Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- May 6, 2008

Pity the Poor Mainstream Media!

Ernest Partridge

It is very difficult for an old liberal like me to be sympathetic about the plight of the corporate media, given the way they have behaved of late. But the simple fact of the matter is that the commercial news media have fallen into a deep financial pit, and that is both good news and bad news for the political health of our republic.

In 2005, newspaper circulation declined over the previous year by 2.6 percent, with the largest declines posted in the major newspapers. Still worse, in 2007, newspaper advertising revenue fell by 9.4 percent. As a result of this shrinkage, in 2007 2,400 journalists lost their jobs, and 15,000 have been canned in the last decade.

The predicament of network TV evening news programs is still more desperate.  In 1980, the combined audience for the NBC, CBS and ABC newscasts was 53 million. Just last month, that audience tallied at 21.5 million: about seven percent of the US population. And the median age of that audience is 60.2, which means that the networks are failing to reach the essential younger age cohorts.

The newspaper and broadcast industries cite a number of alleged reasons for these figures: the internet, competition from cable news programs, and declining literacy and political interest among the public.

Missing from this list is “the crud factor”; namely, that the quality and credibility of reporting has deteriorated so spectacularly that the public, fed-up with the insults and lies, has turned to other sources of news and information. As Newsweek’s Tony Dokoupil reports: “less than one person in five believes what he reads in print... and nearly nine of ten Americans believe that journalists are actively biased.”

The good news: at long last, the mainstream media is being punished for its failure to perform its essential service to the public; which is the presentation of accurate and relevant news along with competent, informed and diverse opinion.

The bad news: as the founders of our republic warned us, access to essential public information and the free publication of diverse opinions are indispensable to a free society. And as Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay, "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." Fortunately, a sizeable portion of our population, having acquired a healthy contempt for the corporate media, has found more reliable and informed sources of information in the alternative press and in the internet.

This promising development is undermined by the plain fact that the growing use of the internet as a free source of information and opinion is economically unsustainable. Why buy a newspaper or a magazine, when much or most of the content therein can be read for free on a computer monitor? And if so, who then will pay the researchers, writers, investigators, graphic designers, video producers, and publishers who gather, authenticate and then write and publish quality news and opinion?

For as we the "news consumers" too easily forget, quality journalism comes to us at a cost. The all-too-infrequent investigative reports in today’s media often require hundreds of hours of “hidden” labor by reporters and their staffs. The Pulitzer Prize winning disclosures in The Washington Post of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center required months of investigation by Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and Michel du Cille. Likewise, James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s exposure of illegal wiretaps by the Bush administration, and David Barstow’s recent uncovering of the Pentagon’s “hidden hand” inside the sock-puppet media “analyses” by retired military officers, each of which required substantial financial support by the publisher, The New York Times.  Exposés such as these are, in turn, the raw material of journalistic scrutiny, and citizen activism and dissent, all of this nourished by the considerable investment of time and money by the publishers. Conversely, the quality of news reporting, in particular foreign reporting, has been severely compromised by the reduction and closing of news bureaus throughout the world.

If independent investigative reporting and responsible journalism are to be restored, how are they to be financed? Not by net surfers like you and me, who enjoy the product of hard journalistic labor for free. And yet, all of the aforementioned “scoops” – about Walter Reed Center, the illegal wiretaps, the retired military “experts” – can be had, gratis, on the internet. Just follow the links. 

To be sure, many websites, including those of print publications, are at least partially supported by advertising income.  Even so, it is doubtful that advertising alone can support a flourishing alternative independent media. Moreover, if ad revenue is to be the primary support of this new media, then the concerns of the commercial sponsors will all too often trump the public interest -- a situation that is today the scourge of "the old media."

I happen to subscribe to The Nation, The American Prospect and Mother Jones, among other progressive publications, but not because I have to. Most of their content is available on the internet. My subscriptions amount to donations, motivated more by conscience than by necessity. When I download content from publications to which I do not subscribe, I am a parasite gaining free “nourishment” from the labor and costs of others.

