Note: This a much longer version of a letter I submitted to the University Chronicle in response to Kyle Stevens. It did not appear in this week’s edition, but perhaps it will next week’s in the edition following spring break (darn!). I’ll update this post with a link if it is.

Update: I was expecting my letter to be published in this Monday’s edition of the University Chronicle. It seems the opinions editor is unaware of any reason why it was not published in this edition and promised to publish in next week’s edition and upload it online as soon as possible. I’ll post another update with a link as soon as there is one.

Update 2: The letter was published in this week’s edition of the University Chronicle. You can read it online here.

In an opinion published in the February 22 edition of the University Chronicle, Kyle Stevens argues that The New York Times charging readers to see articles on their Web site is “good news.” People who do not subscribe to the newspaper will have to pay a fee to get unlimited access to NYT online articles sometimes in early 2011, according to Stevens. Though Stevens admits “this does not qualify as ‘good’ news” for the general public, he says “this is ‘great’ news” for the media industry. The reason, he argues, is that when The New York Times began to provide free news on their Web site in 2007, small papers like the St. Cloud Times had “to play the same game.” In other words, other newspapers also had to provide free content in order to effectively compete in the market. Apparently, the news industry couldn’t survive off of this model, and now with this change “maybe the news industry can be saved,” says Stevens. This “fee-to-see format,” says Stevens, “makes so much sense that I cannot believe it has happened.”

Does it make so much sense?

We know that a free and vibrant press is a cornerstone of civic society and liberal democracy. The spread of information, knowledge, discussion is essential for any healthy society. The question is whether we want to limit this dispersion or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible.

Knowledge is what economists call a “public good” in the technical literature. Thomas Jefferson wrote that ideas have a “peculiar character” in that “no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine.” In economics, that is the idea of a non-rivalrous good. Your possession of knowledge does not hamper or diminish mine. Therefore, we ought to spread knowledge and ideas as widely as possible. Yet, setting up fees to read the news does not accomplish this goal. Hampering the spread of knowledge creates an economic inefficiency. There is a better outcome, which is to make the news as dispersed as much as possible, to share it freely. Therefore, making the news more expensive does not generate a favorable outcome, and Stevens acknowledges this when he states “this does not qualify as ‘good’ news” for the general public. Yes, it might help a handful of private corporations maximize their profit (as Stevens correctly points out), but it does not benefit the whole of society.

Helping large corporations maximize their profits often does not produce the most economically efficient or socially desirable outcome. As many media critics are quick to point out, the interests of large corporate media are not aligned with the interests of a vibrant and democratic society.

In this sense, the ownership of the media has a substantial influence on the output of the media. This is a core thesis of the propaganda model developed by Herman and Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Our dominant source of information is increasingly being controlled by fewer and fewer large multinational corporations. That has an effect on the output, and we experience it on a daily basis. The propaganda model has strong explanatory power.

Explains John Nichols, “The primary one is that the people who own most of the newspapers are not interested in civic or democratic values. They’re interested in commercial and entertainment values, and primarily to make a lot of money.” And it these large oligopolistic corporations that are being subsided and supported by government, through copyrights, Communications Act of 1934, and so on. Furthermore, according to Robert McChesney, this is “encouraged by the corruption of the U.S. political system, in which politicians tend to be comfortable with the status quo and not inclined to upset powerful commercial media owners and potential campaign contributors. The dominant media firms enjoy the power to control news coverage of debates over media policies; this is a power they have used shamelessly to trivialize, marginalize, and distort opposition to the status quo.”

The pre-capitalist Framers of our nation readily understood that the media are to function as a prevailing counterbalance to corporate and state power. In other words, the media are meant to give the people an independent voice. Now, however, we cannot speak of corporate influence on the media, because the media are the huge corporations. They are one and the same. And when you think of the media as agenda setters, which they are, the result is what’s been referred to as a “democratic deficit,” namely because “it was understood that if you just let wealthy people run the media system, it would serve only wealthy people, not viable democratic self-government.”

