There has not been a formal agreement yet, let alone a turnover of funds, but a lawsuit has brought out the fact that the publisher of the venerable Philadelphia Inquirer has at least had discussions with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell about getting something like $10 million from the state government.
Being keenly aware of the financial problems the entire newspaper industry is facing these days, we can understand the impulse to seek help wherever one can find it. But for a newspaper to get a bailout from the government is a terrible idea.
This is not the first instance during this recession of newspapers flirting with governments. Seven Connecticut legislators in November asked that state’s Department of Economic and Community Development for help to keep the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press afloat. A Reuters story says the agency is “offering tax breaks, training funds, financing opportunities and other incentives for publishers, but not cash.”
We’re dubious about any business or industry getting a bailout from government. Decisions about which businesses should thrive and which do less well or have to go out of business should be made by consumers through the mechanism of voluntary decisions in the marketplace, not by agencies that can determine winners and losers with money extracted by force from taxpayers.
But there are special dangers when newspapers get involved with the government.
One of the reasons the First Amendment gives virtually complete freedom to the press — which includes not just newspapers but radio, television, pamphlets, the Internet and whatever technology may be developed in the future for conveying news, attitudes and opinions — is the founders wanted an independent, private source of information to serve as a watchdog on the government. The fact that some journalists are more like lapdogs than watchdogs does not minimize the importance of this function in any society that aspires to be reasonably democratic and moderately free.
Do you doubt that a government with economic leverage over a newspaper would try to influence journalists to be less aggressive in their coverage? Governments without economic leverage do it all the time. Disgraced and ousted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich thought he might be able to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired because the paper’s parent company was seeking government help with regard to the Chicago Cubs, which the company also owns.
It’s important to have a vigorous press, and it’s true that financial troubles can deter vigorous coverage. But it’s hard to see how a paper can be independent and serve as a check on government misdeeds if it is dependent on government for economic survival.
News organizations taking money from government is not a good idea.