The Government Co-Option of Newspapers Bill hits Congress

posted at 9:29 am on March 25, 2009 by Ed Morrissey

It didn’t take long for Democrats to try bailing out and co-opting an industry that they see as vital to their cause.  Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) wants to have the federal government fund newspapers, providing the faltering industry with subsidies in exchange for control over their editorial decisions.  They would also become — I’m not kidding — charitable institutions (via Michelle, emphases mine):

With many U.S. newspapers struggling to survive, a Democratic senator on Tuesday introduced a bill to help them by allowing newspaper companies to restructure as nonprofits with a variety of tax breaks.

“This may not be the optimal choice for some major newspapers or corporate media chains but it should be an option for many newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat,” said Senator Benjamin Cardin.

A Cardin spokesman said the bill had yet to attract any co-sponsors, but had sparked plenty of interest within the media, which has seen plunging revenues and many journalist layoffs.

Cardin’s Newspaper Revitalization Act would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies.

Under this arrangement, newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible.

By the way, the Obama administration plans to limit tax deductions for charitable donations.  Maybe Cardin didn’t get that memo, but it would seem to undermine the direction of the newspaper bailout.  Who’s going to donate to newspapers when deductions to real charities — like foodshelves, shelters, churches, and the like — will get less shelter from the IRS?

That’s not the real problem with this plan, however.  This plan tries to place a failing delivery model into amber through government absorption.  The conversion to non-profit is a sick joke; they’re already non-profit, in fact if not in plan.  The solution isn’t to have government fund them, but for news outlets to find better delivery models that can make a profit and keep them in business.

More critically, government funding for news media completely obliterates the reason for having news media at all.  As I wrote in January:

The only reason — the only reason — that news media is vital to a democracy is its independence from government.  Think about this.  Is The National Enquirer vital to democracy?  Will the Republic fall if Entertainment Weekly suddenly closed its doors?  Not at all, not even if the entire paparazzi industry suddenly collapsed.

The need for a truly independent media is to make sure that the citizenry is fully informed of government activity and policy, and not just relying on the self-serving communications from elected officials.  Without independence, newspapers and other media have as much value as press releases from Congressional offices.

Now, what happens when government suddenly takes a stake in newspapers and other media?  Can they remain independent — or will they cater themselves to those politicians who support those subsidies and target politicians who don’t?  In fact, the very act of asking for those bailouts has destroyed their independence and credibility on political matters, the very core of what makes a free media necessary for a democracy.

A news media dependent on government funding and political protection becomes an organ of government, not an independent entity for informing a free people.  The Obama administration might just as well have Organizing for America distribute newsletters door to door with the Approved Information of the Day.  Once newspapers become dependent on government for their survival, they will do nothing to jeopardize their standing with that government, at the state or federal level.  They will form an Orwellian Ministry of Information for whichever party is in charge.

Real journalists would reject this idea.  Let’s see who signs on.


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