On this 233rd birthday of America, I'm going to come clean about something that's been bothering me about freedom of the press.
It has to do with the recent brouhaha about the Washington Post's plan to have the equivalent of a political fundraiser, in which big wigs and fat cats could pay up to $250,000 per plate to mix with reporters, editors, owners and other important people who influence what goes into one of the nation's most prestigious newspapers.
No, I'm not angry because they thought of the idea as a way to raise some money.
No, I'm not angry because presumably it would give rich people an opportunity the poor won't get.
No, I'm not angry at the idea of wealthy contributors trying to buy influence to help get their story into (or for that matter keep their story out of) the paper.
I'm angry because they canceled the event.
Somebody at the Post thought of a unique way to raise money from private sources. And given that the Post lost $20 million last quarter, clearly they do need to do something.
The fear that the contributors at the event would cause the news to be biased is absurd on the face of it. If that were true then why would a newspaper even accept advertising? As Lyndon Johnson, the most worldly of politicians used to love saying about the Senate, "you have to be able to take their money, eat at their table, drink their wine, screw their women and vote against the bastards anyway or else you don't belong here." News professionals can do their job just as well as politicians can (better, I hope) and should be willing to cover a story no matter who is featured-- or they should go find a day job doing something else and write a blog at night. Heck, even Rush Limbaugh, the king of the radio blowhards, recently was able to lambaste the government bailout that saved General Motors even while acknowleging that GM has been a long time sponsor of his show. In canceling the event, is the Post suggesting that they aren't sure they can operate with even as much journalistic integrity as Rush Limbaugh!? Heck, I gave 35 bucks to national public radio last year (which was all I could afford.) Does that mean I should expect that if I'm ever in the news NPR will give me favorable coverage? No, and if I did I'd be delusional. True that $250,000 is a lot more than $35, but the same principle applies.
Besides, if a story is worth telling it will get out there (especially today in the face of all manner of alternative media crowding the airwaves, the internet and even streaming around the world through outer space.) The days when a newspaper could bury a story are gone. Sooner or later it will get out and the only thing the newspaper will bury is its own opportunity for a scoop.
OK, so what if it's not actual influence peddling they were worried about but the appearance of influence peddling?
The critics of papers like the Post (and they are legion) claim that they are losing money because people don't read them as much anymore because the news is biased. And they jumped all over the Post for this story, suggesting that now the bias was up for auction.
If only that were the reason people don't read the paper. Then presumably the paper could just hire a conservative editor and the subscriptions would start rolling in. But newspapers all over the country are facing similar tough economic circumstances. And it's because the demographic of print readers-- mostly older, less web savvy, is declining in numbers. I know this personally-- I moonlight with a delivery route for the Arizona Republic and just since I took over the route in 2007 the number of subscribers on it has declined by probably 25%. The recession has something to do with it, but even when the recession is over expect that newspapers will continue to struggle. Just over a year ago (before the recession really got going) my own 'hometown' paper, the Winslow Mail, a paper so old that its early editions were full of pioneers, cattle rustlers and gunfighters, shut down.
To be sure, I'm not suggesting that newspapers aren't biased. Nothing of the kind. And it's not like they weren't biased in the days of the founding fathers either-- I mean (since I'm writing this post on July 4), can you imagine the Boston Gazette in the days leading up to the Revolution including an editorial written by the British Governor extolling the virtues of King George just to keep things 'balanced?' If anything, newspapers today are far more even handed in giving voice to divergent views than they have been historically, either 233 years ago or even fifty years ago. Look up the term, 'yellow journalism' if you think that media bias is somehow a bigger dragon today than it has been in the past. Quite the opposite, in fact.
A free press is not the same thing as a fair press, and the founding fathers knew that. Instead of pushing for a balanced through the Constitution or through legislation, they figured out that if the press was biased then people who did not share that mindset would challenge it with a different point of view. The only difference today is that instead of merely a different point of view, it is likely to be a different format or technology-- so that conservative talk radio challenged liberal television news, and then the mostly liberal blogosphere challenged talk radio, but is now being challenged itself by twitter-- a medium that conservatives love. What we can see from these examples is that a free press, when left alone, evolves into a fair press.
So to those who argue that the Post is biased I'd answer, "what if it is?" Without saying it is or it is not, I'd answer they have the right to be biased if they want to, and alleged bias is not why they are losing readers. So what about the appearance that people who can afford a quarter million dollar lunch ticket can now get access to reporters and editors and so influence the way that certain facts are presented in a particular story (or maybe even kill the story)?
The idea that the rich and powerful will have undue access to writers and staff because of this is also silly. Let's be honest-- if a billionaire (someone who can afford to spring for a quarter million for lunch) who is a mover and shaker in a community walks into the office of most major dailies and says (s)he wants to talk to a reporter my hunch is that it will happen a lot quicker than if you or I walk in and make the same request. The access is already there. Why not charge for it?
In this extremely challenging environment, someone came up with an idea that is increasingly being used in other areas where funding is tight: corporate sponsorship. The City College of San Francisco is looking at letting individuals and corporations sponsor a class. The Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA is removing their team name from their jerseys and will replace it with a corporate sponsorship. Why can't a newspaper do this? Aren't their critics on the right always suggesting that private funds are better than government ones?
And that brings us to the real reason why I wish they had gone ahead with their fundraiser. If the Post and other newspapers don't come up with innovative ideas soon then you will see one of two things happen. They might go bankrupt (leaving 'news' to radio and cable television talking heads and bloggers like me-- sorry, but we don't qualify as 'news.') Or, they might get a 'sponsorship' (a.k.a. bailout) from the one entity which it is absolutely essential that newspapers remain out from under its influence-- the government.
So, shame on the Post. Shame for not being willing to stand up and defend their innovation and then for not carrying it through as a money earning idea. They've already gotten lots of bad press out of it just for their intent to hold the event-- how much more could they get if they actually do hold it (and most of that would come from implacable enemies anyway.)
They should re-schedule the event right away and this time go through with it.