Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

12.02.2009

Interesting Bedfellows

By Shawn Healy
Among the five five freedoms the First Amendment guarantees is broad protections for a private press. Over time, this has encompassed almost absolute prohibition of prior government review of publication, a high standard to prove libel against public figures, and significant protection for reporters' use of anonymous sources. The private press considers these safeguards fundamental to their performance of the watchdog role critical to the perpetuation of democratic government, and has long cast suspicion on any active government role in propping up their existence.

Indeed, the industry abides by three mantras that constitute their very own version of the "separation between church and state":
  1. A wall between business interests (paid advertisers) and newspaper content.
  2. Strict boundaries between reporting and editorializing (these have eroded in recent years).
  3. Fierce independence from the public figures and government bodies they report upon.
I'll leave aside mantras one and two for future posts, and center my attention on the third.

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission sponsored a conference considering government assistance to the ailing newspaper industry. One option presented would ease antitrust exceptions that prohibit media organizations to own multiple entities in the same market. Others, namely Rupert Murdoch of Wall Street Journal and Fox News fame, lamented about the scavenging of "free content" by online aggregators like the Huffington Post. Ariana Huffington responded with a lengthy defense of new media, taking offense to the us versus them mentality, yet labeling Murdoch and his denizens the "horse and buggies" of the Information Age.

Other concrete proposals for government assistance have surfaced in recent months, including Maryland Senator Ben Cardin's idea to enable newspapers to operate as tax-exempt organizations. Let's not also forget that government support of the industry is nothing new, the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which created joint operating agreements in two-newspaper towns, the most prominent example.

Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal of the Online Journalism Review recycle an important argument made by Herbert Gans and others: the federal and state governments have subsidized journalism since the founding of the Republic. Reduced postage rates, preferential tax treatment, and significant government print expenditures of public notices in private papers are the holy trinity of "church-state" syndicalism.

Cowan and Westphal offer three notes of caution as the "brave new world" of government-newspaper cooperation encroaches:
  1. Do No Harm: Government support should not retard necessary innovations in the industry. The Newseum in Washington is a wonderful archive of the industry's past, and any potential partnership should be forward-focused...
  2. Encourage Experimentation: The authors elevate the Pentagon's investment in what evolved into the Internet as case in point.
  3. Avoid "Excessive Entanglement": Broad protections like those highlighted above are preferable to government support of specific "news outlets, publications, or programs."
I would offer a fourth note, one that places the First Amendment front and center.

Broad press protections were embedded in our governing charter back in 1791 based on a basic concern: historically, the government and the press were one, and this parylzed self-government, for citizens were unable to gather the information necessary to evaluate candidates for public office (assuming competitive elections) and hold those elected accountable.

I am confident that the press will survive in one form or another, but fear that the word "free" that does and should precede press is in increasing peril.

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


First Amendment journalism initiative


The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at



Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project


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