Media Matters (To Itself)

What Helen Thomas's career has to do with the FTC's push to reinvent journalism.


When award-winning 89-year-old Hearst columnist Helen Thomas, who occupied the front-row center seat in the White House press room since sometime during the Stone Age, declared last week that Jews should get out of Palestine and go back to Poland and Germany, the immediate reaction amongst the commentariat was to ask whether or not it was finally time for her to go. By Monday of this week, she had retired. But the question that should have been asked was: Why did it take so long?

The Society of Professional Journalists may have named its lifetime achievement award after her, but Helen Thomas's actual journalistic output was as widely ignored as she was known. And for good reason, too. Her columns were dashed-off exercises in sub-Broder conventional wisdom—the only boundaries they pushed were the limits of banality. Here's a random selection of recent Thomas column headlines: "Save Social Security," "Obama Learning To Be A Strong President," "Time To Stand Up To Wall Street," "Ms. Obama Focuses On Healthy Food," and "Obama's News Conference Shows Accountability In Action." Did Hearst really need to pay someone to share the fascinating observation that "if a first lady takes an interest in a cause, it will take off in the country. But it won't wipe out fascination with what she is wearing. That's life." As insights go, this about as original as you win some, you lose some.

No, Helen Thomas wasn't celebrated as a journalist so much as a monument to journalism's historical legacy. She kept her front-row seat, he column, and her steady stream of awards for no reason other than she always had. And the reverence she inspired had little to do with her work and far more to do with the political media's sense of institutional self-importance. Helen Thomas wasn't a very good columnist, but she was a living symbol of a media age past—and the press corps couldn't let her go.

These days, journalists have successfully inculcated a similar sense of sentimental reverence for the media in the federal government. As the media transitions into the digital age and old business models look increasingly shaky, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are investigating how the government can prop up journalistic institutions edging past their prime. And the spirit that drove Washington's press corps to endlessly celebrate Helen Thomas despite her thoroughly mediocre output is the same one driving these agencies' efforts.

A recent discussion draft from the FTC titled "Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism" is only the latest example. Its implicit view is that because the news industry of old is struggling, the federal government needs to look for ways to prop it up. The paper starts with the assumption that, thanks to shrinking newspaper revenues and staff, there now exist "gaps in news coverage" (though aside from a brief mention of reduced reporting staff to file statehouse and Capitol reports—many of which were redundant—it hardly makes an attempt to spell out what these gaps are). And although the report admits that some of those alleged gaps are being filled by upstart online news organizations, it warns that they are small, and may not be capable of filling the gaps, whatever they are, on their own.

Naturally, that's where the FTC comes in. The paper contains a raft of proposals to subsidize, sponsor, support and otherwise "save" the news business. Not all of them are rotten: Increased government transparency and anti-trust exemptions are both ideas worth considering. But most of the ideas seek to include local grants for investigative reporting, national funds for local reporting, increased subsidies for existing public broadcasting, and even a journalism division of AmeriCorps to "ensure that young people who love journalism will stay in the field"—as if what journalism lacks is a supply of earnest, doe-eyed youngsters indebted to a federally-run program for their careers. These aren't proposals to save journalism so much as to save the romance of journalism—the same romance that kept Helen Thomas secure in her press room seat—and to pay for that romance with taxpayer dollars.

That's because saving journalism doesn't come cheap. One proposed set of subsidy-driven solutions—which funds postal subsidies, journalist tax credits, News AmeriCorps, student media, public media, and Citizenship News Vouchers—is estimated to cost as much as $35 billion each year. (To put this in context, the FTC's entire 2009 budget was just $273 million; the FCC's was only $338 million.) So the FTC floats a grab-bag of tech taxes—on communications spectrum, mobile date, advertising, and even consumer electronics, which has already been dubbed the "iPad tax."

The problem with government's fealty to the myths that establishment journalism has created for itself isn't just the expense—it's that it inevitably produces feedback loops. A government that props up the media inevitably leads to a media that props up the government. Despite being cloaked in the language of preservation, the real gap that these proposals fill isn't in news coverage, but in the cozy linkage between government and media. Which is why America needs an iPad tax and a beefed up system of federal media subsidies…well, about as much as it needed columns from Helen Thomas.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.