This year both the Financial Industry and the Big Three have gone hat in hand to Congress asking for taxpayer investments in their failed business models. The Wall Street wizards got the largest bailout in American history; the auto industry is still waiting to find out its fate. But regardless of whether or not Detroit gets saved, politicians are now overseeing the largest period of nationalization since the FDR administration, and 2009 looks to only expand government's business in business. Since the American people are leaving it up to Congress to decide which industries deserve to live and die, I say let's have a national debate on bailing out the news. Good reporting is a valuable public utility. Maybe we should start to treat it like one.
It's no secret that the news business is having a rough time. Newspapers are failing, folding or slashing staff around the country. The Tribune Co. has filed for bankruptcy, the New York Times is second mortgaging its building to stay in business and the Christian Science Monitor has stopped printing entirely. With ad sales sparse and subscriptions waning, the long term prospects of many American newspapers is grim. Some of these wounds are self-inflicted. Some are the result of massive technological sea changes.
Regardless of their cause, top flight teams of investigative print journalists are now looking at tightening budgets, if not shuttered print shops. When it comes to broadcast, the election helped boost business last year. But next year, all major networks are predicting dramatic losses in ad revenue for their news divisions. And cable news, to compete for audience share, has gone from self-parody to tragic farce, tripping over a constantly lowered journalistic bar in an attempt to appeal to the most partisan, and opinion filled product containing the least actual beat reportage. This is all very bad for the average citizen.
Even though "the mainstream media" is just about everyone's favorite whipping boy these days, it often does get the story right. As the filmmaker Alex Gibney says in our episode of The Media Project this week, "the best thing about reporters is their ability to expose corruption and regulate the abuse of power." If that is not the definition of a public utility, I'm not sure what is. Just as the FDA keeps us from eating tainted meat or dangerous drugs, or the EPA keeps toxins out of our environment (or tries to under some administrations), good reporting holds tyranny in check: corporate tyranny, social tyranny, political tyranny and the other injustices in our system. But a privatized news industry is now largely failing because for decades it has had to compete in the market like any other business. And as the news has sought to find a working business model, the result has often been to skew towards "infotainment" or partisan marketing schemes. No other utility is treated like that.
We as a country have always been largely wary of government influence in our press because we fear journalism becoming a mouth piece for politicians. But the political apparatus in this country has already grown so savvy about message manipulation that is has effectively turned the private press into just that. Look at the selling of the Iraq War in print or on cable or the White House's payroll of proxy opinion makers. Just because the news business would take public funds does not mean that it would, should or could stop being a free press. Many of our allies in Europe and Canada have a partially nationalized media and not slipped into absolute dictatorships. So why not go public -- either create a truly new national news organization or transform and fund the hell out of NPR?
Government influence could be kept at bay with an adequate endowment that could be privately managed ... not unlike how we manage state worker's pension funds. And we could allow journalists to go back to doing what they do best: hard-hitting, informative, public service reporting. I know that for years it has been vogue to say that citizen journalism will be the answer to the transforming news business. But while bloggers have prevented many stories from falling through the cracks, the signal to noise ratio is deafening. Having at least one known, reliable source for actual investigative reportage is like a middle C of credibility the rest of reporters can tune up to.
James Madison said "to the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression." Maybe it is time to invest in that.