Rosa Brooks: We need government-owned newspapers

Rosa Brooks will leave the LA Times to become a flack for the Pentagon, to which she lightheartedly refers as her “personal government bailout.”  However, she wants a more expansive government program for her ex-colleagues, in the form of an industry-wide bailout.  The reason?  It appears to be that we need journalism to keep government honest, and the best way to accomplish that is for government to control journalism.


If newspapers become mostly infotainment websites — if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further — and if we’re soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable “news” and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned the Bush administration’s flimsy case for war in Iraq — and the price for that failure will be paid for generations.

It’s time for a government bailout of journalism.

If we’re willing to use taxpayer money to build roads, pay teachers and maintain a military; if we’re willing to bail out banks and insurance companies and failing automakers, we should be willing to part with some public funds to keep journalism alive too. In an article in the April 6 Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney offer some ideas on how to bail out the news industry. They suggest, for instance, eliminating postal rates for periodicals that get less than 20% of their revenues from advertising, a tax credit for the first $200 taxpayers spend on newspaper subscriptions and a substantial expansion of funding for public broadcasting. Meanwhile, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced legislation to allow many existing newspapers to restructure as tax-exempt nonprofit educational institutions. And these ideas are just a start.

I can hardly believe that Brooks wrote this, and the LA Times published it.  “How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes?”  Why, they’ll buy a press and tell us themselves!  Don’t humans have a long history of their ruling classes being open and honest about their corruptions and incompetence?

Er, no, we don’t.  In fact, that’s why most of us value an independent media over a Ministry of Information.  When government holds the strings, government will dictate the actions and the product.  We need look no further than Barack Obama’s firing of GM CEO Rick Wagoner, and the diktats on company policy on product lines that have followed in the wake of their $14 billion bailout subsidy.

Brooks gets even more absurd when she blames a lack of government subsidy on pre-Iraq War reporting.  First, it’s a myth that faulty reporting led to the war; Democrats and Republicans both used the same intel and gave the same answers on Iraqi WMD, as did all of the Western democracies.  The intel was wrong, a problem that better reporting would not have solved.  It’s a huge myth that pre-war reporting was massively supportive of the 2003 invasion or the 2002 Congressional vote that authorized it.  But even if it were true, does Brooks really believe that a newspaper industry dependent on the Bush administration for its funding would have done a better job in holding him accountable?

Rosa Brooks, meet Human Nature.  Human Nature, Rosa Brooks.  Take some time to get acquainted.

She also dishonestly mixes roads and schools with private-industry bailouts.  Almost everyone would agree that bulding and maintaining roads and bridges are legitimate government functions, as well as schools, although many would debate what level of government should have those responsibilities.  The number of people who think that government has a legitimate role in propping up automakers and insurers are much smaller, and probably growing smaller by the day.  Building that as a consensus to bail out newspapers is ludicrous.  Are newspapers public utilities?  No, nor should they be.

Brooks’ valediction makes little sense outside of a spitballing session to see how to sell a newspaper bailout.  She doesn’t think any of her arguments through, and winds up sounding incoherent.  Hopefully she will do better at the Pentagon, although I rather doubt it.