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Imagine a world of “post-corporate” newsrooms, where the state serves as the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate. Billions flow from bureaucracies to media entities and individual journalists in the name of sustaining a “free press.” And this new media welfare state is funded by steep taxes on our mobile phones, broadband connections, and digital gadgets.
Sound Orwellian? Well, it’s the blueprint for a press takeover drawn up by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in this book. McChesney and Nichols model their $35 billion annual “public works” program for the press after the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era. Their media WPA would include a “News AmeriCorps” for out-of-work journalists, a “Citizenship News Voucher” to funnel taxpayer support to struggling media entities, a significant expansion of postal subsidies, a massive new subsidy for journalism schools, corporate welfare for newspapers sufficient to pay 50 percent of the salaries of all “journalistic employees,” and more. It's a veritable industrial policy for the press that resembles a Soviet-style five-year plan.
Who pays the bill and how much will the takeover cost? McChesney and Nichols take a remarkably cavalier attitude about it: “The money must be spent and we will worry about where it comes from later.” Such “we’re-all-dead-in-the-long-run” reasoning seems to be the dominant philosophy in Washington policy circles these days. But the estimated $35 billion annual price tag for a “public works” program for the press should give us pause. Moreover, like every other corporate-welfare program (think agriculture subsidies), a journalistic welfare state would no doubt grow in scope and cost over time.
McChesney and Nichols suggest several potential funding sources for the program, many of which would end up burdening commercial media providers in order to subsidize their noncommercial/public media competitors. They advocate a four-part tax plan that would include: a 5 percent tax on new purchases of consumer electronics, which they estimate would bring in $4 billion a year; a 3 percent tax on monthly ISP & mobile-service bills (estimated at $6 billion a year); a 2 percent sales tax on advertising (estimated at $5 to $6 billion a year); and a 7 percent tax on broadcasters’ spectrum licenses (estimated to sap another $3-6 billion a year from an already reeling industry). In other words, they would tax every device and network in your house to transfer money to the federal government to set up a journalistic welfare state.
What McChesney and Nichols essentially advocate is a radical form of media redistributionism -- with struggling private entities and others forced to the fund public or non-commercial media outlets they desire. That is, what they seek is not so much a bailout for the familiar private media that has served America so well for two centuries, but rather a massive wealth transfer from one class of media to another, with the stipulation -- which they repeat numerous times in the book -- that state-subsidized entities are to forgo private advertising revenues, copyright protection, and any affiliation with corporate parents. These restrictions are an essential part of their push for a “post-corporate,” government-controlled press. Indeed, it would virtually make such a press a self-fulfilling prophecy, since copyright laws and advertising have been core ingredients of a successful private media system in the U.S. They’re also why we haven’t had to resort to massive public subsidies for media, as many other nations have.
"The Death and Life of American Journalism" is a troubling book. But I will give it this: For those of us who still care about our fundamental First Amendment freedoms and a truly free and independent press, McChesney & Nichols' book clearly draws the battle lines for the future of media and provides a fresh reminderabout what it is we’re fighting for.
I invite those who are interested in learning more about the

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