The Truth -- So Long As It's Profitable

"I have always been firmly persuaded," wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "that our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public, from the counting room." Increasingly, the slow decline of American media is proving him right. As the Internet deprives newspapers of the monopolistic business models of yesteryear and the cable channels construct a realm of perfect competition in which mild consumer preferences -- say, for the channel with a bright American flag in the corner rather than the one without -- can be expressed with a click of a remote, the newsroom's traditional buffers against triviality and hollow sensationalism are showing themselves to be deeply inadequate.

Additionally, increased competition and less cross-subsidization from classified ads means that every week's news stories come with a couple articles on how there will be fewer news stories; how this or that paper needed to close this or that bureau because this or that corporate overlord just didn't see the point.

And ah, yes, the corporate overlords. Or even just the accountants. They matter, too. The mandate of the media is not merely to inform. It is to generate revenue for stockholders, or turn enough of a profit to pay its employees. As the authors of Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Company sadly conclude, "News has become secondary, even incidental, to markets and revenues and margins and advertisers and consumer preferences. At its worst, the publicly traded newspaper company, its energy entirely drawn to the financial market's unrealistic and greedy expectations, can become indifferent to news and, thus, ultimately to the fundamental purposes served by news and the press." Or, as George Saunders pithily puts in his essay "The Braindead Megaphone," asking the media to "tell us the truth" is not the same as asking the media to "tell us as much truth as you can, while still making money."

But what if we could go back to "tell us the truth"? What if we could create a funding source that recognized the news' role as a "public good," worthy of some protection from the vicissitudes of quarterly earning reports? What if, in other words, we subsidized it? "Journalism is a rare business in that its product -- news -- has a public-service function, but unlike other public-service activities, like public education or scientific research, it is not protected from market forces by government support," writes Bree Nordenson in the September issue of the Columbia Journalism Review "So when the financial viability of the news business is threatened, so too is the press's role as the fourth estate."

And the market forces are threatening. As Nordenson explains, there's an explosion of activity in the commentary and entertainment sectors of the media, but a decided decline in the resources and viability of the unglamorous, economically intensive news-gathering functions. "[W]ith the business model for news in transition," he writes, "mainstream media owners are cutting staff and reducing content, particularly hard-news coverage, in order to maintain the high profit margins newspapers have historically enjoyed."

But government involvement in journalism -- even to protect it -- is supposedly a radical notion. Just as we fear that corporate ownership of the press will lead to an insufficiently critical approach to corporate power, so too does public subsidy look likely to breed a cozy, even pleading, relationship to those holding power. Yet government has helped the press for years, and the reduced postal rates, copyright protections, favorable tax treatment, and other sundry subsidies don't appear particularly causal in the press's treatment of government action. And that's not even getting into the huge subsidies the government offers in the form of radio and television wave licenses, which grant public bandwidth to private companies. The government is so quiet about this giveaway that they don't so much as demand a few preempted sitcoms to allow full coverage of the quadrennial political conventions.

Nordenson also tells of some stronger subsidy schemes in Europe. Sweden, for instance, has a system dedicated to encouraging reportorial competition. They allocate money to all but the dominant paper in a given market, so as to ensure that no town is stuck being dependent on a single newspaper or news source. The system is fully automatic, and works off a transparent and perfectly predictable formula. And the result? According to Daniel Hallin, chairman of the department of communication at the University of California, San Diego, the implementation of this system was concurrent with "a shift toward a more adversarial press. It is actually very strong evidence that press subsidies don't lead journalists to be timid."

Elsewhere, the United Kingdom spends about $7 billon on public broadcasting, while the United States spends about $480 million. So the British are spending about 15 times as much as we are, despite being only one-fifth our size. The result is that in a country renowned for a vicious, tabloid-style press, the BBC stands protected in the center, producing constant, credible, adversarial journalism that need not compete on grounds of sensationalism.

There are many models America could adopt. An independent commission that allocates money raised by an automatic tax that exists outside -- and thus away from the influence of -- the congressional appropriations process. Or Dean Baker's idea for an "Artistic Freedom Voucher" that would be controlled by taxpayers. Or even a simple, renewed commitment to publicly financed media. This requires overcoming our allergy to government support of goods with a public function. But what an odd nation we are if our discomfort with government support outweighs our fear of a media whose first imperative is to profit, rather than to inform. Such peculiar values would make for a helluva newspaper story, if there's anyone left to write it.

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