< Take For Granted


Friday, October 30, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. We all know about the crumbling news industry, how shrunken ad revenues have led to shrunken reporting. Recently, Columbia University’s journalism jchool weighed in with a report called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”, with a half dozen ideas for how to salvage the Fourth Estate. The advice includes granting news organizations tax-exempt nonprofit status, encouraging philanthropic and foundation support, mandating that public broadcasting stations provide substantial coverage of local news and urging universities to start their own news organizations. Most of these ideas were met with nods of approval, but one prompted some groans, the suggestion that local news outlets be allowed to be apply for grants administered through state councils, paid for by money collected by the FCC, from telecom users, broadcast licensees and Internet service providers. Some commentators, like Alan Rusbridger, editor of the British newspaper The Guardian, applaud the idea and shrug off the concern that government money would compromise coverage.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: In Britain you have something called the BBC, which is not government-funded but from a licensee which is approved by government. And I don't think anyone would suggest that the BBC is any way compromised by that form of funding. Indeed, when people do surveys, the BBC emerges as the most trusted news organization in Britain.

BOB GARFIELD: But, for the most part, the responses to the idea of government-funded grants met with skepticism, if not downright scolding. Here’s Paul Starr, a professor at Princeton University and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine.

PAUL STARR: The danger is that the awards will go to journalists who don't make trouble, and those that do make trouble, that are, in fact, often performing the most valuable service for the public by uncovering things that are wrong with government, that they might be excluded.

BOB GARFIELD: We asked Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post and co-author of the report, for his reaction to - the reaction. Len welcome back to OTM.

LEONARD DOWNIE: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Permit me, please, to pile on for a moment.


BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside every other consideration, politically in the United States, the idea of the government underwriting the Marxist media, isn't that as much of a nonstarter as it could possibly be?

LEONARD DOWNIE: First of all, the media’s much more diverse than that, as you well know. Probably the fastest-growing audience in the country is for conservative media, like FOX News. And we're talking about local coverage, not national coverage, not the stuff that gets into ideological fights and political fights. And we're talking about doing virtually the same thing that’s already being done for museums and symphonies and scientific research and medical research, all of which are public goods that cannot be supported entirely by the marketplace. And I believe every American can tell now the marketplace is no longer supporting news reporting at anywhere near the level it was before. So I don't think they'd find it outrageous to turn to nonprofit funding sources of various kinds, including the government.

BOB GARFIELD: Another objection falls into the category of he who pays the piper calls the tune. A number of people have freaked out at the notion of even the taint of conflict of interest when local news reporting is fundamentally subsidized by government. Putting aside political considerations, the journalists themselves don't want to be tarred with that brush.

LEONARD DOWNIE: That depends on whether you’re a journalist with work or a journalist without work [BOB LAUGHS], as a matter of fact. [LAUGHS] First of all, advertising has subsidized news all these years. So it was possible all during that time for individual advertisers to try to influence the news, and on some occasions they did. But, by and large, when that was exposed, it stopped and, by and large, it didn't happen because you had so many diverse sources of funding no one advertiser could hold sway. And we're talking here about government grants as part of an overall diverse funding for these new news organizations. And, by the way, nobody’s accusing NPR of being corrupted by the government.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, just permit me to correct you, but there are many people accusing [LAUGHS] NPR of being corrupted by the government, probably not as many who are accusing it of being Radio Moscow. But, nonetheless, there is a large constituency who believe that NPR and all of its stations are simply tools for “the man.”

LEONARD DOWNIE: Sure, there are other people that have that suspicion, just as there are people that are concerned about public money going into the National Endowments for the Arts or the Humanities, or even into the National Science Foundation or NIH. And occasionally there are controversies over that, and there is political opposition. But so far, all those institutions, including NPR, have survived; they're prospering. And I believe that that can happen in this case, too, not without controversy, but I believe it can work.

BOB GARFIELD: A moment ago you invoked the name FOX News. It is clearly politically inflected in almost everything it does. Equally, I guess, MSNBC is politically inflected. But that’s not limited to just national news organizations. Some local newspapers and radio stations also are arms of ideology, as much as they are of news gathering. I'm thinking of Richard Mellon Scaife’s Pittsburgh paper and others. And the idea of them getting my tax dollars makes my flesh crawl. And I'm sure an equal number of people, their flesh will crawl at the idea of the liberal media being the beneficiary, in any way, of their tax dollars.

LEONARD DOWNIE: Again, I think it comes down to the growing realization of Americans that news coverage is in trouble. And very few newspapers are like Richard Mellon Scaife’s newspapers; most cover the news straight, even though they have strong views in their editorial pages. And people know that. The American public is smart, and they understand the difference between opinions and news coverage. And they can see for themselves that particularly local news coverage is in trouble. So I think if you offer them the possibility that the government is not going to subsidize that newspaper entirely, by any means – in fact, much of these grants will be going to new news organizations competing with the newspapers, creating the kind of competition that actually is usually the enemy of bias - they'll think seriously about that. Whether it'll happen immediately or it'll take longer than that, I believe that the deterioration of the newspapers across the country will help convince people that something like this would be a good idea, to at least try.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, well Len, thank you so much for joining us.

LEONARD DOWNIE: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, is co-author of “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”.