Well, now there is a crisis that is widely recognized, especially by people like Stevens and those in the media businesses, particularly in the printed press. It’s been referred to as the “death of newspapers.” Small, independent newspapers, local papers, and even some of the big dailies, are closing down or firing thousands of journalists each month. The problem is real and it’s a threat to a healthy democratic process. The reasons for it are numerous and fairly apparent. The real question is what we should do about it. Stevens offers one solution, which is to make the big newspapers like The New York Times less accessible to the general public so that smaller papers like the St. Cloud Times can have a chance. I don’t think this is the optimal solutions for the reasons I’ve already laid out. But there remains a definite problem where the printed news media are struggling to stay alive. It seems reasonable to make people charge more for good journalistic news, because it’s not free to produce. You have to balance the budget somehow.

There are alternatives to increasing charges (which is not likely to save the printed press), and two leading media scholars offer some in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. The subject of their book deals with the problems of the current state of affairs in the media and journalism, and how we can overcome the current crisis that the media face. This was also the subject of a fascinating interview the two authors had that aired on PBS last month. Had I not watched that interview last month, I probably would have thought nothing of Stevens’ letter. But Nichols and McChesney offer an alternative to Stevens’ argument, which I think is both sensible and pragmatic. What they suggest is subsidizing independent journalism. I can’t do their proposal much justice here, so I implore you to listen to the interview or buy their book (both of which I linked to above).

Obviously, the idea of a government subsidy makes a lot of people uneasy, and not just right-wingers who want to see the government disappear. There are concerns by people who think the government getting involved in the media would be akin to something like state media or, at the very least, government meddling in the generation of opinions and ideas. This, too, would be very unhealthy for a democracy. These concerns are addressed by Nichols and McChesney and they offer solutions to prevent any of this from happening. And the reason they urge a government subsidy for journalism is for the same reason that the Founding Fathers were very aware of. A free press is meaningless without a vibrant press. This was instantly recognized by the key Framers of the United States. So, for example, there were debates in early American history about how to subsidize the press, to ensure the democratic process flourished. And the government offered many subsidies to the press, one of the primary ones being postal subsidies. Congress debated how little presses should be charged for postal services. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, thought the debate was nonsense. He thought there should be no charge, that it should be completely subsidized by the government, because anything less would interfere with the free flow of ideas and opinions, which, again, was recognized as the cornerstone of liberal democracy. Madison wrote, “Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.”

In order for there to be liberty, there needs to be a free press in addition to a vibrant press that offers a whole range of ideas. Madison and other key Framers understood this well. It’s the only way that independent voices could actually challenge, for example, state power. It’s how the abolitionist press stayed alive even during the years Congress banned any debate about slavery. Journalism and democracy are intimately linked, and so it is our imperative that we support it to its fullest. If one role of government is to protect and ensure democracy, as some libertarians might agree it is, then there exists an obligation on its part to protect and ensure independent journalism, in the same way it ensured it during the early years of the republic. One idea that Nichols and McChesney offer is vouchers or tax write-offs for citizens to give money to independent news sources. Again, you can read their book or listen to their interview for a more in-depth discussion. When you look at the subsidies the early republic offered to the press as a percent of the GDP, it would translate into roughly $30 billion in today’s money. Moreover, when you look at the places recognized as the freest and most open democracies in the world, where the press is rated as the most independent and freest, it’s places like Finland, Norway, Sweden, and so on, where they also offer roughly $30 billion in subsidies. It is in this way that vibrant, healthy, and independent news is ensured and maintained. Writing for the CATO Unbound blog, Paul Starr says, “we should be open to the idea” of public subsidies for journalism. I also think we should be open to the idea as a viable and pragmatic alternative to Stevens’ solution, to ensure that independent journalism can survive, that it is vibrant and healthy, and that it can continue to challenge corporate and political power.

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