It all sounds so innocent and like good government: The Federal Trade Commission will hold a workshop Dec. 1 and 2 called, “How will journalism survive the Internet age?” An assembly of editors, owners, government officials, consumer advocates, advertisers and others are scheduled to discuss a dozen topics. Three ought to make the hair stand up on the necks of every journalist and anybody else who cares about the survival of freedom of the press:
– Are new or changed government policies needed to support optimal amounts and types of journalism, including public affairs coverage?
– Should the tax code be modified to provide special status or tax breaks to all or certain types of news organizations?
– Should the federal government provide additional funding for news organizations?
The short answer to all three of these seemingly innocuous questions posed by federal regulators: “No” and “Hell no!” The longer answer is no less simple: There is nothing in the Constitution — zero, nada — that authorizes the federal government to fund private news organizations, to choose “certain types of news organizations” for special tax favors or to define what are “optimal amounts and types of journalism,” most especially not including “public affairs coverage.”
People in journalism had better wake up now before this funeral train for press freedom leaves the station. There’s no such thing as government support without government control — period. Thus, the First Amendment’s proscription of any law by Congress “respecting the freedom of the press” renders unconstitutional the very idea of the FTC even considering such a topic.
No self-respecting journalists should lend their endorsement to this workshop, and no professional journalism organization should either. But it won’t be enough just to boycott it. They must also condemn this event as loudly as possible and publish the facts about who proposed it and why.
Journalists are kidding only themselves if they think the government will merely provide an innocent helping hand without becoming the controlling hand. The issues to be discussed at the FTC workshop weren’t chosen at random; somebody there has been thinking about this topic for some time. It probably took about three seconds to realize the government will first have to define what kind of journalism “deserves” federal support. Beyond that threshold question, there’s nothing good for independent journalism. You cannot live by bribing the alligator to eat you last.