TV types too eager for spot at tax trough


Louisiana is a sportsman's paradise. Especially if your sport is bagging graft and patronage.

This is the state that brought us the lottery scandals of 1895, Huey Long's "deduct box" of extorted money from public employees, the imprisonment of Gov. Dick Leche for using government workers on private jobs, the oft-indicted but once-convicted Gov. Edwin Edwards (who boasted that the only way he would lose an election was if he were caught in bed with a live boy or dead girl), and a sitting congressman, William Jefferson, who was found with $90,000 in cold, hard cash in his freezer after being videotaped taking a bribe in an FBI sting.

This is the state in which the politicians were so nettled by the investigative reporting about their various nefarious deeds that they wanted to impose a special tax on newspapers. In the 1970s, when lawmakers passed a law adding punitive damages to libel judgments, it was dubbed the "Lynch Law," in recognition of longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Bill Lynch.

As if that gumbo of schemes to disincentivize the media weren't foul enough, now comes Louisiana's U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters convention here in Las Vegas this past week, with a proposal to give broadcasters subsidies and special privileges in times of disaster.

Landrieu noted that after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, only one television station remained on the air. Of course that was because Belo Corp. had the foresight to invest their ample profits in upgrades of its equipment so it could survive the storm and continue to do business.

Before the spittle was dry on Landrieu's microphone, the Radio-Television News Directors Association had sidled up to stick their collective snouts in the giant trough of federal tax dollars and endorsed her bill, which is dubbed the First Responders Broadcasters Act of 2007, because it accords broadcasters prerogatives similar to those of police, firefighters, ambulances and guardsmen.

Taking money and privileges from the government for doing news reporting is like accepting favors from la cosa nostra or selling your immortal soul to some guy named Mephistopheles. There's always a hellacious payback.

Under Landrieu's proposal, $10 million in tax money could be spent to upgrade broadcasters' equipment. In addition, during a disaster broadcast reporters would be provided taxpayer-purchased fuel, food and water.

No such largesse would accrue for newspapers or magazines or Internet reporters -- only radio and TV reporters.

Furthermore, the bill would make the local municipality of the affected disaster area the authority for issuing press credentials.

The power to issue is the power to deny.

So what might happen down at the Democrat-controlled New Orleans City Hall if both CNN and Fox News reporters came side-by-side on bended knee seeking said press credentials so they could cruise around and observe the chaos? (Hint: Canceled Democratic presidential debate.)

Would Mayor Ray Nagin be eager to hand out credentials to photographers so they could show the abandoned school buses, the filth-strewn Superdome, panic at the convention center and shoplifting cops?

And might broadcast reporters training their cameras on similar debacles during some future catastrophe entertain nagging doubts about portraying their benefactors in a less than positive light, biting the hand that feeds them, so to speak?

From such pampered broadcasters would there be tales of FEMA failures and bad planning by the Army Corps of Engineers and misdirected funds by the levee boards?

I seem to recall the Times-Picayune and the Sun Herald over in Biloxi, Miss., both won Pulitzers for their coverage of Katrina via the Internet and cobbled-together newsprint editions, but the senator seems to see no value in their efforts.

Nor, I suspect, would the editors of either newspaper be much inclined to accept her handouts and privileges, knowing full well the strings that would attach. I say this with some confidence, having worked for Sun Herald Executive Editor Stan Tiner for 10 years in Shreveport, La.

Landrieu told the NAB conventioneers, "The Gulf Coast needs the broadcasters who can tell the truth about what actually happened."

Unvarnished truth seldom comes from a bought-and-paid-for mouthpiece.

So much for "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..."

One may abridge by taking or giving. Results are the same.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and the First Amendment. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.

 

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