3/18/11

Letter to Journalists on Diane Rehm Show regarding NPR and Government Support

On the Diane Rehm Show on Friday, March 18th, a caller questioned why the GOP was targeting NPR and CPB, among others. It was then reported the GOP/Tea Party argument that "the government just shouldn't be in the business of supporting media."

It would be nice to hear reporters bring some pretty well established historical facts to bear on this, namely that it was part of our founding to ensure that there be a healthy press--particularly a press aiming to report on matters of import to the people when the basis for "what matters" is not simply up to ratings and corporate profits.

The history on this is pretty clear. In their recent book, Robert McChesney and John Nichols write,

"The founders regarded the establishment of a press system, the Fourth Estate, as the first duty of the state. Jefferson and Madison devoted considerable energy to explaining the necessity of the press to a vibrant democracy. The government implemented extraordinary postal subsidies for the distribution of newspapers. It also instituted massive newspaper subsidies through printing contracts and the paid publication of government notices, all with the intent of expanding the number and variety of newspapers. When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the quantity and quality of newspapers and periodicals compared with France, Canada and Britain. It was not an accident. It had little to do with "free markets." It was the result of public policy."

(Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again.) WEB SOURCE: http://sustainablejournalism.org/uncategorized/mcchesney-nichols-advocate-government-help-to-save-journalism

Why mention this? Because I am politely requesting that this history be brought to bear by reporters discussing the issue today. It is not "objective" of journalists to treat stories a-historically, as if the claims made in them had no context. That is how the opponents of public media want to frame the issue--as a story with no backstory--but that a-historical argument is being presented as if it was "the American way of doing things." Mentioning the history of government support for media would be a way of making the story more accurate by adding in more context.

I hope you see my point. Journalism is extremely important for democracy, and to the degree that you exclude historical context (in the service of seeming "fair") you actually undermine the role journalism plays in educating citizens---and ensuring that the press remain an indispensable democratic ingredient, as Jefferson and Madison believed it was.

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