OPINION: Press freedom not served by public subsidy

For decades “progressives” have screamed about the necessity of an impenetrable wall of separation between church and state. To hear their weeping and gnashing of teeth, a cross on a war monument or a reference to God in political discourse was one short step from a fundamentalist theocracy.
Now one of their own has suggested that the government start subsidizing the news business, which would do far more to undermine government of, by and for the people than any religious presence ever has.
Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, joined with Columbia University communication professor Michael Schudson to argue in Columbia Journalism Review that in the midst of an explosion of advocacy journalism, it’s the government’s job to support news organizations.
“In the plurality of the American media universe, advocacy journalism is not endangered – it is growing,” the pair wrote. “What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs. Reporting the news means telling citizens what they would not otherwise know.”
It’s true: Big cities and tiny towns have lost venerable newspapers, and network news programs are losing viewers rapidly. But if government involves itself in promoting journalism, what’s to keep it from playing favorites?
Downie is quick to say he’s not suggesting direct subsidies for news media. Instead, he suggests that news organizations “substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs” be granted nonprofit 501(c)(3) status or low-profit Limited Liability Corporation status.
It sounds good on the surface – even like a way to further separate government from the news business.
Except that somebody has to decide who is “substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs.” Under the Obama administration, CNN and the Washington Post might be favored as a nonprofit or an LLC, but Fox News – “Let’s not pretend they’re a news network,” White House communications director Nita Dunn said recently – almost certainly would not.
And nonprofits can’t advocate for or against specific legislation.
And nonprofits can receive donations from other nonprofits and foundations – many of which are clearly advocacy groups.
There are no unbiased journalists and, as much as NPR or PBS might like to claim it, no unbiased news organizations.
The government should not subsidize the news, directly or indirectly, as it would hand politicians and bureaucrats one massive carrot and stick.

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal