'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Newspaper Bailout? 

In a story that got little attention a several days ago (with the exception of the ever alert Gaius), President Obama expressed a willingness to provide tax breaks to struggling newspapers:

The president said he is "happy to look at" bills before Congress that would give struggling news organizations tax breaks if they were to restructure as nonprofit businesses.

"I haven't seen detailed proposals yet, but I'll be happy to look at them," Obama told the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade in an interview.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced S. 673, the so-called "Newspaper Revitalization Act," that would give outlets tax deals if they were to restructure as 501(c)(3) corporations. That bill has so far attracted one cosponsor, Cardin's Maryland colleague Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D).

Gaius is supportive, quite rightly expressing concern about the prospects for information in a world without newspapers, raising the spectre of an endless diet of corporate sponsored information. But I'm not sure that I agree. First, the quality of newspapers has declined significantly in the last 20 years, with my local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, being a classic example. Like most papers outside of the major metropolitan areas, it runs the same syndicated columnists, with minor variations, from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune over and over and over again, supplemented with a few uninspiring locals.

Second, much the same can be said of the national and international news articles that they publish, with some exceptions at the larger papers (to its credit, McClatchy, the parent company of the Bee, has retained much of the excellent core of international journalists that it inherited from Knight-Ridder, even if it doesn't quite know what to do with them). Smaller papers have almost completely abdicated any independent role in the coverage of national and international stories by relying upon articles from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Post, if not wire services like the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters. Next time you get a chance, go through your hard copy, printed newspaper, and see how many articles come from these sources.

Local coverage? Don't even go there. Through a combination of staff cuts and transparently self-serving political and economic motivations, the Bee reads a lot like the greensheets of 30 to 40 years ago, you know, those small town papers financed by the advertising dollars of car dealers, real estate agents and local businesses, resulting in a bland, inoffensive product that met with their approval. Young, inexperienced Bee reporters rarely get the stories right, and the overall perspective of the coverage is pro-business, pro-developer (no matter who much public subsidy they get) and, of course, anti-union. My guess is that most papers around the country are similar to the Bee, if not more blatantly right-wing and pro-business. No wonder the British paper, the Guardian, gets so many visits to its website from Americans, and even started publishing a weekly for the US market in recent years.

As a consequence of consolidation, staff reductions and investor pressures for profitability, newspapers display a degree of conformity not seen in my lifetime. If large papers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the wire services are dictating most of the content of the opinion pages as well as the content of many of the articles of the vast majority of US newspapers, why should any of these papers get bailed out? Why can't we just go directly to directly to the source and read the articles there? It's a hard question to answer, isn't it?

With conformity also comes ideological rigidity. Quick, name 5 newspapers that editorialized against the invasion of Iraq? Hard to do it, isn't it, although I'm sure that there were a few. Name 5 newspapers that editorialized against the invasion of Afghanistan. You'd have to do an hour Google search to answer that one. And, of course, we all remember the obsequious coverage afforded the Bush administration in both instances, if not outright complicity, as with Judith Miller and Michael Gordon of the New York Times, with their stories about WMDs reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst's successful effort to get us into a war with Spain in 1898.

In relation to economics and workers rights issues, it is arguably even worse. I can't think of a single newspaper in this country that opposes the free trade policies enshrined by NAFTA and GATT, although they must be some. Most papers cover business and investment stories avidly, but cover ones affecting people in the workplace with less and less frequency. Not surprising, given that most newspapers are part of national and international media conglomerates. Beyond this, newspapers are increasingly focused on entertainment and sports, and not hard news.

There is, however, a larger problem. People just don't read as much anymore, and, by and large, get their information through television and the Internet. Providing subsidies to newspapers, institutions that have been uniquely hostile to the emergence of competition from the Net, will do nothing to change these trends. The public no longer wants to get information from sources centered around the illusory objectivity of corporate newspaper chains. Of course, there are significant social implications to this, as we will live a world where it be more and more necessary to read subjective sources of information with a critical eye, but then, we really had to do that with so-called objective newspapers, anyway. Newspapers remain quite arrogant about their essential gatekeeping function of deciding what is credible information and what is not, despite their desultory record in recent years, and no amount of tax credit subsidy is going to persuade the public to respond to that favorably.

Ultimately, if the government is going to subsidize any media, including newspapers, it should instead focus upon the creation of diverse, inclusive institutions that run counter to the recent trend of consolidation and control by finance capital. Analogous to the bailout of transnational banks and brokerage houses, there is the objection that, if newspapers are so important, why should we preserve them in the hands of the same people who have failed so miserably, and stripped them of their journalistic credibility?

The answer apparently lies in the fact that, just as banks and brokerage houses constitute the monetary spine of the global neoliberal economy, newspapers are a part of a transnational medium of communication, along with television, radio, and, possibly, even music and movies, necessary to establish its credibility. Accordingly, given the control of our political institutions by capital, as evidenced yesterday in the health care debate in the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, and the fondness of the Obama administration for the expansion of oligopolies throughout the US economy, the prospects for an inclusive alternative are nil.

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