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Why Air America Matters

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There are times when doing the profitable thing is also doing the right thing.

That's certainly what Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch thought when they lost an average of $90 million a year for about five years before the Fox News Channel became profitable. It's what Reverend Moon believes, as his Washington Times newspaper lost hundreds of millions of dollars and, according to some reports, even today continues to lose money. And its what the people who have made Air America Radio possible - names you probably wouldn't recognize because they've invested millions of their own money but don't seek the limelight - believe.

Each of these endeavors hit nail-biting times.

In Murdoch's early days building News Corp. (which then helped fund Fox News), as The Hollywood Reporter noted in a 2005 article:

"[C]orporate expansion and the stock market crash of 1987 conspired to create a financial crisis for Murdoch in 1990, when News Corp. reported revenue of $6.7 billion and saw more than $7 billion in debt come due. With News Corp. shares plummeting from $24 to $8 as a result of the Black Monday crash and Murdoch's buying sprees continuing unabated, creditors became nervous. A refinancing plan was put in place, but at the last minute, one small bank in Pittsburgh refused to go along with the scheme, demanding repayment of a $10 million loan.

"That $10 million loan nearly caused the entire collapse of News Corp.: An extraordinary race against time ensued in which Murdoch and his financial advisers struggled to convince the company's 100-plus creditors to agree to a deal by which they would all be paid at the same time. Only at the eleventh hour did the Pittsburgh bank capitulate, to Murdoch's great relief.

"The mogul managed to get through the ordeal without parting with substantial blocks of stock, which likely would have forced him to lose control of the company he created (a fate that befell his rival, Turner). At one point, though, Murdoch reportedly did have to sign over as security personal assets, including his New York penthouse."

There was, however, a happy ending (for Murdoch), which helped fund the money-losing Fox News Network:

"Today, the studio and the Fox owned-and-operated stations are News Corp.'s cash machines."

Brit Hume noted, in a 1999 interview with PBS:

"This operation loses money. It doesn't lose nearly as much as it did at first, and it's -- well, it's hit all its projections in terms of, you know, turning a profit, but it's - it will lose money now, and we expect for a couple more years. I think it's losing about $80 million to $90 million a year."

This is not, of course, to celebrate losing money. It's just a demonstration of the old truism that sometimes "it takes money to make money." And sometimes it takes money to make a difference in the world, as well.

While Fox News and The Washington Times have devoted themselves to promoting the interests of America's most wealthy, most of the programming of Air America Radio has been committed to discussions of labor, the middle class, and holding up the founding ideals of this nation. These were best expressed by America's first liberal president, George Washington, when he said: "As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality."

Liberal or conservative, the nation has often moved as its media has moved.

Rupert Murdoch's investment in Fox News not only produced profits for him, it changed America. As Richard Morin noted in The Washington Post on May 4, 2006, in an article titled "The Fox News Effect":

"'Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its audience to shift its voting behavior towards the Republican Party, a sizable media persuasion effect,' said Stefano DellaVigna of the University of California at Berkely and Ethan Kaplan of Stockholm University.

"In Florida alone, they estimate, the Fox effect may have produced more than 10,000 additional votes for Bush -- clearly a decisive factor in a state he carried by fewer than 600 votes."

Similarly, Air America Radio may have had a significant effect in awakening people across the United States to positive liberal alternatives to the conservative vision of Fox and Bush. In a democracy, which depends on a vital and ongoing exchange of free ideas for its survival, this is essential.

It's a tragedy that for the lack of an investor the size of Rupert Murdoch Air America is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But its existence and ongoing presence in the marketplace is an essential part of the dialogue that is known as democracy.

In a letter about Shay's Rebellion, which some argued was incited by newspapers, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"The people are the only censors of their governors; and even their errors will tend to keep them to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs, through the channel of public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.

"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide, whether we should have a government without newspapers, ore newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them."

Had radio existed in 1783, Jefferson would have probably expressed similar sentiments about it.

As Jefferson wrote in 1786 to his close friend Dr. James Currie, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."

But ever since Ronald Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1881, leading to an explosion of acquisitions and mergers, and Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, leading to an even more startling concentration of media in a very few hands, freedom of the press in America has become as much a economic as a political issue. This is problematic, because no democracy can survive with only one voice in the media.

Back in the years when I often visited Russia, the well-work joke that everybody knew had to do with the names of the two biggest newspapers, Pravda and Ivestia. "Pravda" is a Russian word that translates as "truth" and "Ivestia" means "news." The joke every Russian can recite from memory is: "There's no news in Pravda, and no truth in Izvestia."

As Russians well learned, single-party-news is corrosive to democracy. Jefferson made his comment about newspapers being vital to America just at the time he was being most viciously attacked in the newspapers. The core requisite of democracy is debate. When there's only a single predominant voice in the media, American democracy itself is at greatest risk.

Losing the voices of Air America would harm this nation, just as much as would losing the voices of conservative talk radio.

We need them all to really be America.

Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning New York Times bestselling author of 17 books, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show carried on the Air America Radio network. His most recent book is "Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It."