A Senate bill to bail out America’s newspapers, after languishing all summer like so much fishwrap, gained street cred over the weekend when President Barack Obama said he’d “be happy” to consider the measure.
The legislation in question would allow failing newspapers to seek the protection of tax-exempt, non-profit status. “I haven’t seen detailed proposals yet,” Obama told four reporters and editors from the Toledo Blade and Pittsbugh Post-Gazette, “but I’ll be happy to look at them.”
The president’s obliging offer came during a 25-minute softball interview in the Oval Office for stories in the Sunday editions of the sister papers to advance next weekend’s G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
The newspaper bailout bill introduced last spring by Sen. Ben Cardin had attracted exactly one co-sponsor: fellow Baltimore Democrat Barbara Mikulski. Probably because most senators still understand that, unlike the so-called separation of church and state, separation of press and state (that is, freedom of the press) actually is in the Constitution.
“Journalistic integrity, you know, fact-based reporting, serious investigative reporting, how to retain those ethics in all these different new media and how to make sure that it’s paid for, is really a challenge,” Obama said, perhaps figuring flattery would get him somewhere. “But it’s something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy.”
If the federal government subsidized newspapers that otherwise would have gone out of business for lack of advertisers and readers, though, Americans could say goodbye to any expectation that their local paper serves the public interest. As I’ve written (here and here), newspaper owners, to keep tax-exempt status, would have to bow to federal prohibitions on traditional watchdog functions. Such as holding politicians accountable and endorsing candidates for office.
Could it be Obama sees nothing unethical in the “fact-based” and “serious investigative” reporting by the Old Media that covers name-calling but not both sides to disagreements on health care, federal spending and global warming? How about “journalistic integrity” that neglects to explore the resumes and records of Van Jones and other policy czars? That steers clear of the practices of taxpayer-funded activist group ACORN — until shamed by two 20-something amateurs with a hidden camera?
Back in May, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brushed off the idea that his boss would include newspapers among American institutions that are too big to fail. “I don’t know what, in all honesty, government can do about it,” Gibbs replied to a CNN reporter’s question about the Boston Globe and other papers in crisis, calling it “a bit of a tricky area to get into.”
Obama seemed to tell a different story Friday before taking over the major Sunday morning talk shows — well, all but Fox’s — on the way to his grueling Monday session with David Letterman. ( “I think it’s important to realize,” the president told an adoring Dave, “that I was actually black before the election.” )
Obama assured the newspapermen:
I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”
Obama, Cardin and fellow liberals already must miss the “mutual understanding” they had with the rapidly fading Old Media. Who wouldn’t miss tough questions like these, lobbed by the hard-bitten Blade and Post-Gazette scribes during those precious 25 minutes in the Oval Office:
• After years of being back and forth between Chicago and D.C. and on the [campaign] trail, how does it feel to be with your family most nights?
• Do you help your daughters with their homework?
• What was it like playing basketball with Tyler Hansbrough and his University of North Carolina teammates during the campaign? Who do you play here in Washington?
• President Bush biked a lot. Do you exercise daily?
Now there’s a serious attempt to put a story in context.