Poll: Americans Overwhelmingly Reject Government's Plan to 'Save Journalism'

An overwhelming majority of Americans prefer freedom of the press to outdated models of journalism, according to a new Rasmussen poll. The survey comes in the midst of discussions in the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to intervene on behalf of Old Media.

Eighty-five percent of respondents in the Rasmussen poll said they believe maintaining press freedom is more important than financially supporting the newspaper industry. Only six percent said the latter is more important. Just 14 percent said they would favor a bailout of the newspaper industry.

Respondents worried that government involvement in the industry would compromise press neutrality. Indeed, this sentiment reflects the findings of a number of studies over the past few years. As with any bailout, a bailout of a newspaper would inevitably mean at least some say in that newspaper's content.

In the words of a report released last year by the Business and Media Institute:

As soon as Obama bailed out Detroit, he forced out GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner. The White House also gave majority ownership in Chrysler (55 percent) to the UAW. Wall Street bailouts resulted in overnight government regulation – even salary controls. Government intervention in media gives Obama the same opportunity to control the news. Seven major newspaper chains have gone into bankruptcy. If he uses the same strategies he used for Detroit, that would let Obama control major media outlets across the nation and he could dictate the news.

A Harvard/Northwestern study observed just such trends in the newspaper industry of Argentina after that nation's government instituted subsidies for its own failing newspapers. According to one blogger who reported on the study,

Their analysis found a “huge correlation” between, in any given month, how much money went to a newspaper and how much corruption coverage appeared on its front page. For example, if the government ad revenue in a month increased by one standard deviation — around $70,000 U.S. — corruption coverage would decrease by roughly half of a front page.

...in periods where newspapers were getting more money from the government, they produced fewer corruption scoops of their own and covered fewer of the scoops produced by other newspapers. (It should be noted here that the study only looked at the front pages of newspapers — so it’s possible rival papers were writing about the scandals uncovered by their peers. But if so, they were doing it on inside pages.)

The Washington Examiner's Mark Tapscott brilliantly captured the inevitability of a stilted journalism once public funding is introduced. He noted that the not-too-subtle goal of the campaign to "save journalism"

is to transform the news industry from an information product collected by private individuals and entrepreneurs as a service to private buyers, to a government-regulated public utility providing a "public good," as defined and regulated by government.

The inevitable result of the campaign, Tapscott writes, is more government control over the news, since "government always expands its control over any activity it either funds or regulates."

The poll's respondents presciently observed this attempt at a power grab--and resoundingly rejected it. According to Rasmussen,

Sixty-nine percent (69%) think it at least somewhat likely that a newspaper that receives government funding to hire journalists will avoid criticizing government officials and policies, with 45% who say it is Very Likely. Twenty-three percent (23%) say it’s not very or not at all likely that newspapers will avoid such criticism if they get government funding.

Seventy-one percent (71%) oppose a government bailout of the newspaper industry like the ones for the financial sector and the automobile industry, up from 65% in March of last year. Only 14% say a government bailout of the newspaper business is a good idea.

Of course the federal government is considering a number of options beyond the gifting of taxpayer funds to ailing newspapers. Still many of its options could leave the door open to cronyism and compromising conflicts of interest between journalists and their federal benefactors.

One such option is the creation of an "Americorps-type program that would hire and pay journalists to work for newspapers around the country," in Rasmussen's phrasing.

First of all, as Reason's Peter Suderman notes, the last thing American journalism needs is a crop of reporters on the public dole. But more to the point of this study, AmeriCorps itself has served as a prime example of cronyism in the distribution of public money. It is certainly not a model to be emulated.

And besides, the combined price tag of these programs to save journalism could cost as much as $35 billion, according to Suderman. That's almost 100 times the FCC's annual budget. Any federal program doling out that kind of money will attract sycophantic would-be recipients, ready to do what it takes to get their hands on a slice of that pie.

Americans, apparently, have a firm grasp of these facts. 

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