It was supposed to be a joke. As an endless parade of corporate beggars marches to Washington in search of handouts for their beleaguered industries, some of us in the news business snarked that journalists would be next in line. I launched a Newspaper Bailout Countdown Clock on my blog after The New York Times Company’s bonds plunged into junk territory in October. A few weeks later, columnist Jon Fine published a tongue-in-cheek memo in BusinessWeek outlining a federal newspaper rescue proposal.
The jibes were meant to be facetious critiques of for-profit enterprises demanding massive taxpayer expenditures under the guise of preserving the "public interest." But now, in a rather unfunny turn, the newspaper bailout push has actually come to pass.
The Republican governor and the Democratic attorney general of Connecticut went on the record last week in support of government intervention for failing local newspapers. God save us from bipartisanship. Their joint statements pushing a salvage program came in response to news that The New Britain Herald, The Bristol Press and 11 weekly papers across the state face closure. About 100 jobs are at stake. This is bad news, no question. But cause for apocalyptic talk and expansive meddling by politicians? Please.
"This is the worst financial turmoil I have ever seen, not only in our state but in our nation," Gov. M. Jodi Rell lamented as she expressed her support for some sort of government/media salvation plan. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal asserted: "The newspaper is an information lifeline. It provides really an essential service." Among the "essential services" Blumenthal thinks taxpayers should prop up: marriage notices and school sports announcements.
These items are easily and effectively disseminated online. Connecticut consumers who are passing up the newspapers that offer these products obviously don’t agree with Blumenthal that it’s "essential" to get them in dead-tree form. But Rell seems to believe that quaintness is an argument for government funding: "There’s something about having that paper and being able to sit there with your cup of coffee or your tea and read through and find out not only the news but the real feel for a community."
Local lemonade stands give you a "real feel for a community," too. Should Johnny and Susie get handouts for keeping it real? Should we resurrect Woolworth with some of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s bottomless bailout billions while we’re at it? Why not bring back town criers with public subsidies, as well?
Unperturbed, seven Democratic state legislators stepped up further pressure by sending a letter to Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development seeking help for the dying newspapers. With straight faces, they wrote: "As elected officials, ourselves, we want [the] public to have access to independent news about what is going on in government and our communities. We share the sentiments of our nation’s leaders who wrote the Bill of Rights that a free press is an essential part of democracy."
How "free" can a "free press" be if it is leveraged with government funding? How free would they be to criticize other corporate enterprises seeking local, state or federal help to keep them afloat in hard times? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? A press beholden to the ruling class — a press that cannot stand on its own two feet and the strength of its product — is a press better off dead.