At Large : The true safe place
There are three popular schemes for propping up the newspaper business nationally. Surprisingly, they are popular among some newspaper people, but especially among newspaper people for whom the center of the news universe is Washington, D.C.
When newspaper folks need to inflate themselves, say, to get out of a tight scrape or to extract a favor from the hands of those they ought to be nipping, they (and we, occasionally, I admit it) refer to themselves as journalists. It's a gassy way to attribute to themselves the presumed professionalism of a lawyer or a doctor, without having to go to law school or medical school. For the purpose of the news biz begging under way these days, newspapering has definitely got to be journalism.
All three of these life support strategies are different, but each has two features in common with the others. One is that the intense lobbying by newspaper people - and yes, of course, newspaper folks do a lot of lobbying on their industry's behalf while savaging lobbying done by other industries - requires recasting news into journalism and reporters into journalists. The other is that all three strategies require the smirking indulgence of at least two branches of the federal government that newspapers are meant to examine critically.
The newspaper industry is tugging its forelock in sniveling supplication before the Congress and eventually the president because its leaders are pretty sure that the general public, asked to furnish the same props to the news game, would make a rude gesture and a loud guffaw. In the opinion of their customers, journalists know, their favorables are way down in Pelosi country. Better to make the case for indulgences to the Washington political class with whom they have a relationship. And they know how that relationship works, that it is a two-way-street, that if the politicians scratch the news biz's back, the news biz will need to scratch politely and generously back.
News business leaders want a shield law that will protect their reporters and columnists from being hauled into court to confess the sources of the information that they publish. Among other issues, newspapers would like to avoid the costs of defending their reporters from the predations of federal and state prosecutors, and from the rummaging through newspaper files and reporters' notes in discovery.
They want to be able to convert their money making businesses into non-profit corporations, for example like the Public Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio, or the National Endowment for the Arts, which would be eligible for tax advantaged public and private financial support for the journalism that derives from the relationships to which I referred in the paragraph just above.
And, they would not mind a bailout of some sort, but in the positive sense, not one like the two mere sacraments mentioned above. They'd like a check from the government, please.
The nation's Founders knew better than to leave the freedom of the free press to the vagaries of the national political culture and its mandarins. They may even have foreseen that newspapers that did their jobs would find themselves held in low regard by their own readers and the citizenry in general. Of course, the Founders, all of whom believed utterly in the principles set out in the Declaration of Independence, were politicians who haggled bitterly over the language of the Constitution. And, in touch as they were with both their good and not so good selves, they insisted on a Bill of Rights, to make adamantine Jefferson's "unalienable."
Certainly, the Founders could not foresee the development of the modern newspaper, the global information explosion, the Internet, the blogosphere, the web crawlers, news alerts, Facebooks, Yahoos, or Googles. Neither could they have imagined a newspaper industry so fat and happy with its double digit profitability that it overlooked the heavy breathing digital information revolution that would cripple it, in cooperation with the global economic meltdown.
What they did foresee was the need to keep the Congress out of newspapering's business. They knew what Congress was capable of, that what it might give, it might take away. They did not imagine that the hooligans who were the newspaper owners and writers of the late 18th Century would become the craven, late to the digital party journalists of the early 21st, looking for an indulgence from Washington, when they had the language of the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment - "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" - to depend upon for their defense.
Yes, but, the journalist supplicants will argue, if we depend on the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court to protect us as the Founders intended, we may be disappointed. Perhaps, but after all, the First Amendment is the best and only genuine and enduring protection newspapers can hope for - apart from their own innovative business sense - in the face of a government and a public that has never really liked the news business and never will, as long as reporters do their jobs.