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The nation's free press should refuse federal bailouts

The nation's free press should refuse federal bailouts
© The Hill Illustration

News organizations are businesses, and like pretty much all other businesses, they have been financially harmed by the COVID-19 crisis. Advertising revenue — the lifeblood of the journalism industry — has diminished, leaving news outlets across the country to cut budgets, reduce wages and furlough staffers. Like employees in other businesses, people who work in the news industry are real human beings with families to feed and mortgages to pay. They are suffering in this uncertain financial climate.

Unlike other businesses, however, the news industry shouldn’t be getting in line to seek government financial assistance, even during this national crisis. That’s because news outlets are different from widget manufacturers or local restaurateurs. The journalism industry produces news, and that product just shouldn’t be tarnished or compromised by taking financial handouts from the very government the press is designed to monitor on the citizens’ behalf. (NOTE: The Hill has not accepted stimulus funding)

An independent press is a hallmark of American democracy. A free press was allowed to blossom in the nation from the time the First Amendment was ratified, a controversial notion then and now. The free press has often been referred to as the Fourth Estate, serving an unofficial but essential role in watch-dogging the government.

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Journalists are supposed to provide an independent news flow to the citizenry to counter bureaucrats and power-hungry politicians who are happy to snooker society with self-serving propaganda. For that role to be conducted effectively, the press must be independent in all facets, including financially. The press has enough credibility problems without creating any appearance that its independent news judgments could be influenced by taking government handouts.

Some news organizations are willing to compromise their independence from government in this harsh financial climate, already having pulled in millions of federal dollars from the Paycheck Protection Program. And more government help might be on the way. More than 70 United States senators — from both sides of the aisle — have signed a letter to the federal Office of Management and Budget, asking the OMB to direct federal agencies to buy public service advertising time in media outlets as a way to financially boost broadcasters and newspapers across the country. The letter originated with Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone Biden recommits US to Paris climate accord MORE (R-Mont.). Local media outlets surely need the money, but taking charity from the OMB because of senators’ pressure sure looks like government strings.

It turns out that a wide majority of news outlets don’t even qualify for funds from the PPP. Many “local” news organizations are part of much larger corporate structures that employ over one thousand people, the threshold for participants in the PPP. The reality in the media world today is that few news outlets are “mom and pop” local entities, but instead are parts of big corporations that have grown like cancers through years of consolidation. These consolidated big shots have harmed local journalism with a bottom line mentality and general loss of real localism.

Federal financial support for journalism is not a brand new concept. Newspapers have benefited for years from discounted postal rates. Federal funding supports NPR and PBS. Even these small gestures could be questioned, but hardly compare to downright financial rescues.

None of this is to say the news industry’s financial problems are not real or that the nation wouldn’t suffer if news outlets disappeared from the local or national landscape. Broadcasters and newspaper publishers serve essential roles in their communities. But taking federal money disrupts the “social distancing” that has defined the press and government relationship throughout America’s history.

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There have to be other ways to protect the news industry, but without government handouts. One media company reported to be receiving PPP money is the Seattle Times. It would seem mega-billionaires (and Washington state residents) such as Bill Gates or Howard Schultz could step in to fund local journalism with a foundation grant that could provide funds, but allow for autonomous journalistic operation. The COVID-19 crisis could well be the prompt for a reshuffling of how news gets provided in our nation. The declining revenues and staff layoffs surrounding journalism were underway long before COVD-19.

The American press has always boasted about its independence and fought the good fight for over two centuries to keep it that way. Now is not the time to compromise that spirit. Maintaining the public trust means making sure there is no appearance of government influence in the news product. Press freedom is more important than federal money, even during these desperate times.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.