Former state Sen. William Dean Barrow used to preface Senate speeches with lessons from the “Yellow River Code” and tales of the cracker frontier folks of the far Florida Panhandle he represented.
Illustrating the folly of government getting involved in business, he once told of an over-confident college boy coming home to Crestview with a headful of ideas about waste and inefficiency in farming. There must be a good use for all this “heifer dust,” the kid said, if only it wasn’t such an unpleasant substance.
Barrow, who was known as “Wig,” said his young friend reasoned that a logical counter agent would be some 50-pound bags of sugar, which he mixed with the cow manure. And how’d that work out, Barrow asked.
“Well, it didn’t improve the heifer dust,” the kid replied, “and it just ruined the sugar.”
Moral: No matter how sweet the intention, some things just don’t mix.
Right now, there’s a serious nationwide dilemma involving local news, a commodity often described in bovine terms. Everyone agrees covering local news is good for a community, but nobody knows how to make much money at it. Hundreds of newspapers have shut down, cut publication days or have been swallowed by big hedge funds that sell off assets and lay off staff to bolster the bottom line.
How’s a little community paper going to compete with scores of free sites on the internet? The trouble is, anything you see online is there only because somebody, somewhere wants you to think one way or the other about an issue, candidate or product. And big city papers and broadcasters aren’t going to cover your school board, courts and cops day by day.
One solution seemingly gaining bipartisan traction in Congress is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which might become part of that infrastructure and economic-recovery spending binge in Washington. After all, reliable local information is an important asset, just like a road or a bridge.
Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan, a reluctant convert to the idea, wrote last week that the bill would offer tax credits up to $250 for people to either subscribe to their local newspaper or donate to a nonprofit news organization. Another incentive would be a five-year tax credit for small businesses to advertise with hometown papers and broadcasters. There’d also be a five-year tax credit for each reporter a news agency hires.
There’s ample precedent for using the tax code to influence economic behavior, to encourage desired results. Didn’t the government offer tax breaks for buying electric cars, and offer “cash for clunkers” to get old vehicles off the road? Don’t farmers get subsidies for milk and peanuts and cotton and lots of other stuff that would be terribly expensive without them?
But news is different. As much as reporters need their jobs, and citizens need to know what City Hall is doing, government help looks an awful lot like the camel’s nose slipping under the tent. It might get us past today’s crisis, but pretty soon there will a big, hairy, spitting, smelly dromedary on the copy desk.
We’ve already got lots of people who hate the news media, who believe politics has too much influence over what gets reported or ignored. Government subsidy is not going to restore public confidence.
It inevitably brings government control.
What about lunatic political tabloids or websites, things cranked out by QAnon or Antifa? Would they be eligible for subsidy? If not, are we going to have a government agency deciding what is real news and what’s propaganda?
As Justice Potter Stewart one said of porn, you might not be able to define it but know it when you see it. But do we want the government deciding if a paper, broadcaster or online operation is ethically informing the public?
And what happens when a senator’s press flak calls the metro desk and says, “You guys didn’t cover his speech when the senator was in town last week. Do we need to send the Commerce Department around to see if you’re complying with the Sustainability Act?” Or maybe we did cover the speech and the senator didn’t like the story.
Will readers trust editorial endorsements, if part of the paper’s sustenance comes from the treasury? Is a lifeline worth compromising the free press?
Like Wig Barrow’s cocksure college kid, congressional supporters of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act have good intentions. But even if their solution might help local news coverage survive, it would cost a lot in public confidence that’s already in short supply.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat Capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Read More:Thanks, but no thanks, to government subsidizing news