Tuned In

Dept. of Bad Ideas: Government News

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New York Times media columnist David Carr has an intriguing piece today about a wonky but potentially influential Columbia Journalism School report on how to how to save newspapers—or, more specifically, the newsgathering that those papers do—as it becomes more apparent that their advertising-based business model is threatened.

A big component of the authors’ solution: Uncle Sam.

People can and I’m sure will dispute the report’s premise, that we need to save traditional newsrooms in order to make sure that public-interest journalism gets done. Even assuming that remise for the sake of argument, though, I have a hard time reconciling government support and an independent press.

But first, let me credit the good ideas. Among the recommendations are creating a greater role for nonprofits, philanthropists and universities in bankrolling news. I suspect that’s the direction at least some journalism will go. If the for-profit model isn’t working, that by definition creates opportunity, and advantage, for people producing news with motives other than profit.

The report also suggests, however, that the government become directly involved in funding journalism, by setting up a fund for local news. Now all right, this isn’t the same as, say, the government paying the salary of the Washington Post’s White House correspondent. But it still presents the possibility of influence over journalism by an entity that shouldn’t have any. It’s also an ironic proposal for journalists to be making, while we have one administration making a political enemy of a cable-news network, before which we had an administration that regularly ran against the “mainstream media” as a political gambit.

Put it this way: picture the national politician you detest and/or distrust most. Imagine him or her being elected President. And think about how you would fell about his or her having influence over how your local newspaper is funded.

That said, this is one of those ideas that to me seems so transparently and obviously bad that there I feel there must be some argument in favor of it that I’m missing. So feel free to make it. In any case, the idea that journalists are out there embracing the government as a sugar daddy is proof, if you needed it, of how hard up the profession is.