So I pose the question anew: with the erosion of paid support of established "mainstream" print and broadcast media, who and what is to pay for information and diverse opinion that is essential to a functioning democracy?  If the purveyors of the junk that dominates the mass media today fail to reform themselves and as a result shrivel and die from financial strangulation, we’ll all be the better for it. Good riddance! But the question remains: who or what is to support the indispensable responsible journalism that is the lifeblood of our democracy – in particular, the journalism that appears on the internet, which might well become the next mass media?

It won’t do simply to ignore the question and to go on using the free internet while we have it. Such behavior imitates that of the Grover Norquist “tax reform” crowd, which willingly enjoys the benefits of the common public resources that are sustained by tax revenues – the courts, an educated public, physical infrastructure, regulation of commerce, protected food and drug supply, scientific research and development, etc. – yet steadfastly advocates the abolition of those taxes.

Simple fairness, not to mention economic viability, require that the investigators and reporters of essential public information be compensated, and that the requisite time, energy and expertise required to obtain this information, be financially supported.

But how is this to be accomplished?

I confess that I don’t have a simple answer. If you do, please share it with me, and we will publish the worthier proposals in The Crisis Papers.

But here, at least, is a suggestion, admittedly in need of much elaboration and refinement: adopt a system of financing similar to that of the music and entertainment industry.

As I understand it, most copyrighted music is registered with two agencies: ASCAP and BMI. Radio stations, artists, etc., who perform this music must pay a fee to the appropriate agency but not directly to the composers. The agencies then conduct surveys to determine how often the copyrighted works are performed, and then issue individual payments to the composers in proportion to the number of performances. (In my brief stint as a talk show host, some thirty years ago, I was not allowed to use a BMI tune as a theme, since the station was registered only with ASCAP. If my recollection of the system is incorrect, I am confident that some reader will set me straight). According to this arrangement, neither ASCAP nor BMI exercised any control over the use of titles in their inventories. They were entirely passive; it was up to the performers, station managers, disk jockeys, etc. to decide what was or was not to be performed, and this decision was, in turn, responsive to public preferences.

Might not a similar system be adopted by the internet service providers? A uniform fee might be assessed to each internet user, and the proceeds of that fee might then be put into a general “author/designer/producer/publisher fund.” Content creators might then be compensated according to the number of “hits” recorded for their works. (As any user of Google is well aware, this is a far more accurate system than the surveys conducted by ASCAP and BMI). Since literally millions of individuals post on the internet, there would have to be several “filtering” mechanisms separating the amateurs from the pros. One such filter might be a minimum threshold of “hits” required for compensation. Another would be an annual registration fee to be paid by the authors, with the payment added to the general fund. Suppose that fee were to be one hundred dollars. Since the likely annual payments to the vast majority of amateur bloggers would fall far short of the annual registration fee, most would opt themselves out of the system.

This system, like that of ASCAP and BMI, would be totally passive: no place here for censorship. The public, or if you prefer, “the market,” would rule. Payments would then be proportioned to the individual choices of the millions of users of the internet.  And like ASCAP and BMI, the distributing agency would be a private, non-profit association of composers, artists and publishers, regulated by the government.

The cost to each internet user? Negligible, I believe, given the fact that there are now 211 million internet users in the United States, and nearly a billion worldwide, with internet use increasing by about eighteen percent a year. If each US user were to be charged ten dollars a year for payment to the “author/designer/producer/publisher fund," that would total more than two billion dollars to the fund. An annual fee of one hundred dollars (about eight dollars a month), with revenues of twenty-one billion, would finance a free, independent and diverse media industry that would rival, and perchance supplant through open competition, the rotten-to-the-core corporate media that has betrayed us so spectacularly today.

For one hundred bucks a year, that’s a bargain, any way you look at it.

Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .