Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Writing in the Nation, William F. Baker invokes the founders as part of his argument for national public funding for the print media.

It is no longer safe to assume, as the authors of the Constitution did, that free-flowing news and information will always be available to America's voters.
The costs of letting our journalistic institutions decay aren't visible like collapsed bridges or tent cities, but they're just as dire. A thriving news media, which America is in real danger of losing, is the unspoken assumption behind not only the First Amendment but the whole idea of self-government. It shouldn't seem radical to expect the same government that recognizes the freedom of the press to also ensure the survival of the press.

What's interesting is that Baker's romantic view of the newspaper industry dates back 50 or 60 years, certainly not to the time of the nation's founding. Foreign news bureaus would have been, well, foreign in the 1780's, as would the idea of a politically unbiased print media. Those much smarter than myself have written about the history of newspapers in America, and I believe the concept of the journalist as impartial and unbiased disseminater of facts dates back only about a hundred years or so, to the dawn of the progressive era.

So why does history matter? Even if you assume the Constitutional and historical value of the press implies the need for the government to preserve it, there's no Constitutional or historical logic that would lead to Baker's romantic view. Or as I've been saying all along, what's so special about the print media as it's now constituted that it needs to be preserved? The newspapers of the 1780's and the 1880's were vastly different from the newspapers of the 1950's and today. And herein lies the problem with the "fall of journalism" narrative, this idea that our democracy demands what we're used too and that the private sector couldn't possibly innovate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes a newspaper a better source of news than a TV news show?

The written word is only one of the many forms of communication, and it doesn't always get a point across as well as a video clip. I haven't heard about TV networks complaining that no one watches the news.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

Were the problems of particular newspapers caused by a sudden drop in the demand for news, or for shifting preferences in terms of the news medium?

Obviously the latter. So in that case, the only argument for subsidizing newspapers is that people mistakenly believe that other forms of media are better, but people are in fact wrong and it will therefore jeopardize our democracy.

I wonder if this guy walks around with a WWTFD (what would the founders do) bracelet and tries to apply the founders principles to government healthcare and other issues.

For some reason I doubt it.

2:07 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Good points, both. No one takes into account the explosion of cable news and the internet when they look at the decline of the traditional newspapers.

Part of the problem with newspapers- and I've heard Bill Simmons make this point on his podcast several times- is that newspapers have strove to be more immediate like television and the internet, when they probably should have gone in the opposite direction and focused on putting out quality writing. There is certainly still a role for newspapers in this country, but it's just plain ridiculous to assume that with all the technological and economic changes in the world that newspapers should be stuck in this business model that existed from the 50's to the 60's.

4:14 PM  

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