Robert McChesney and John Nichols are grappling with the question: what would Thomas Jefferson do about the death of the American newspaper? Better, Jefferson said, to have newspapers without a government than to have government without newspapers. Yet here we are two centuries later, and the papers are disappearing. What is to sustain essential journalism in the digital age?
Core doctrine among the Founders, in the McChesney-Nichols argument, was not just that the press must be free of interference and censorship but that its vigor and variety should be sustained by subsidized access to printing and the mails. Some of the freshest parts of their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, recount how Generals MacArthur in Japan and Eisenhower in Germany designed and built new institutions of free open journalism on the theory, as McChesney and Nichols put it, that "creating a viable free press is the first duty ... of the democratic state."
Listen to my conversation with Bob McChesney and John Nichols here:
Thirty billion dollars a year is the subsidy figure that McChesney and Martin are proposing today -- their projection of the support that Jefferson & Company gave to the press two centuries ago. They insist they are thinking of rebuilding a culture, not bailing out dying newspapers. They embrace Dean Baker's idea of a Citizenship News Voucher which would let people direct the spending of, say, $200 a year, to the local, global or specialized journalism they value, so long as it's non-profit and non-commercial.
My question -- my reservation really -- is the thought that the Internet is already the government's accidental gift that keeps on giving. It's worth much more than $30 billion to have wiped out the cost of paper, printing, delivery and all the capital barriers to a worldwide marketplace of ideas. My guess is that Thomas Jefferson, a blogger in retirement, would be reading and reveling in the digital miracle that has enabled kindred spirits like Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Joshua Micah Marshall and Arianna Huffington... not to mention Robert McChesney, John Nichols and their admirable creation, FreePress. Net.
Post up, please, on what more you'd spend and where, to sustain the contentious journalism Jefferson had in mind.