Indeed, the industry abides by three mantras that constitute their very own version of the "separation between church and state":
- A wall between business interests (paid advertisers) and newspaper content.
- Strict boundaries between reporting and editorializing (these have eroded in recent years).
- Fierce independence from the public figures and government bodies they report upon.
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:
- 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...
- Encourage Experimentation: The authors elevate the Pentagon's investment in what evolved into the Internet as case in point.
- Avoid "Excessive Entanglement": Broad protections like those highlighted above are preferable to government support of specific "news outlets, publications, or programs."
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.