For Sale: Free Press

Just in case you don’t think that the media isn’t already completely in the tank for President Obama and the Democrats, comes House act S.673, sponsored by Maryland Democrats Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski. What the proposal amounts to is a Federal infusion of cash to struggling newspapers, if the newspapers in question agree to operate as non-profits.

It’s no secret that newspapers, and publishing in general, are going through a very bad time right now. Publishing was extremely slow to react to the growth of the internet, and even now most publishers are still locked into a “print” mentality. After giving away content for free on the Web in pursuit of more eyes on the page (i.e., higher circulation) and believing that Web advertising (banner ads, etc) would create significant revenues just like full page ads do in print, newspapers are stuck with Web sites that are losing money and no clear idea how to make money. Only the Wall Street Journal Web site makes money. Why? Because they understood the new rules of the game early, and charged for their content. The old print publishers never took the Web seriously and it’s currently biting their buns because of it.

On top of this, we have a mainstream media that is growing increasingly out of touch with most Americans. The New York Times, once considered the best, most important newspaper in the world, is little more than a shill for Democratic politicians these days. Ditto the Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, etc. Sure there are newspapers that lean right, such as my beloved New York Post and the Washington Times, but the overwhelming preponderance tilts left. Worse, the “bigger” the newspaper, the further left it tends to lean. Is there really any wonder that newspapers are failing? They became increasingly strident in their politics at the same time they were following out-dated business models for success.

But now here comes Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski to the rescue: What the free press needs is cash from the people the press is supposed to be holding accountable.

To be fair, President Obama has only said he would “look at” the bill, but he expresses concern at the idea that investigative journalism might go away if the newspapers fail. From The Hill:

“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,” he said.

What’s ironic here is that one of the reasons the blogosphere has exploded in recent years is precisely because newspapers had abdicated their responsiblity to do serious fact-checking and putting stories in context. The incredible growth of the political blogosphere, including The Clampdown, was in part spurred on by watching the fair, impartial, objective press seize every available opportunity to present George W. Bush in a bad light for the past eight years, and then spend the last two years scribbling “I Barry” in their notepads. Remember, it was the blog Little Green Footballs that did the fact-checking that held Dan Rather accountable for his phony Bush/National Guard story, and it was Drudge who broke the Lewinsky story when Newsweek refused to run the story.

There are, unquestionably, blogs that add much heat but little light to the national debate, and those blogs are on both sides of the political spectrum. Even some respectable blogs have comments that cross the line. But the President’s notion that the blogosphere is just a bunch of people yelling at each other is mistaken.

What newspapers need to do is start taking the Web seriously, and recognize that they are now being held accountable for their actions, including their biases. They need to get back to a time when honest reporters reported honestly and saved their opinions for the dinner table or the bar room. They also need to realize that the Web is here to stay and that applying print solutions to an online world is a sure-fire recipe for Chapter 11.

What newspapers most emphatically do not need to do is accept money or tax breaks from the Federal government. The last thing a free press needs is to be in debt to the people they are supposed to be watching. There’s nothing free about that.

UPDATE: Hot Air backs me up.

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