If an elected official decided to bail out a torch company in response to rising competition from flashlight makers, the public would be incensed. No such outrage ensued, however, when Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, proposed to make properties owned by newspapers tax-exempt.
Newspapers in this country have seen a steady decline in readership and profit since the 1970s. The simplest explanation for this, and the one embraced by snooty European types, is that Americans do not like to read. With the rise of non-print media (network television, cable and the Internet) many believe Americans would simply rather click on the remote, crack open a cold one and watch their favorite cable news anchor. Reading in modern America is viewed as tedious and elitist. There is some validity to this argument, but it does not tell the entire story.
Newspapers, when faced with increasing pressure from TV, began writing shorter, less articulate and less analytical articles. Let’s resuscitate the opening metaphor: It is like a torch company trying to make a torch that lasts longer and is more portable to compete with flashlights, instead of carving a market niche among medieval quest fanatics and anti-battery Greenpeace hippies. Americans may not like reading, but to assert they dislike reading because they stopped reading increasingly inadequate newspapers is an unfair assumption.
Even if both arguments had equal validity, Schneider’s legislation would still be silly and wasteful. If newspapers are failing because Americans detest reading them, then why are we supporting a company that is doomed to failure? It would seem paying property tax or not paying property tax would be inconsequential to a company that makes a product no one wants. Failure is inevitable.
If the problem with newspapers is not their readers, but their ownership, then this proposal is just as foolhardy. It is absurd for the government to give a company a tax break if it cannot turn a profit due to idiocy in its business model.
A fair counterargument could be made by those who believe in a liberal democracy: Regardless of its ability to prosper economically, a free and open press needs to be nurtured and allowed to thrive, thus making Schneider bill not only sane but also a necessity. The flaw in this argument is a newspaper being given government tax breaks infringes on their independence and without newspapers free press will shrivel and die.
To be independent, a newspaper cannot have a “special” relationship with government. Newspapers often flourish when they partner with government — Trud, a Soviet-era Russian daily had the widest circulation of any newspaper in the history of the world — but they are in no way an expression of the free press. Schneider’s legislation may seem fairly harmless when compared to Soviet-era propaganda rags but it is nonetheless a corrosion of freedom of the press.
The other major flaw in the “freedom of the press” argument is it assumes without newspapers, inquisitive journalists will lose the ability to investigate and question government. Modern technology has proven this argument to be ludicrous. In recent years many scandals and protests have almost completely bypassed newsprint. In 2002, it was the blogosphere that brought former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s sympathy for racist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond to public consciousness. Twitter gave us more information about election protests in Iran this year than any major newspaper did or could have. Anyone who screams about the vitality of newspapers to free and open press must ask themselves — how do newspapers continually get beat to important scandals by independent journalists or collectives of independent journalists from the blogosphere?
While the Wisconsin state budget falls increasingly deeper into the red, someone please ask Schneider why he wants to bail out the torch factory.
Max Manasevit ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in philosophy.