Government Bailout of Newspaper Business a Terrible Idea

Some veteran and excellent journalists are suggesting a taxpayer bailout for financially floundering (and possibly foundering) daily newspapers. My objection is an old one: "If you accept the Queen's shilling, you dance the Queen's tune." Lower postal ra

Nov 10, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Some veteran and excellent journalists are suggesting a taxpayer bailout for financially floundering (and possibly foundering) daily newspapers. That idea is worse than the federal shield law for journalists (On Second Thought column Oct. 28) in Congress now.

My objection is an old one: “If you accept the Queen's shilling, you dance the Queen's tune.”

Lower postal rates for newspapers and magazines are a good idea, but direct government financing would be toxic, whether it involved our national dailies, local papers or the Associated Press, a cooperative owned by daily papers.

Even the appearance of subsidies should erode faith in the integrity of what newspapers report to where it could not recover. We’d have newspapers without readers. Then no newspapers. And finally no more news organizations capable of serious reporting, whether in print or online. It’s already happening, and we’re on that slippery slope with both feet.

To believe that a bailout would be benign is to welcome someone who says, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Or, put another way, the temptation to interfere with news gathering and publication would be irresistible to any administration helping to pick up the tab. I can hear it now: “These papers have accepted taxpayer dollars and we wouldn’t be responsible if we let them..."

Be sure it would happen and federal officials would assert that they uniquely occupy the moral high ground as stewards of the public purse. Bunkum.

Yes, we have PBS and NPR, but they already are regulated as broadcasters and must defend their integrity from political appointees in exchange for their federal subsidies.

It’s the nature of power. Why have it if you don’t use it?

After all, publishers influence coverage,by direct intervention, choice of editors or allocation of resources. Editors are paid to influence news judgment. Advertisers sometimes try to influence reporting on their affairs. That’s the nature of our dailies, however much some rant against “corporate” media.

Government is different. Accepting federal money would surrender newspapers’ independence. The First Amendment admonition that “Congress shall make no law..." would remain, but as lenders/investors in dailies the federal government would find hitherto only imagined ways to regulate the press.

When government is an insider, there's the implicit threat of real trouble if daily papers — and that’s what we’re talking about — cross someone in power. Maybe it’s a casual suggestion that a troublesome reporter be fired or an IRS audit or uncommon acute SEE questions or demands for reporters’ notes and threats to lift the shield law or visits by local fire and health inspectors. The only limit on the misery that government can cause is the creativity of an elected official or unelected bureaucrat.

If someone were to begin to seriously advocate a bailout, I’m afraid it would unite friends and foes of a free press. It would be a repeat of the common front being made in support of the federal shield law in Congress now: Friends would see federal money as salvation, foes would correctly envision a long desired muzzle.

Implicit or explicit control over subsidized news media would not be likelier under a Democratic administration and Congress than under Republicans. Both like the idea of more power.

A federal bailout is an idea to be shunned, fought and defeated by the news media that federal subsidies are meant to help.

Curmudgeon Notes

• France is trying a different approach to bolster its struggling dailies: In addition to direct subsidies, it's offering a year’s free subscription to 18- to 24-year-olds. Dozens of participating dailies and the government are splitting the cost. France has low daily readership and unabashedly high partisanship among its publications. Maybe a combination of topless models and sports will draw readers, but why bother when there is more of both online?

• Boris Johnson is about as posh as a contemporary Englishman can get, a Eton/Oxford Conservative who won the mayor’s job for London by beating incumbent “Red Ken” Livingstone with a strong anti-crime campaign. The other day, as he cycled home from the office, he rescued stranger Franny Armstrong from an attacking girl gang. He shouted, “What do you think you are doing?” and chased the mob off, riding his bicycle and waving the iron bar that one of the girls dropped. Then he walked Armstrong home and cycled on. Armstrong told The Daily Mail that she’d voted for Livingstone but “If you find yourself down a dark alleyway and in trouble I think Boris would be of more use than Ken.” Now think about Cincinnati. Our mayor might shout to his tax-paid and omnipresent armed bodyguard, “Stop them, Scotty.”

