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Government shouldn’t fund the news

Imagine if President Donald Trump signed a bill providing millions of dollars to fund news organizations that competed with CNN or The New York Times.

There’d be widespread outrage, along with cries of “fake news.” Government-funded propaganda is something done in Russia or North Korea, not the United States. That reaction would be completely justified. Reporting the news is vital to our democratic republic, but just as important is that the government keep its hands out of newsrooms.

Recent developments in New Jersey deserve the same response. Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill creating the Civic Information Consortium and giving it $5 million. Government appointees will run the nonprofit in conjunction with five universities, and it will give grants to groups that produce local news.

It should have been named the Pravda Information Consortium.

The path to political manipulation is obvious. The law allows members of one political party to have a majority on the organization’s board, which will allow it to determine who gets the grants. Requiring that the grantees work with member universities will also skew the applicant pool leftward. The legislation even recognizes this inherent conflict and says “the grantee shall be independent from the influence of the state, a member university and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source.”

That sounds nice, but good luck getting another grant if you publish an exposé on a politically powerful figure in New Jersey. Independence from the government is critical for the integrity and credibility of news organizations. But when you apply for a grant from the state, you’ve already given it influence over your organization. There’s a good reason why newspapers keep a wall between the news and advertising departments.

There’s a more pragmatic concern. If local newspapers are struggling, the worst thing the government can do is send in a state-subsidized competitor. News outlets have it hard enough without having to send cash to their competition.

The news business is a challenging one. Consumer habits are changing rapidly, and many news companies are still searching for a sustainable business model. The federal government’s imposition of a tariff on newsprint has been painful, especially for smaller papers. If you’re looking for a way to help newspapers, urge federal lawmakers to repeal the tariff.

But the government’s job isn’t to solve everyone’s problems. It’s to secure freedom and provide basic services. When the government starts funding the news, it makes it harder for private news companies to compete and sets a dangerous precedent.

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