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Why we need public financing of investigative journalism

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The news media is awash in articles lamenting the sorry state of journalism. The problem is: according to the relentless logic of the marketplace, the return on investment from funding traditional newsrooms is too low to justify their continued existence. Furthermore, because of the Internet, content can now be accessed for free and ad revenues are no longer sufficient to subsidize substantial news gathering. Yet America needs a diverse, independent press to act as a watchdog on both government and the private sector.

In this article I argue that the decline of privately funded journalism is to be expected; I present the case for public funding of journalism; and, perhaps most importantly, I address libertarian objections to such public funding,

Journalism as a public good

Americans have taken it for granted that privately held news organizations would devote sufficient resources to investigative journalism. But is it reasonable to rely on the good will of private. for-profit news corporations to perform the very necessary service of investigative journalism?

Even in the days before the Internet, when newspapers made good money, investigative journalism emerged serendipitously and quite unreliably as a by-product of the real products in demand: entertainment, classified ads, gossip, and financial information.

As a society, we delegate responsibility for public safety and the courts to specialized public servants who are expected to uphold high standards of professionalism and objectivity. We pay police, prosecutors and judges to ferret out the facts and apply the law impartially. Investigative journalism is equally essential to the well-being of society, and we shouldn't expect for-profit private corporations to find the truth about news either. Journalists, like police and judges, should be shielded from commercial considerations.

A well-funded, independent press is a public good, akin to police protection, courts, transit, national defense, childhood immunization, clean air, and banking regulations. For such public goods, for which the benefits accrue to everyone, a market-based approach is infeasible, since allowing people the choice not to contribute would undermine the system: people would 'free-load' and rely on other people to pay for it. Consequently, government tax revenues should be used to fund news gathering and investigative journalism, and we should construct a wall separating public funding from political interference.

The overstated risks of political interference

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The standard argument against government funded journalism is that there are risks of political interference. But as argued by Richard Baker in How to Save the News, "There are numerous democratic nations with public broadcasting systems that are both well funded by their central government and also well shielded from its political influence." Indeed, " Better funding for All Things Considered on NPR or NewsHour on PBS will not turn either program into a propaganda outfit for the government. The BBC is not Pravda , and Japan and most of Europe, which have enjoyed extremely well-funded public media for decades, are not a network of totalitarian states. "

In How to Save Journalism John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney write , "Perhaps the strongest contemporary case for journalism subsidies is provided by other democracies. The evidence shows that subsidies do not infringe on liberty or justice; they correlate with the indicators of a good society. In The Economist 's annual Democracy Index, which evaluates nations on the basis of the functioning of government, civic participation, civil liberties, political culture and pluralism, the six top-ranked nations maintain some of the most generous journalism subsidies on the planet.... Freedom House ranks the heavy subsidizing nations of Northern Europe in the top six spots on its 2008 list of nations with the freest news media. The United States ties for twenty-first."

In reality, any wall separating a publicly subsidized press from political interference must be porous: we mustn't fund traitors who support Al Qaeda or crackpots who promote Holocaust denial theories. But the risks of interference are overstated, and the alternative to government funding seems dire: news and opinion increasingly sold to the highest bidder or omitted entirely in favor of speculation, hearsay, spin, and entertainment.

America under-funds public broadcasting

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, Germany and Great Britain spend over $80 per capita on public broadcasting annually; Canada and Australia spend $28; the US spends a measly $1.70. In 2007 the U.S. spent about $480 million in total on public broadcasting. That's about the same as what it costs the military to occupy Iraq for two and a half days and a small fraction of the funds used to bailout banks and Wall Street. Yet for years Republicans have been trying to cut even that funding.

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Nichols and McChesney report that America's founders understood the vital importance of the press and gave large subsidies to newspapers and magazines in the form of reduced postal rates. Nichols and McChesney write, "If, for example, the United States had devoted the same percentage of its GDP to journalism subsidies in 2009 as it did in the 1840s, we calculate that the allocation would have been $30 billion. In contrast, the federal subsidy last year for all of public broadcasting, not just journalism, was around $400 million.... Only an extreme libertarian or a nihilist would argue to end all public support of higher education to eliminate the threat of [political interference by educators]... Likewise, the government does not tax church property or income, which is in effect a massive subsidy of organized religion. Yet the government has not favored particular religions or required people to hold religious views."

There are several ways to finance journalism from public funds.

The public option

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DFA organizer, Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See and for my writing, my (more...)

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