Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Don't Knock Government Subsidies, Mr. Sweeney!

I was fortunate enough to attend the Future of News in the flesh last Monday (rather than the 1600 online souls who tweeted and posted comments through an online forum). The scrum that ensued between the Star Tribune with Mike Sweeney and Nancy Barnes on one side and Minnesota Public Radio's head news honcho Chris Worthington on the other was fun to watch.

But I was a bit dismayed at Mr. Sweeney's editorial, which ran in the Strib, lambasting government support for journalism, such as Minnesota's Cultural and Heritage Legacy Amendment which is going to put over $5 million over the next two years into the state's public broadcasters, including TPT, Minnesota's PBS affiliate and the 12 stations that make up the Association of Minnesota's Public and Educational Radio Stations (AMPERS).

Here's the thing: it's not technically "government" support. It's taxpayer support: the money is coming from three eighths of a sales tax that goes into a fund to public media. Like the BBC, the government collects the money, and then it gets sent on to the private, non for profit entities who decide independently, without government interference what to spend it on. I do admit that there is a potential for stations to produce what they think the government wants to keep the money coming in - in that regard, Mr. Sweeney's objections are totally valid. But it's the same issue for commercial media: for all of commercial media's insistence that there are robust firewalls between advertisers and editorial, let's not kid ourselves.

Also, newspapers are under the gun to produce content that generates revenue. The profit margins that supported content in the public interest are over (and indeed some would argue, those reporters often had to fight with their newspapers and television networks to get the support). So are we to expect benevolent sponsors and advertisers to fund reporting that investigates the comfortable and the powerful?

My point is it's not all or nothing. Because public media is getting additional support, doesn't mean they are avoiding covering the government, in the same way that I suspect newspapers will continue to try as much as they can afford to investigate wayward companies who advertise in their pages. What is important to remember is that there is room for both, and in fact, I would argue desirable. The newspapers can keep an eye on the government - and public media can keep an eye on the corporate advertisers who -dare I say it?- subsidize newspaper journalism.


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