• Local coverage of GE Aircraft at Evendale lost sight of Air Force and Republican and Democratic opposition to spending billions on GE’s alternative engine for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Bush and Obama administrations said it was a waste after giving the contract to Pratt & Whitney. That hasn’t changed. Congress, sensitive to jobs in home districts, keeps pouring money in. Is it "pork barrel" and "useless earmarks" elsewhere but "jobs" when federal money comes here? GE’s arguments for not relying on one supplier and one engine might be valid, but it’s the holes in local reporting that trouble me.

• People probably are dying of annual Type A flu. Its season peaks in December, January and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which predicts that 36,000 Americans will be killed by the seasonal flu. As far as the news media are concerned, this appears to be an acceptable public health risk, as are deaths from traffic accidents, gun shots, smoking, AIDS, obesity and alcoholism. Few reporters will take the trouble to contact CDC or state health agencies for seasonal flu fatalities. It’s like “Freshmen Arrive on Campus” or “Seniors Graduate” stories — only the dimmest would think that’s news. It would be news if people didn’t die of Type A flu or freshmen didn’t arrive and seniors didn’t graduate. Meanwhile, the news media are fussing over H1N1 because it’s not an acceptable risk ... yet.

• Despite all of the coverage, H1N1 hasn’t become a crisis or created the kind of fear that allows governments to further restrict our movements and rights. It might yet happen. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the mainstream news media play their role of informing the public while remaining skeptical about government actions.

• What we didn’t have in 1976 swine flu outbreak was bloggers and talk show hosts on the political/cultural fringe. Their roles in promoting fear of government and opposition to government efforts to mitigate H1N1 spread remains fascinating. Granted, their audiences often are relatively small (AM radio, cable/satellite TV), but the toxin of their paranoid anti-science rants moves too much of the mainstream media agenda.

• In its otherwise smart and useful coverage of H1N1 last Friday, the Business Courier missed a vital point when it talked about companies having plans to cope with employee illnesses: unpaid sick days. Unpaid sick days are common among lower wage earners, and these employees abound in food service and other jobs with lots of public contact. Do we really want sick employees coming to work because they can’t afford to stay home?

• In its timeline for H1N1, the Business Courier reminds us that the virus probably broke into the human populations in Mexico where initial reports linked it to American-owned factory pig farms. Consider the general loss of that information to a triumph of public relations and euphemism. How often do you read about that Mexican link to American factory farms and the shift from “swine flu” to H1N1? Brilliant.

• The scandal of inadequate mental health care for military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is old news — so old that many pundits can’t remember it as they indulge in handwriting about the Fort Hood killings. Years ago, the Pentagon knew it had too few psychologists and psychiatrists. To save more money, it made care scarce and cheated combat veterans by claiming their post-combat emotional problems existed when they enlisted or were sent overseas. And it couldn’t recognize what appears to have been a deeply troubled Army psychiatrist about to be deployed.

• Experience tells me there is an inverse relationship between circulation and trust. Put another way, people trust their small weeklies more than they trust their large dailies and their local TV news people more than networks. So I wasn’t surprised to read an report on a survey by the National Newspaper Association on the strength of community weeklies. “NNA found that 81% of respondents read a local weekly paper each week, 73% read ‘most or all of it,’ and those readers spend an average of 40 minutes with the paper.

“The NNA survey, cosponsored by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, surveyed 500 adults, according to the report. NNA is the national organization for community, or weekly, newspapers. Among its other findings:

“Readers, on average, share their paper with 2.36 additional readers; nearly 40% keep their community newspaper more than a week and three-quarters of readers read local news ‘often to very often’ in their community newspaper, while 53% say they never read local news online (only 12% say they read local news often to very often online).

“Also, among those going online for local news, 63% found it on the local newspaper's web site, compared to 17% for sites such as Yahoo, MSN or Google, and 12% from the website of a local television station; 60% read local education news ‘somewhat to very often’ in their newspaper, while 65% never read local education news online and 47% say there are days they read the newspaper as much for the ads as for the news.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]