This particular press cure would kill the patient


Please save us from those who would save us from ourselves.

From the hallowed halls of government to ivory-covered towers of academia to the twits who Twitter on the Internet, everybody has a cure for what ails the news media business.

But is the journalism business on its sick bed or its death bed?

The nation is in a protracted recession. Advertisers are strapped for cash. Out-of-work subscribers must pick and choose which bills to pay. If these customers were to ever see a ray of hope, the news business might not appear so bleak.

But no, the impatient media physicians have diagnosed a terminal illness and are ready to prescribe drastic measures, even if the cure kills the patient.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission, in its infinite and unsolicited wisdom, drafted a paper pompously titled "Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism." It is full of presumptions, speculation and sophomoric flights of fantasy.

The report does make a few obvious observations before it gets to its litany of destructive and counterproductive recommendations.

"In addition, the news can produce benefits that spread much beyond their readers," the report says. "For example, investigative reporting that results in a staff shakeup in a local hospital can produce better health care for patients in the future, but the news organization that produced that story will receive, at best, limited compensation (perhaps through increased readership) related to having spurred those benefits."

Local and recent examples of this include the ongoing hepatitis C and disrupted neonatal catheter coverage by the Review-Journal.

The report makes some references to whether the courts might better protect the intellectual property rights of copyright and "hot news" before getting to its unpalatable recommendations.

One idea proffered is to give news organizations tax-exempt status under federal IRS law's 501(c)(3) section.

The problem is that this section prohibits editorial endorsement. This would not only pull the teeth from every newspaper editorial page, I guarantee it would soon prompt litigation in which both sides of a campaign claim the news coverage is so biased as to constitute a political endorsement of their opponent.

I see deposition hell from here.

Perhaps the worst idea is direct government subsidies. The report lists various ways this could be done, including more tax money for public broadcasting.

This idea was picked up this past week in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University.

Bollinger has written extensively on free speech and the press. His books include: "Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century;" "Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era; Images of a Free Press;" and "The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America." He teaches an undergraduate course, "Freedom of Speech and Press," at Columbia.

He's got credentials.

But one of his chief arguments for how the press can take handouts from government without being cowed reveals a fundamentally flawed analogy.

"There are examples of other institutions in the U.S. where state support does not translate into official control," Bollinger claims. "The most compelling are our public universities and our federal programs for dispensing billions of dollars annually for research. Those of us in public and private research universities care every bit as much about academic freedom as journalists care about a free press.

"Yet -- through a carefully designed system with peer review of grant-making, a strong culture of independence, and the protections afforded by the First Amendment -- there have been strikingly few instances of government abuse. …"

To which I say: East Anglia. The so-called "Climategate" was not so much about academics cooking the books to satisfy the prejudices and bias of their government funding sources as a recognition of the fact that a certain finding -- that everything is just fine and there is no need to send us more money to research this potent problem -- would have cut off the money spigot.

Can you imagine any bureaucracy, academic or journalistic, that would bite the hand that feeds it -- more than once, that is?

As for Bollinger's citing of BBC and NPR and PBS as glowing examples of journalistic pulchritude, one cannot find three more staunch bastions of liberalism. Could any of them survive in a competitive marketplace without subsidies and charity?

Before selling out for a government handout, those in the journalism business must explore all the market-based models for the sake of truly free speech, liberty and an open, self-determining society.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

 

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