The Government and the News Media
Throughout American history, the federal government has worn many hats in its relationship with the press and the news industry: watchdog of power among news business owners; consumer advocate championing the news and information needs of underserved or neglected communities; affirmative action catalyst for extending employment and ownership opportunities to minorities and women; regulator of the public airwaves; and provider of both direct and indirect subsidies that have been important pieces of the news industry’s economic health.
State and local governments have also been benefactors of the news business. Often they have provided subsidies such as income tax deductions and credits. Local municipalities have allowed newspaper vendor boxes on city sidewalks, often charging no fee. In other cases the benefits have been indirect. One example: Nearly all states have enacted shield-law protection for reporters against prosecutors’ subpoenas, something the federal government has so far declined to replicate.
This rich menu of news media policies, statutes and regulations has fluctuated significantly over the course of the nation’s history, following the swings of political sentiment and technology development. The ups and downs of local radio news are a case in point. For decades the Federal Communications Commission required broadcasters to carry news programs as part of their public-interest obligation, including programs about important local issues. But those requirements have long since been eliminated. Today local radio news is a rare occurrence. All-news stations are present in most large metropolitan areas, but in many small to midsize cities, talk-radio programs, most of them syndicated national shows, are the only remnant of the heyday of radio news.
The government has had impact of that magnitude across a wide swath of American media, from the granting of licenses for radio and television broadcasts worth billions of dollars, to investments in infrastructure and technology that have expanded, and helped create,mass audiences for the news. A new burst of infrastructure development is currently under way, with the federal government spending at least $7 billion to expand and upgrade high-speed Internet across the country. This massive bet on new media may well be a smart investment that will produce long-term benefits for the nation’s news and information needs. But in the short run, at least, it will work to the disadvantage of print publishers and broadcasters, who need time to make the transition to digital platforms.
“Take money from the government? I don’t like to let anyone else pick up the check.” –Mizell Stewart III, editor of the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press, in a Jan. 11, 2009, editorial titled “Newspaper Bailout? No Thanks”
Often journalists themselves aren’t aware of how much the legacy news businesses have benefited – and continue to benefit – from the support of government at all levels. “Take money from the government?” wrote Mizell Stewart III, editor of the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press. “I don’t like to let anyone else pick up the check.”12 Similarly, Thomas Pounds, president and publisher of the Toledo Free Press, wrote of a government bailout for the news media: “Not 1 cent of government money should be spent.”13
It’s true that the United States government has never supported newsgathering to the extent some countries have. Government support for American public broadcasting, for example, amounts to cents on the dollar compared to many European and Asian countries. The same is true for government support of newspapers. In 2009, for example, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that free, one-year newspaper subscriptions would be given to those reaching their 18th birthdays – an initiative that is close to unthinkable in the United States. France also is weighing a proposal to tax Internet portals like Google to even the playing field between Internet aggregators and news content providers.
At the same time, it’s not true that the U.S. government doesn’t spend money supporting the American news business. It has always provided significant financial support. What’s salient now is that those investments are in decline.