A Free Press Can’t Expect a Free Lunch

The perils and pitfalls of a government bailout for local media

Still from His Girl Friday
Still from His Girl Friday / Wikimedia Commons

Among the endless provisions in House Democrats' hastily passed stimulus bill, one has drawn surprisingly little scrutiny. Some 800 pages in, the bill's authors have buried a dramatic expansion of the pandemic loan program, making hundreds of local news stations eligible for loans.

Senate Democrats are trying to push the idea farther. A group of prominent liberals in the chamber sent a letter to their leadership insisting that any future coronavirus stimulus contain substantial money for "local journalism and media."

The local news bailout that made it into the HEROES Act is small by comparison to the whole bill's $3-trillion price tag. But, as multiple Democrats have acknowledged, HEROES is less a legislative agenda, more a statement of principles. And the idea of federal funding for local media has grown increasingly popular among Democrats, making its way into Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I., Vt.) influential presidential platform, among others.

The argument made by the left, and some on the right, is that corporate control and consolidation of media poses a unique threat to democracy. Scarier still is the boogeyman of corporate, consolidated, and conservative media—witness the collective panic over Sinclair Broadcasting, the broadcasting conglomerate whose widespread ownership of news stations and conservative editorial line would, detractors said, lead to mass misinformation and chaos. Only the government, they say, can keep independent local media organizations afloat.

Fears about the withering of local media are not unjustified, but there are real and profound risks that come with paying journalists from the public fisc.

The press is one of the few institutions in American life—alongside churches and the states themselves—specifically protected in the Bill of Rights. Restraint on the press, James Madison argued, is restraint on free discourse, a fundamental threat to self-government.

State involvement in the press, no matter how benign in intent, threatens to short-circuit this arrangement. That's partly why public media has never enjoyed the market dominance in America that it has in Europe. The left's desire to create an American BBC runs contrary to the principles upon which our society is built.

It's also dangerous for the outlets themselves. Public money can and will slant coverage, giving reporters an incentive to report positively on their benefactors or risk losing a chunk of their paychecks. A publicly funded media is necessarily one that says what the government wants for fear of biting the hand that feeds.

This dynamic goes the other way too, with public media attacking those who threaten their sinecure. Just look at how Republicans are treated by National Public Radio.

Journalism is a business and journalists have always struggled to maintain independence from advertisers and owners—except for when they've acquiesced to those interests, see Bloomberg on China, or even better Bloomberg on Bloomberg. If local papers sometimes find it hard to say no to their patrons, imagine how hard it will be to say no to the federal government.

Some local news sources are struggling financially right now, and a government bailout doubtless sounds appealing. But they should remember that all money comes with strings attached. The Constitution protects the freedom of the press, but no entity that survives by the generosity of the American taxpayer is entitled to freedom from the meddling and interference of those taxpayers and their elected representatives. The press will be no exception, and if they take the money, sooner or later it will be Congress's turn to pull the strings.