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The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers | The Nation

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The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

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Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news. Let's find a king and call it a day.

About the Author

Robert W. McChesney
Robert McChesney is Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. He...
John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The founders regarded the establishment of a press system, the Fourth Estate, as the first duty of the state. Jefferson and Madison devoted considerable energy to explaining the necessity of the press to a vibrant democracy. The government implemented extraordinary postal subsidies for the distribution of newspapers. It also instituted massive newspaper subsidies through printing contracts and the paid publication of government notices, all with the intent of expanding the number and variety of newspapers. When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the quantity and quality of newspapers and periodicals compared with France, Canada and Britain. It was not an accident. It had little to do with "free markets." It was the result of public policy.

Moreover, when the Supreme Court has taken up matters of freedom of the press, its majority opinions have argued strongly for the necessity of the press as the essential underpinning of our constitutional republic. First Amendment absolutist Hugo Black wrote that the "Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society." Black argued for the right and necessity of the government to counteract private monopolistic control over the media. More recently Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, argued that "assuring the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources is a governmental purpose of the highest order."

But government support for the press is not merely a matter of history or legal interpretation. Complaints about a government role in fostering journalism invariably overlook the fact that our contemporary media system is anything but an independent "free market" institution. The government subsidies established by the founders did not end in the eighteenth--or even the nineteenth--century. Today the government doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies, including free and essentially permanent monopoly broadcast licenses, monopoly cable and satellite privileges, copyright protection and postal subsidies. (Indeed, this magazine has been working for the past few years with journals of the left and right to assure that those subsidies are available to all publications.) Because the subsidies mostly benefit the wealthy and powerful, they are rarely mentioned in the fictional account of an independent and feisty Fourth Estate. Both the rise and decline of commercial journalism can be attributed in part to government policies, which scrapped the regulations and ownership rules that had encouraged local broadcast journalism and allowed for lax regulation as well as tax deductions for advertising--policies that greatly increased news media revenues.

The truth is that government policies and subsidies already define our press system. The only question is whether they will be enlightened and democratic, as in the early Republic, or corrupt and corrosive to democracy, as has been the case in recent decades. The answer will be determined in coming years as part of what is certain to be a bruising battle: media companies and their lobbying groups will argue against the "heavy hand of government" while defending existing subsidies. They will propose more deregulation, hoping to capitalize on the crisis to remove the last barriers to print, broadcast and digital consolidation in local markets--creating media "company towns," where competition is eliminated, along with journalism jobs, in pursuit of better returns for investors. Enlightened elected officials, media unions and public interest and community groups that recognize the role of robust journalism are going to have to step up to argue for a real fix.

Fortunately, an increasing number of veteran journalists, scholars and activists are beginning to grasp the historical significance of the present moment and the central role of public policy. It was the late James Carey, decorated University of Illinois and Columbia journalism professor and no fan of government power, who saw this before almost anyone else, writing in 2002: "Alas, the press may have to rely upon a democratic state to create the conditions necessary for a democratic press to flourish and for journalists to be restored to their proper role as orchestrators of the conversation of a democratic culture."

We have to ask where we want to end up, after the reforms have been implemented. In our view we need to have competing independent newsrooms of well-paid journalists in every state and in every major community. This is not about newspapers or even broadcast media; it entails all media and accepts that we may be headed into an era when nearly all of our communication will be digital. Ideally this will be a pluralistic system, where there will be different institutional structures. Varieties of nonprofit media will have to play a much larger role, though not a monopolistic one.

We recognize and embrace the need for a system in which there will be a range of perspectives from left to right, alongside some media more intent on maintaining a less explicitly ideological stance. We must have a system that prohibits state censorship and that minimizes commercial control over journalistic values and pursuits. The right of any person to start his or her own medium, commercial or nonprofit, at any time is inviolable. From this foundation we can envision a thriving, digital citizen's journalism complementing and probably merging with professional journalism. What will the mix be? It would vary, with more not-for-profit and subsidized media in rural and low-income areas, more for-profit media in wealthier ones. The first order of any government intervention would be to assure that no state or region would be without quality local, state, national or international journalism.

We begin with the notion that journalism is a public good, that it has broad social benefits far beyond that between buyer and seller. Like all public goods, we need the resources to get it produced. This is the role of the state and public policy. It will require a subsidy and should be regarded as similar to the education system or the military in that regard. Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. With the collapse of the commercial news system, the same logic applies. Just as there came a moment when policy-makers recognized the necessity of investing tax dollars to create a public education system to teach our children, so 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.

So, if we can accept the need for government intervention to save American journalism, what form should it take? In the near term, we need to think about an immediate journalism economic stimulus, to be revisited after three years, and we need to think big. Let's eliminate postal rates for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of their revenues from advertising. This keeps alive all sorts of magazines and journals of opinion that are being devastated by distribution costs. It is these publications that often do investigative, cutting-edge, politically provocative journalism.

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