Are You Ready to Subsidize Reporters?

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Have you ever stumbled on an oxymoron so stunning that it takes your breath away? Try coupling this with a case of chutzpah so revealing that the lack of shame on the part of those involved serves as prima fasci evidence that their elite cultural isolation has rendered them incapable of critical thinking.

Behold the "Independent Journalism Tax."

In order to preserve independent journalism in the age of the Internet, a national Fund for Local News should be created with money the FCC now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers.

This is the key recommendation buried on page 91 of a 100 page report issued last week titled "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" by Leonard Downie, Jr. Vice President of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Lamenting the demise of the "hegemony that near-monopoly metropolitan newspapers enjoyed during the last third of the twentieth century," these guardians of journalistic integrity recommend that your tax dollars be distributed to their brethren by "Local News Fund Council boards comprised of journalists, educators, and community leaders" to make sure that "advocacy journalism is not endangered."

Juxtapose this learned study with some recent poll data collected by the Pew Research Center.

Only 29 percent of 1,506 adults surveyed said news organizations generally get the facts straight. The facts! Sixty percent said the press is biased, up from 45 percent in 1985. Just 26 percent said that news organizations are careful their reporting is not politically biased.

The market appears to be speaking about how it views "advocacy journalism" as practiced by the likes of the money-losing Washington Post, reduced to bragging that its decline in circulation may finally be starting to slow. Kept alive by its profitable Kaplan division, one can only marvel at what sort of independence Leonard Downie would expect to maintain living on the dole. Reporters would have lots of company, of course, joining the ranks of bankers, car manufacturers, ethanol producers, and climate scientists who rely on the public weal for their daily bread. But independence? When was the last time you heard taxpayer-subsidized NPR bite the hand that feeds it?

The amazing thing about Downie & Schudson's study is that the vast majority of the pages are actually devoted to describing the amazing ferment being generated by new news-gathering organizations empowered by the low barriers to entry afforded by the Web. These are supported by a bewildering array of new business models, all interacting in a dance of discovery and renewal that the authors seem to mistake for the last days of Pompeii. What clearly irks them is the lack of professional training and credentials that they believe are required to turn college kids who aren't sharp enough to study medicine, law, finance, or engineering into paeans of virtue imbued with an ethos of Olympian detachment and moral rectitude.

Gimme a break. Have you ever read a newspaper article about an event you personally attended wondering which other planet the reporter actually visited that day? Have you ever been interviewed by a journalist with a major newspaper who had any subject matter expertise on the material he was covering? Were you fooled for one minute that he hadn't already written his story and wasn't just looking for sound bites that would fit his preconceived notions? Did you notice how lazy he was about tracking down a diversity of independent sources and how easily he could be guided into a self-referring circle of cronies? And these are the professionals?

At least when you read a blog you know what axe the author is grinding. Who needs an editor with a 29% success rate to check the facts when you know that ten more bloggers are poised to pounce? And thanks to the Internet we can all get our own hands on the same source material the reporter is reading and decide for ourselves. Case in point is the Downie & Schudson study. Go read the mainstream press reports on it then Google up the original document. The contrast is illuminating.

In the current era of single party rule, is there any chance that this further intrusion of the government into our lives might actually come true? Might we one day be forced to pay a tax every time we make a cell phone call to make sure the Press Room in the White House is stuffed with even more reporters eager to credulously swallow whatever nonsense comes out of the President's mouth? Could truly independent newspapers be forced to compete with government subsidized lapdogs like, say, truly independent banks or car companies?

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here.  If you would like to have his weekly columns delivered to you by e-mail, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.

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