Cheryl Miller: Journalism must maintain independence

Cheryl Miller

The public exposure last month of a private forum of leftist journalists, academics and media types was not particularly surprising to me; after all, there are thousands of private forums on the Internet, including a few to which I belong. Surely there are conservative and centrist counterparts to the now-defunct JournoList, as well.

Though the existence of the forum created by Washington Post blogger and Newsweek columnist Ezra Klein was no surprise, some of the leaked dialogue published July 20 by The Daily Caller website was electrifying.

For instance, one thread discussed tactics to nullify the effects of America-hating Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas’ pastor for 20 years, on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. JournoList member Spencer Ackerman suggested that, rather than be forced by the right to defend or tear Wright down, the liberal media should “… instead, take one of them —  (journalist) Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”

Where before I had only suspected as much, here was shameful proof that some ideologues in the liberal media conspire to prevaricate and slander opponents in order to advance their own progressive agenda.

Some, both within and outside of JournoList membership, defended the forum with the assertion that an assault on private expression is an assault on free speech and freedom of the press. To my knowledge there have been no criminal charges, but there is no doubt that such smear tactics are unethical, whether pursued publicly or in private.

Do journalists on the right resort to the same kind of tactics? Maybe. It is distressing to think that anyone who calls himself “journalist” would dishonor the profession that is charged with seeking the truth — verifying facts to ensure accuracy, acting independently to assure objectivity and holding oneself accountable by exposing unethical practices in the profession.

But a much greater threat to freedom of the press than bias and calumny is implementation of ideas submitted for roundtable discussions during a series of Federal Trade Commission workshops called “From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” The FTC has not yet endorsed policy recommendations or proposals in the discussion draft, but will present a final report later this year. (It can be examined and commented upon at FTC.gov under Conferences and Workshops.)

The FTC’s 47-page preliminary report offers a list of potential revenue sources to help prop up floundering newspapers: changes in copyright and “fair use” laws; increased government subsidies (including establishment of a journalism division of AmeriCorps); establishment of a national fund for local news; tax credit to news groups for every employee; citizenship news vouchers; grants to universities to conduct investigative journalism; allowing the Small Business Administration to insure loans to fund nonprofit journalism organizations; and increasing postal subsidies for newspapers and periodicals.

How to pay for these “cures” for the decline of dead-tree journalism? Taxes — taxes on the broadcast spectrum, taxes on consumer electronics (5 per cent on iPads, Kindles, etc., estimated to generate $4 billion annually), spectrum auction taxes, taxes on advertising, and taxes on ISP-cell phones (3 per cent on monthly fees could generate $6 billion annually).

Then there’s a whole raft of new legal changes to encourage new news organizations, including tax exemptions and tax policy recommendations, which obviously would spawn another layer of bureaucracy.

I can’t think of a better way to squelch a free and independent press, so necessary to informed decision of the electorate, than for the journalist to depend upon government for his sustenance. “Free press” means free of government influence; government involvement in the press is a hallmark of totalitarian states.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay in 1786, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

Messenger Post contributor and Macedon, N.Y., resident Cheryl Miller can be e-mailed at Fortuna_reilly@yahoo.com.