewer stories and a compressed news agenda. That hurts our democracy. New journalistic approaches such as citizen journalists and bloggers can’t fill the gaps.

Saving journalism should be led by the profession itself. News consumers abandoned traditional news outlets, in part, because of perceptions that the media are biased and sensational. The industry needs to re-convince citizens about the importance of news and demonstrate that they are not “informed” just because they watch “The Daily Show” and spend hours on social-networking websites. This won’t be easy, of course, and will necessitate a cultural transformation of sorts, particularly for young citizens who think they are informed after reading pop-culture blogs and browsing YouTube.

Ultimately, however, the government should not be saving journalism.

As former Federal Communications Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth recently wrote, “As a country, we are richer with an impoverished but independent media than we are with more affluent but government-influenced media.”

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.”


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