If The Watchdogs Are Saved: Ethical Repercussions Of A Newspaper Bailout

The somewhat depressing and controversial possibility of a newspaper bailout turned into a stone-cold reality in the past few months as politicians, including Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Ben Cardin and President Obama, have hinted at giving the newspaper industry a life vest to save a sinking industry. Kerry, in his dire remarks at the Senate hearing on “Future of Journalism” a few weeks ago, made a call to action to save newspapers and prevent future harm to democracy. Regardless of where direction of this policy is headed, the idea of a government bailout of the news industry, which is supposed to be the “watchdog” of the government, raises a few ethical flags.

President Obama echoed Kerry’s concerns at last weekend’s White House Correspondents Dinner, addressing the current state of the industry:

“…It’s also true that your ultimate success as an industry is essential to the success of our democracy. It’s what makes this thing work. You know, Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had the choice between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.

Clearly, Thomas Jefferson never had cable news to contend with — but his central point remains: A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts, is not an option for the United States of America.”

Obama was perhaps posturing to a room full of journalists, but the message comes across clear: newspapers need help and their existence is a fundamental requirement for democracy to successfully survive. And any time democracy is threatened, the government will come to the rescue, right?

Sen. Ben Cardin actually has a concrete plan, The Newspaper Revitalization Act, to aid newspapers in their time of need. His plan allows newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, and thus receive the same tax-benefits as a non-profit organization. Revenue from advertising and subscription would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible. Cardin’s proposal became a reality on the state-level with this week’s news that Washington’s governor approved a tax cut for the state’s newspaper industry. The law gives newspaper publishers a 40 percent cut in Washington’s main business tax.

The catch for Cardin’s proposal is that though newspapers would still be able to report on all issues, namely politics and political campaigns, the government would prohibit the newspapers from making political endorsements. This raises two ethical questions.

The first is whether newspapers supported with government funding should be barred from making political endorsements.

Political endorsements by newspapers and media organizations are a very essence of freedom of speech. Readers often find value in seeing a newspaper’s evaluation of the candidates given that the paper has in-depth coverage of political candidates throughout the course of a campaign. Putting a muzzle on journalists in this capacity is a step in the wrong direction.

There are existing models for publicly-funded or assisted media that are not limited to endorsing political positions. The clearest example of this is PBS networks. PBS is a non-profit media organization that is partially funded by federal and state money (less than 50% of PBS’s revenue comes from government sources). PBS stations are not prohibited from taking a stance on political issues, in accordance with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, but PBS and the government has been embroiled in several sticky situations involving political bias and politicians feeling that they can somehow control PBS’ coverage.

Most recently, Kenneth Tomlinson, the former Republican chairman of the Center for Public Broadcasting, the non-profit in charge of distributing federal funds to public television and radio stations, openly criticized PBS for a liberal bias. Tomlinson even hired an outside investigator to evaluate whether PBS’s political news coverage was slanting towards the left. In fact, it was revealed that most viewers didn’t think PBS’s news favored liberals; however, Tomlinson and other Republicans engaged in a heated debate questioning the bias of the well-respected news organization. Like PBS, the BBC, UK’s largest media organization which is partially funded by taxpayer money, has found itself embroiled in its fair share of accusations of political bias.

Some would argue that PBS represents a segment of the media in the U.S. whereas a newspaper bailout would effect thousands of news organizations. I fear that if most mainstream newspapers and organizations took on a similar model to PBS, many politicians would feel that they had the free reign to not only question, but investigate, the bias of any unfavorable news coverage if it didn’t lend support to their political leanings.

The second ethical question is whether journalists will be able to deliver unbiased reporting of the very people and institutions that are helping to subsidize their jobs. I think journalists at PBS have done an effective job of objectively reporting the news, despite the political pressure the organization faces from politicians. However, newspapers and thus journalists who are “saved” by government intervention are in a slightly different situation. From its inception, PBS was meant to be a non-profit news organization which drew funding from a variety of sources, including the government. In the case of a newspaper bailout, the government could don the image of a “knight in shining armor” to journalists who, without the bailout, would be unemployed. Will all journalists and media execs buy into this? I’m not sure of the answer but the adoption of this perception surely could effect objective news reporting.

Yet having an appreciation for a policy, and letting that appreciation impact professional integrity are two different things. Would the politicians who supported the bailout receive favorable coverage? Most journalists would respond with a resounding no, as they should. Journalists are all beholden to an unwritten code of ethics when it comes to reporting the truth. And even in one of the most disastrous modern-day cases of a politician’s efforts to control the media, journalists have still proven that they fight to report the truth. Italy’s prime minster, Silvio Berlusconi, has been accused of limiting the press’ freedom of expression by controlling negative coverage of his government on state-run media networks and papers as well as the institutions he controls financially. Many Italian journalists have retaliated, quitting their jobs, forming protest groups, and advocating fiercely for greater freedom of speech. These reporters have chosen dissent and unemployment over submission and employment within a state-biased media.

But the dilemma becomes significantly more cloudy when the people throwing a life vest to the drowning industry are the same people who need to be evaluated through an objective lens. And the question remains in the case of a bailout, if there will forever be the government’s shadow hanging over the media organizations who survive thanks to these benefits.

(Photo credit: Flickr/VaxXzine)