Friday, November 20, 2009

Should government policy affect news? Come on, it already does

I guess Jim Barnett must trust rich people a lot more than I do.

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends, yada-yada, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if my sister married one. (If I had a sister). But why on earth does he think putting media decisions in the hands of the richest few Americans is the best way to go?

I hope Jim and everybody else understands my own preference: journalism needs to be rooted in the community, and in a capitalist society, there’s no better way than to make things work in the marketplace. I’ve spent more than 40 years advancing that idea, and I’m trying to help do so once again.

I’m not against non-profit news orgs, either. Hell, let a thousand flowers bloom. What I object to is the specious reasoning here that says “Whoa, the government has no role in this. Leave it to the philanthropists and other independently rich people to decide.”

Come on. Government has played a huge role in shaping the press industry at least since Ben Franklin’s introduction of a postal subsidy for newspapers. Similarly, the government is the chief determinant of how non-profits operate, chiefly by deciding what qualifies for tax breaks. (You know anybody giving away millions that’s not tax deductible?) I've written about that a couple of times in the last few month, and said this: “... government inevitably puts its thumb on the scale in all kinds of situations. It's naive or disingenuous to pretend otherwise.”

The naive part of Barnett’s post comes here: “By design, [non-profits] put mission ahead of profit. And as a result, they will live or die based on their commitment to transparency.” You don’t have to look very far into stories about the United Way or American Red Cross to start laughing about that observation. Some do, some don’t, Jim — just like come for-profit corporations seek admirable goals and some don’t, just like some government subsidies serve the public good and some don’t.

The disingenuous part comes in the same paragraph: “When the government gets involved, it introduces the appearance of special favors and the potential for political interference. That’s the death of transparency.” The straw man here (or is that red herring? I can never remember) comes from arguing that the government better not get involved.

The government is involved, neck deep. Tax policy and regulatory barriers and philanthropic rules already dictate the economic landscape. We can change them or tweak them or reorient them (and we should) but they will always be there.

While we’re at it, let me say this: for all its flaws, government is hugely more open and transparent than philanthropic decision-making. Nobody lets you hear all the debates at the Ford Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

People can exert “political interference” on government policy? Oh, my. I thought that’s what we were supposed to do, to interfere in favor of changes that meet public needs. No need to interfere in philanthropies; their bias comes built in. Nothing wrong with that, either; it’s why they exist. But stop with the purity arguments, please.

Let me say this once more in closing: I like non-profits, I think they play a constructive role in society, and if they can help the news business navigate the turbulence of this phase transition, wahoo.

NOTE: This post was originally written as a comment to Jim Barnett's Nieman Journalism Lab post, linked above. I did clean up some typos, though.

1 comment:

  1. Howard,

    Thanks for your comment. I especially appreciate the wahoo sentiment. But I’d like to offer a couple of perspectives I think you’ve overlooked.

    Have you ever known anybody who made a contribution to a local public radio station? Did they do it because they were rich? Probably not. More likely it was because it made them feel more connected to their community. I take greater pride in making my double-digit annual gift to the local station than I do in paying my newspaper subscription – and I work for the paper part-time.

    So while there are some Warren Hellmans out there, nonprofit managers know they need small contributors not only for revenue, but for credibility in the long run. That’s why ProPublica is spending a big chunk of its $1 million Knight grant figuring out how to build a grassroots base.

    And while we’re on the topic of rich people, here’s something else to consider: Have you ever in your life spent money on a newspaper? And if you have, did you believe any of what you read in it? If you answer “yes” to those questions, then you’ve trusted a rich person to gather and deliver your news. For better or worse, most newspapers still are controlled by rich people. So the (implied) premise of your argument, that rich people shouldn’t be trusted, doesn’t stand to logic. Is it also disingenuous? I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt on that count.

    Your point about government being involved neck-deep is dead on. But I’m afraid you missed mine – that government should not make special considerations for “news organizations” that do not apply to other businesses, whether for-profit or nonprofit. I see now that I should have made that point more directly, and will be sure to next time.

    Thanks for reading.