Imperiled telegraph and horse-and-buggy operators would have appreciated a hand from Ben Cardin.
We could forgive those entrepreneurs of yesteryear for clinging gratefully to any life preserver in a sea of troubles. Their sinking enterprises served a public purpose, outdated delivery systems aside.
But it's America's fading newspapers Senator Cardin proposes to save, specifically hundreds of "community" publications. The Maryland Democrat's legislation would allow some of the nation's 1,400 newspapers to operate as tax-exempt nonprofits in much the same way public broadcasting stations do.
Cardin may mean well, but it's a stupendously bad idea. The government shouldn't preserve businesses marked by free competition and new technology for failure--or transition.
Nonprofit status also would de-fang capitulating newspapers, which could no longer endorse candidates or freely question the party in power without risk of losing the protection. Participating papers would pay no tax on revenue from subscriptions (always a relative pittance) and advertising (which paid the bills and produced profits before the Internet came along). Contributions to "support" a participating newspaper's coverage could be tax deductible.
Others say Congress should look at giving tax credits for newspaper subscriptions, eliminating postal fees for smaller papers, even granting licenses as well as tax dollars.
I confess the slow death of newspapers leaves me conflicted, having relished most of 25 years as a reporter and editor in newsrooms of weeklies and dailies in Maryland and Washington, D.C. But even as newspapers go the way of, well, the horse and buggy, Americans have astonishingly more access to news and information than ever before. The guys who could buy newsprint by the ton no longer control content and distribution. Now there's the guys who can push the button that says "send." Or "forward" or "post" or "record."
In the late 1980s, I had the privilege of being editor of a struggling weekly of the sort Cardin has in mind for "preserving." I assigned stories to three young reporters, edited their copy on deadline, then banged out an editorial or two in a caffeinated fever in the wee hours.
That little newsroom took pride being a fearless, independent guardian of the public trust. It's hard to imagine feeling so free to go up against the county executive and bureaucrats at all levels, knowing the publisher had to walk Washington's line to stay in business as a nonprofit.
Newspapers are supposed to be wary skeptics of politicians and bureaucrats on behalf of readers--not beholden to the government's favor.
Ben Cardin isn't a crook. But what if his next election challenger were? To keep its tax-exempt status, the Maryland Whatever couldn't go there.
James Madison, writing about the press more than 200 years ago, insisted: "The right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon ... has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right."
From the Cardin plan it's a short and slippery step to subsidies and bailouts for publishers whom political hacks deem worthy. Pretty soon, government could pick the papers that survive as well as the banks, automakers, and charities.
Anyone paying attention would think journalists even less trustworthy if they owed their livings to tax-exempt contributions from "supporters" and other government favors. Only in the press clips of Cardin's dreams do people want hundreds of little left-leaning print versions of PBS and NPR deciding what's news in town.
For newspaper lovers, the landscape is forbidding.
More Americans say they rely on the Internet for most national and international news (40 percent) than cite newspapers (35 percent), according to a survey of 1,489 adults conducted in December by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Television continues to be cited most frequently, by 75 percent, Pew found. But among those under 30, TV's dominance drops to 59 percent--same as go online for news.
In a Rasmussen poll, 65 percent of adults say the government shouldn't bail out newspapers. The rest are split: 17 percent favor a bailout, 18 percent aren't sure. The survey also found 30 percent say they read a print version of the local paper every day or almost every day. Among those under age 40, though, only 15 percent do. Nearly a third of all those surveyed say they rarely or never read the print version.
Surprisingly, younger readers not only avoid print, they don't gravitate to their local paper's Web edition. A daunting 62 percent say they rarely or never check it out.
News, what it is and who delivers it, is in superflux. We don't know how it's all going to settle. Clay Shirky, in his estimable blog, recently ruminated on a future after newspapers.
"So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose theirjobs?" Shirky asks. "I don't know. Nobody knows. We're collectively living through 1500, when it's easier to see what's broken than what will replace it.... Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen.
"Society doesn't need newspapers," he concludes. "What we need is journalism."
That sounds about right. It's not as if the fate of the republic has to be reported by bloggers gone wild.
For 220 years, the Constitution has guaranteed Americans a free press. It doesn't have to be in print to stand watch against threats to liberty. "No government ought to be without censors," Thomas Jefferson said, "and where the press is free, no one ever will."
Those in Congress who still believe in freedom of the press should heed Jefferson, not Cardin, and spike any bill that would limit it.
Ken McIntyre, a newspaperman for more than 25 years, is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in US News & World Report