In Defense of Journalism Policy

This was originally posted on Nov. 30th at

Today’s Washington Post op-ed by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols recovers a past too many Americans have forgotten and sets the record straight on the government’s role in protecting journalism.

“We seek to renew a rich if largely forgotten legacy of the American free-press tradition, one that speaks directly to today’s crisis,” they write. “The First Amendment necessarily prohibits state censorship, but it does not prevent citizens from using their government to subsidize and spawn independent media.”

McChesney and Nichols, two of the co-founders of Free Press, are responding to a common misconception about government involvement in journalism is antithetical to freedom of the press. Policy has always shaped journalism, and for a long time it was policy that helped ensure freedom of the press.

They write:

    The post-colonial press system was built on massive postal and printing subsidies. The first generations of Americans never imagined that the market would provide sound or sufficient journalism. The notion was unthinkable. They established enlightened subsidies, which broadened the marketplace of ideas and enhanced and protected core freedoms.

Some may read their essay and wrongly assume that they are calling for a Big Media bailout, or for some kind of “state-run media.” These are the same knee-jerk reactions levied against Len Downie and Michael Schudson after their report last week called for government action to support the future of journalism. But freedom of the press and smart media policies are not mutually exclusive.

McChesney and Nichols anticipate this critique, and make clear that ”bailing out existing media conglomerates would be morally and politically absurd.” Instead, they call for expanding the role of public and community media and developing enlightened policies that foster “post-corporate low-profit news operations that realize the potential of the Internet.”

Critics will certainly pose other questions: What about the free market? Why not wait for new paywall software? Why not let all this uncertainty shake out before getting the government involved?

The authors point out that currently, “the marketplace now eliminates journalism jobs at a rate in excess of 1,000 a month.” If we believe, as the Supreme Court does, that our Constitution is “predicated on the assumption of an informed and participating citizenry” then we can’t just sit back and wait to see what happens.

We have a long history of government involvement in our media. We ought to be proud that America’s founders saw such a central role for journalism and were committed to supporting it with public interest policies and strong First Amendment protections.

Let’s reclaim that history and put policy back on the drawing board. With input from citizens and journalists, not just corporate execs and lobbyists, we can write policies that can save the news.

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