The article below is excerpted from John Nichols and Robert McChesney’s new book The Death and Life of American Journalism.
The founders of the American experiment were even by their own measures imperfect democrats. But they understood something about sustaining democracy that their successors seem to have forgotten. Everyone agrees that a free society requires a free press. But a free press without the resources to compensate those who gather and analyze information, and to distribute that information widely and in an easily accessible form, is like a seed without water or sunlight. It was with this understanding that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and their contemporaries instituted elaborate systems of postal and printing subsidies to assure that freedom of the press would never be an empty promise; to that end they guaranteed what Madison described as “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people…[that] is favorable to liberty.”
Two centuries after Madison wrote those words, American news media are being steered off the cliff by investors and corporate managers who soured on their “properties” when the economic downturn dried up what was left of their advertising bonanza. They are taking journalism with them. Newsrooms are shrinking and disappearing altogether, along with statehouse, Washington and foreign bureaus. And with them goes the circulation of news and ideas that is indispensable to liberty. This is a dire moment for democracy, and it requires a renewal of one of America’s oldest understandings: that a free people can govern themselves only if they have access to independent information about the issues of the day and the excesses of the powerful, and that it is the duty of government to guarantee both the promise and the reality of a free press.
When we recommended government subsidies last year in a Nation cover article (“The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,” April 6), some publishers and pundits objected, forgetting their Jeffersonian roots and arguing, with no sense of irony, that policies promoting diversity and robust debate would foster totalitarianism. Even well-intended Congressional hearings on the crisis avoided discussion of this logical response.
But as 2009 wore on and the crisis extended–with the venerable Christian Science Monitor cutting print production from daily to weekly, newspapers in Seattle and Ann Arbor ceasing print publication to exist solely online, with papers in Denver, Tucson and other cities closing altogether, and with talk of closures from San Francisco to Boston–the urgency of the moment, and the recognition that journalism would not be reborn on the Internet or saved by foundation grants, made it harder to dismiss subsidies. By year’s end, the Columbia Journalism Review was highlighting a report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson that proposed requiring “broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country.” CJR called the idea a “radical suggestion.”