Monday, May 31, 2010

More on the death of journalism

When I was a lackluster student in the journalism school at the University of Missouri about 100 years ago, the professors always harped on journalism being the only business protected by the Constitution. It has to be that way to provide the real protection, which is the right of the voters and taxpayers to know what is going on in the government. Supposedly, privately owned news organizations are supposed to report facts about government actions; they also have the right to fair comment and criticism. Anyone with enough money to buy a printing press or a broadcasting station also has the ability to make a lot of profit while protecting the people's Constitutional right to know what's going on in government.

The Internet has cut into those profits, especially money made by newspapers, which are the dinosaurs of journalism. Now, according to Jeff Jarvis, who writes something called the BuzzMachine blog, the government's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking at ways to save big media companies financially, and it doesn't look like this movement will do much to protect the people's right to know what the government is doing to them.

Jarvis writes:

What disturbs me most in this section is that the FTC frets about “difficult line-drawing being proprietary facts and those in the public domain.” Proprietary facts? Is it starting down a road of trying to enable someone to own a fact the way the patent office lets someone own a method or our DNA? Good God, that’s dangerous.

Jarvis takes a look at some of the specifics in the FTC's plan:

* Government subsidies. After saluting the history of government subsidies for the press — namely, postal discounts, legal notice publication, assorted tax breaks, and funds for public broadcasting — the agency looks at other ideas: a journalism AmeriCorps paying journalists; increased funding for public broadcasting; a national fund for local news suggested in Columbia’s report on journalism; a tax credit for employing journalists; citizen news vouchers (a la campaign checkoff); grants to universities for reporting. It also looks at increasing the present postal subsidy (which would only further bankrupt the dying postal service in the service of dying publications); using Voice of America and Radio Free Europe content (aka propaganda) in the U.S.; and enabling the SBA to help nonprofits.

* Taxes. At least the FTC acknowledges that somebody’d have to pay for all this. In one section, the FTC looks at licensing the news: having ISPs levy a fee on us that the government then dolls out to its selected news purveyors — call that the internet tax. It’snothing but a tax and it would support incumbents surely. In another section, it examines the aforementioned iPad tax; a tax on the broadcast spectrum; a spectrum auction tax; a tax on ISPs and cell phones; and a tax on advertising (brilliant: taking a cut of the last support of news in America).

* New tax status. The document spends much space looking at ways to make journalism a tax-exempt activity and suggests the IRS should change its regulations to enable that. It also looks at changing tax law to enable hybrid corporations (“benefit” and “flexible purpose” corporations that can judge success on serving a mission and not just maximizing profits) as well as L3Cs.

It boils down to this one fact: If you think the mainstream media companies are untrustworthy now, wait until the government gets ahold of them.

Moreover, not even your own hometown newspaper will be exempt, because it is very likely owned by a national chain, like the GateHouse chain that owns all the papers around here, that I would bet will have its hand out for government bailouts/subsidies/exemptions/etc.

To read more, go to the Business Insider website at The Government Wants to Save Newspapers and Media Moguls.

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