Not Too Soon to Start Worrying

A far-reaching measure introduced by US Senator Benjamin Cardin, which would create a new status called "qualified newspaper cooperation," has spurred debate in an already widespread discussion about the future of print media. In this article published in The Seventh Eye on September 22, 2009, Hanoch Marmari, Former Editor-in-Chief of Haaretz, explains why US legislative efforts to define "newspapers" pose great dangers—dangers even greater than the economic threats that confront the newspaper industry.

Barack Obama recently met with the Editors-in-Chief of two newspapers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. Why did the President choose these two papers? It might have had something to do with the Blade's decision to stray from its tradition by endorsing Obama early in the presidential race, when he was vying for the Democratic Party ticket. The Post-Gazette did the same.

The invariably friendly atmosphere at the meeting allowed the President to loosen his collar and confess to the editors that he is a "newspaper junky." The President does not toss around words of praise for no reason. The remarks he offered last week to the press industry representatives were not merely meant to commend, but to comment on the other, less worthy side of the coin, according to Obama—the blogosphere.

Barack Obama, who owes a lot to the blogosphere for supporting him, allowed himself to lodge criticism against it. "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," the President told the Blade, "that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void, but not a lot of mutual understanding."

Other sources published quotes in which the President decried the media's tendency to focus on the "shrill at the expense of the reasonable." CNN quoted him as saying, "I think it's important for the media—you know, not to do any media-bashing here—to recognize that right now, in this 24-hour news cycle, the easiest way to get on CNN or FOX or any of the other stations, MSNBC, is to say something rude and outrageous. If you're civil and polite and you're sensible, and you don't exaggerate the bad things about your opponent, and, you know, you might get on one of the Sunday shows—but you're not going to be in the loop." The "loop" refers to provocative statements that create chain reactions as they enter the lifecycle of a news item in all media.

At the end of the meeting, the President left his guests with a gift in the form of few words that will echo throughout the world of print: "What I hope is that people start understanding if you're getting your newspaper over the Internet, that that's not free. And there's got to be a way to find a business model that supports that."

To ensure that these words would not be left hanging in midair, the President then said that although he has not yet delved into various congressional proposals to save media publications, he would be happy to assess them. He made special note of one far-reaching measure introduced by Senator Benjamin Cardin that would create a new status called "qualified newspaper corporation."

What Is a 'Qualified Newspaper Corporation?'

Ben Cardin, a veteran Congressman and Senator from Maryland who specializes in social and economic affairs, has floated a bill that would allow qualified newspapers to receive the same tax breaks offered to educational organizations.

The amendment is so simple, yet so terrible: adding a line to section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code under the heading, "Exemptions from tax for organizations, certain trusts, etc." The law would be amended by adding the words, "including a qualified newspaper corporation," to the definition of organizations and companies that operate for "educational purposes." This insertion would entitle "suitable" newspapers to receive not only a tax exemption, but also tax-exempt contributions, thereby making these newspapers resemble non-profit corporations.

And what constitutes a "qualified newspaper?"

The proposed measure defines a corporation that publishes a newspaper that meets the requirements as a company involved in "publishing on a regular basis a newspaper for general circulation."

A newspaper that meets the requirements contains, "local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public."

A newspaper that meets the requirements is one whose distribution "is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose."

A newspaper that meets the requirements is one whose contents are prepared through "methods generally accepted as educational in character."

In a newspaper that meets the requirements, "the space allotted to all [commercial] advertisements does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purpose." (Note: For the full text of the proposed amendment, readers may refer to the source cited.—H.M.)

Crossbreeding a Lion with a Giraffe

The following are a few initial thoughts on Senator Cardin's bill, which is sure to receive considerable tailwind from President Obama's positive review.

