You can’t have it both ways.
Writing in The Washington Post recently, John Nichols and Robert McChesney bemoan the decline and presumed eventual death of American newspapers. They quote President Obama as saying, "I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding."
They claim the present marketplace kills 1,000 journalism jobs a month, and call for a financial model to pay journalists to "question, analyze and speak truth to power."
Their answer is as old as the First Amendment itself: federal subsidies.
Nichols and McChesney correctly note that the post-colonial press was sustained by postal and printing contracts from the various levels of government. "The first generations of Americans never imagined that the market would provide sound or sufficient journalism," they write. "The notion was unthinkable. They established enlightened subsidies, which broadened the marketplace of ideas and enhanced and protected core freedoms. Their initiatives were essential to America’s progress."
They neglect one niggling little point. The post-colonial press was beholding to its benefactors and, as such, was partisan, vicious, sniping and subjective to the core. There was no incentive for fact-checking, putting stories in context. Those papers were much like the benighted blogsphere, full of shouting across the void.
A cursory perusal of early journals reveals a propensity for scandal and favoritism. Even Thomas Jefferson financially supported the writings of anti-Federalists such as James Callender, right, who viciously attacked George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Callender was jailed under the the Sedition Act. When Jefferson was elected president, Callender expected a postmaster job. When he did not get it, he turned on Jefferson, penning the famous allegation that Jefferson fathered children by a slave named Sally Hemmings.
A subsidized press is hardly the answer.
Nichols writes for the Nation and McChesney is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are co-authors of an upcoming book called "The Death and Life of American Journalism." I won’t fail to miss it.