Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cardin's bill a good start but needs work

(Originally published 3/28/09)

U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) jumped into the fray over a new business model for the American newspaper industry this week with his introduction of The Newspaper Revitalization Act.

The bill would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible, according to Reuters.

Cardin's ideas have merit. But there are also problems.

Non-profit newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

Bad idea.

Though they may infuriate many a politician, newspapers' editorial endorsements are an indispensible part of their mission to serve their communities.

In his news release announcing the introduction of the bill, Cardin said:

"While we have lots of news sources, we rely on newspapers for in-depth reporting that follows important issues, records events and exposes misdeeds. In fact, most if not all sources of journalistic information -- from radio to television to the Internet -- gathers their news from newspaper reporters who cover the news on a daily basis and know their communities."


By virtue of their work and professional training, newspaper reporters and editors should know their communities – and their leaders – better than anyone else. In news articles throughout the paper, they tell you about those public meetings and government contracts and how your tax money is being spent.

The editorial page is where they analyze for you what they've found.

Of course, newspapers must take great care not to color news coverage with political preferences. And, of course, some newspapers and reporters do this better than others. I have said here before that there is no such thing as an unbiased journalist; the good ones, though, are able to recognize and account for their bias in their news stories.

And it is to newspapers' benefit to carefully maintain that bright line against bias. The weight of an editorial endorsement is affected greatly by how fair the newspaper making that endorsement has been in its coverage of the candidates or issues involved.

Back to Cardin's bill: On its face, it appears that its proposed ban on editorial endorsements would pass the First Amendment test, because newspapers would have to opt-in to the non-profit program it would create.

But could it be argued that the government is, in effect, creating a back-door abridgement on the freedom of the press by using these tough economic times to ban editorial endorsements, making help available only to those newspapers willing to drop them?

The bill could also have problems with the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

Cardin's measure is targeted toward "local newspapers serving communities and not large newspaper conglomerates." Newspapers serve the same function, regardless of their owners. Why should only community papers have access to the tax breaks of the non-profit option?

I believe Cardin's heart is in the right place. But if he really wants to help the industry, he should protect newspapers’ functions -- all their functions -- and make his lifeline available to them all.

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