December 15, 2008 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:49 am
THE ARTFUL STRATEGIST

A 'Free Press' Is Free Of State Handouts

You don't need a license to be a columnist or news reporter. And you only need the permission of Satan to be an editor or publisher.

Doctors, lawyers, public school teachers — dozens of job classification require some sort of licensure or certification or other blessing from government and/or professional organizations. But journalism in the United States requires only that you be a living, breathing person.

While some countries have a system of licensure for journalists, the American tradition is that such entanglement between the press and government would be dangerous for journalism and for freedom. As a matter of law, most targeted regulation and taxation of the media are laughed out of court on First Amendment grounds — a "free press," by its very nature, must be relatively "free."

One of the old English idiosyncrasies that popped up in a few places in colonial America was the requirement that you needed a license to own a printing press — with the unspoken understanding that your work should be limited to wedding invitations, not newspapers filled with "seditious libel."

The press remains subject to libel laws and invasion of privacy laws, but the courts are unsympathetic to such stuff, unless it is truly outrageous. Government can regulate and legislate in ways that impact the media, but only in ways similar to or identical to the ways that other businesses are regulated. No special taxes can be aimed at organizations smart enough to publish a Cohen column, for instance.

Sick Puppies

The itch never goes away. One of the more endearing efforts in recent years was a legislative initiative in South Dakota that would have required newspapers in the state to print "free" obituaries. Even most of the legislators eventually recognized that once government started mandating newspaper content, the death of liberty was only a few seconds behind.

This cultural-legal-institutional wariness about entanglement between government and the press is a good thing — and it helps explain why the recent effort to prop up two Connecticut newspapers with government resources is a terrible idea.

The Journal Register Co., a basket-case media holding company, has announced that two of the sickest puppies in its Connecticut portfolio, the Bristol Press and The Herald in New Britain, were going to be taken out back and shot by the end of the year.

Savvy investors have not exactly been lining up around the block to put in an offer. The economy is terrible, the newspaper business is even more terrible and two struggling papers in blue-collar factory towns that don't have any factories is far, far down on the list of attractive investments.

The instinct in many communities is to view a local paper as a sign of sophistication and legitimacy. The local politicians fear that the loss of local scribes will eliminate their hope of ever being on a front page — which they could send to their mommas, who would be very, very proud.

And so it is that community leaders, politicians and state economic development bureaucrats has come together in a big sloppy mess to conjure up state incentives, loans or tax breaks to keep them afloat.

In the end, common sense, if not legal action, will prevail. There will be no formal government assistance specifically targeting the papers. A government powerful enough to take money away from the rest of us to give to the papers is a government powerful enough to stifle welfare-client media that don't do what they are told.

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

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