  1. It appears that President Obama is no different from other politicians. Although the "irresponsible" Web helped propel him into the White House, he now turns his back on it. Over the course of my 30 years in journalism, I've heard hundreds of politicians and dozens of heads of state from every country and every type of regime draw distinctions between "responsible journalism" and other journalism. In this respect, Obama is no different from Yeltsin, Putin, the president of Turkey, the president of Nigeria or our own leaders over the generations, all of whom I've personally heard draw such distinctions. Few are the political leaders who internalized the fact that the media is the media and it must be recognized and respected as such, with all of its strengths and shortcomings.

  2. Although this is an American proposal relating to US law concerning taxation and financial contributions and the unique status granted to organizations that pursue social aims, the general approach of allowing the legislative body to rewrite the definition of a newspaper is far more dangerous than the economic threat lurking at the newspapers' doorstep. It is dangerous in and of itself, as well as because it could serve as a model to be imitated in every country in accordance with its laws.

  3. The proposed amendment purports to distinguish between a newspaper that advances educational goals and a newspaper that pursues other ends. This is a problematic approach, because there cannot be a legal distinction between various newspaper products—the beauty of a newspaper lies in being educational (for better or for worse) without being didactic.

  4. The significance of the distinction is that there would be newspapers whose status (and oversight) would be placed in the hands of the licensing bodies, and others that would operate in the open market. This distinction would exacerbate the financial hardship—and, consequently, the aggressiveness—of the free market papers (contrary to the President's aspiration). This type of distinction would weaken "qualified newspapers" that rely on public funding and would blunt their teeth. The public would presumably choose the free market papers, as it has for the past 200 years.

  5. Just as a lion and a giraffe cannot mate, a hybrid newspaper—half vegetarian, non-profit and half carnivore, roaming the free market—would not work.

    Will Publishers Toady Up to Officials, Hat in Hand?

  6. The blogosphere is not mentioned at all. By definition, the entire blogosphere would remain in the free market. If such a law takes effect, the blogosphere would flourish and grow. It would also become more critical and aggressive, in accordance with the new circumstances.

  7. Subsidizing art cannot be compared to subsidizing the press. The media cannot be defined as art. Elite journalism cannot be described as a "creative endeavor" and nurtured as such, with committees setting the criteria for good journalism and determining who the good journalists are. Good journalism is independent journalism that operates in the public sphere without any intermediaries formulating definitions and regulations. And if this does not suffice, here is an incontestable assertion: before using public funds to subsidize newspapers, there are thousands of more effective, important, proper, and just uses for this money.

  8. Everybody can agree that, as in the past, the press has not yet found an economic model to sustain itself. This will emerge only through hardship suffered within the confines of journalism itself, with the direct cooperation of the consumers—users, viewers, listeners, and Web surfers. It will be painful. There will invariably be a period of reduced quality, but there is no alternative. As long as there are demanding consumers who refuse to make do with inferior quality, there will be someone to provide it.

  9. Local ramification: If there is anything that unites the ranks of the Israelis, it is the yearning for laws to keep the press in check. A law that supports newspapers that "meet the requirements" could be received in the Knesset corridors with open arms. It's not too soon to start worrying.

  10. Another local ramification: Would the newspapers encourage these initiatives? After a generation (or two generations in some cases) of sailing the open seas, would publishers' hearts be stirred to yearn for the safety of coming ashore? I try to picture Noni Mozes (Publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's leading daily), Ofer Nimrodi (publisher of Maariv), and Amos Schocken (Publisher, Haaretz) standing in line to speak with a tax assessor in order to demonstrate that their respective newspapers have educational value—this is not as hard to imagine as I thought. Would these and other figures sell their freedom in exchange for a grant, an exemption, or to become eligible to receive tax-free contributions?

  11. Would newspaper owners, whose faith in the free press is the source of their power, be tempted to covet public funds? And why not? Would hardened publishers start toadying to public officials? This does not seem beyond the realm of possibility. Would private newspapers accept the transparency terms asked of them—not just financial reports and circulation and sales figures, but information on working conditions as well? I used to think that could never happen, but today, I must admit, it could.

Hanoch Marmari is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz.