All the President's Newsmen

The stupidity of getting government involved in the journalism business


In her 2007 book The End of America, Naomi Wolf warned readers that our democracy was cracking up, that America was hurdling toward a "fascist" future. The Nation's John Nichols singled-out Wolf's slim treatise as the "best political book of 2007," arguing that The End of America illustrated convincingly the "parallels between steps taken by the current administration and moves made by the 20th century's most notorious dictators." Since the election of Barack Obama, Wolf has wisely avoided explaining why these prophesies of a star-spangled National Socialism never panned out. But while Nichols might no longer look to the White House and see the Reichskanzlei, he has nevertheless identified a very different, but no less serious, threat to America's democratic institutions.

In a story for The Nation, co-written with University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney, Nichols frets that American journalism is "collapsing," that it's an institution that "is all but extinguished." That various regional newspapers have shut their doors—while others are teetering on the edge of extinction—amounts to "a crisis that could leave a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake." It is the press corps, Nichols and McChesney argue, that "sustain" this country's "democratic infrastructure."

If such breathless declamations strike the reader as unnecessarily hyperbolic, it is worth considering that the authors too once held America's mainstream media in low esteem. In 2005, Nichols and McChesney authored a book called Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy, featuring a foreword by the actor and political activist Tim Robbins. It is odd, then, that the very media that once acted as a destroyer of democracy is now judged to be vital to the survival of democracy.

According to Nichols and McChesney, newspapers, talk radio, and cable news channels have abrogated their journalistic responsibilities in order to—surprise!—satisfy their corporate paymasters. They have ignored the type of stories that run in The Nation in the hopes of satiating the plebian news consumer's desire to study the minutiae of "the Octomom's" daily schedule. It is imperative, Nichols and McChesney write, that the Fourth Estate again returns to "the Murrow and Cronkite eras," when news choice was limited and a gentleman's agreement (don't talk about the president's relationship with the Mafia bosses' girl; don't ask about vote rigging in Chicago and West Virginia) governed the media's relationship with the Kennedy White House.

Before establishing that the government should involve itself in the preservation of unprofitable newspapers, Nichols and McChesney make it clear that they think "there are still tremendous journalists doing outstanding work, but they battle a system increasingly pushing in the opposite direction. (That is why some of the most powerful statements about our current circumstances come in the form of books, like Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine; or documentaries, like Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine)." And later, in case one gets the impression that they have little appreciation for the enormous number of high-quality journalistic ventures online, they offer this further clarification: "Don't get us wrong. We are enthusiastic about many of the efforts to promote original journalism online, such as ProPublica, Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post." Do you get it now? It isn't accuracy that so concerns these saviors of American democracy—Naomi Klein's book and Michael Moore's film have been repeatedly debunked in the pages of Reason, incidentally—it is ideology.

Nor do they consider that while Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Politico boom, the ossified regional newspapers are seeing their influence wane because, in most cases, they simply put out a bad product. For instance, Nichols and McChesney lament that the economic problems of The San Francisco Chronicle—a national emergency that has prompted the intervention of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—would "leav[e] a major city without a major daily newspaper." Indeed it would, though this fails to address a more serious problem: The Chronicle isn't a very good newspaper. In 2000, San Francisco-based writer Joan Walsh wondered in Salon why "this literate city, with its high concentration of overeducated book lovers and its new media savants, [is] saddled with the most mediocre daily journalism in the country."

The solution to all of this is, Nichols and McChesney argue, is to "recognize and embrace the necessity of government intervention" along the European model, where, in many countries, newspapers are partially subsidized by the state. (Incidentally, the latest edition of The Nation urges its readers to donate money to the failing Italian communist newspaper Il Manifesto, whose current issue features a review of Mickey Rourke's The Wrestler which slips in a denunciation of Milton Friedman in the very first sentence.)

But despite massive spending on print media in France, for example, the newspaper industry is still flailing. French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced a plan to provide a billion Euros (in addition to existing subsidies) to shore up struggling dailies, even suggesting that the government finance free newspaper subscriptions for students. In Sweden, presstöd (press support) has created a series of atrophied institutions, resistant to change, and staffed by lethargic journalists that are nearly impossible to fire. A recent report from the Swedish Competition Authority argued that government intervention into the newspaper business has had the unintended consequence of preventing competition: "Press support has hardly fulfilled its original intent of preserving a large range of different daily newspapers in local markets…The rules governing support can complicate the establishment of new newspapers and have had a preservative effect on the newspaper market."

To the self-important journalists who believe themselves a bulwark against impending tyranny, such an arrangement suits them just fine. But what would Nichols and McChesney, both of whom have written scathing denunciations of the media's behavior in the run up to the Iraq War, have said if the very same journalists wrote the very same stories in 2002 but were reliant upon the Bush administration for their survival?

The more important point, though, is that if failing newspapers are propped up by Washington—in the name of democracy, of course—what mechanism would force them to innovate or to address the deep institutional problems of a declining industry? Such interventions could potentially ensure survival, albeit temporary, of failing media outlets, but it is ludicrous to assume that a government bailout would reverse a steep decline in readership. Short of a Sarkozy-like plan to force newspaper subscriptions upon those indolent, insolent, and ill-educated youths of Denver, a Washington stake in the Rocky Mountain News would be an investment only Jim Cramer could love.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.