Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mencken meets AIG

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduces a bill that would let newspapers restructure as nonprofits and get many of the tax benefits extended to charitable institutions.

But to what purpose? Rocky Mountain News publisher John Temple asked as much in a column published a month before the paper closed:

[Even] national newspapers ... do far more than inform their citizenry with serious reporting on public affairs. That's just a part of what they do. I can tell you from experience that the comics are far and away the section of newspapers that many readers feel most passionate about. [The] Washington Post publishes comics. Are we going to have nonprofits publishing the funny pages? Members of the public getting tax breaks for donating to keep Garfield alive? If we want to be so high-minded to create nonprofits for public service journalism, we'd have to exclude not only comics but also sports, entertainment, cooking, lifestyles, gossip, horoscopes, puzzles and all the other stuff that readers love but has nothing to do with Jefferson's ideals.

We're a country that values freedom and independence. Invariably, by going the nonprofit route, newspapers would become more beholden to government and more subject to regulation.

Sure enough, Cardin's bill would immediately erode some of the editorial independence that makes newspapers (when they're doing their jobs) an effective public watchdog. If you want a bailout, you have to answer to your paymasters.

From Reuters:

Under this arrangement, newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

So what would constitute "political endorsements"? Opinions from editorial boards, signed or unsigned? The musings of staff-written columns, op-eds, letters to the editor?

Could papers weigh in on ballot issues? Opine about political strategy? Ask media critics to analyze broadcast ads or direct-mail campaigns?

Would a series of rules like that in the original McCain-Feingold campaign finance law apply -- in other words, would any mention of political candidates by name in an opinion piece 60 days before an election be verboten?

To the degree any of these restrictions are part of the law, they muzzle the press, much as restrictions on political content on broadcast stations (such as the Fairness Doctrine) make a mockery of free speech.

Bailout recipients wouldn't be much more reliable than Pravda, which may be what the Common Cause types want anyway. Might as well toss the First Amendment in the Dumpster.

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