Newspaper’s good fortune may not be a good deal for the press

Sunday, May 31, 2009

When a North Carolina weekly newspaper asked for and was given a $50,000 business loan by town aldermen in mid-May, no quotation from free-press defenders and the nation’s founders like Madison and Jefferson that immediately came to mind.

Rather, it was a thought sometimes expressed by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, often a critic of the press: “With the shekels come the shackles.”

The loan from the town’s business-development fund will help the Carrboro Citizen, a 2-year-old newspaper, expand its business, hire more staff and even expand its circulation beyond its current 6,000 copies — certainly a laudable set of facts in an industry generally seeing at least sharp reductions in all areas.

An Associated Press report quotes Publisher Robert Dickson saying news coverage won’t be affected by the loan: “Newspapers do business with the people they have to report on. It’s a fact of life.”

And it’s true that in past years, some newspapers have benefited from special postal rates, zoning and redevelopment laws and even had congressional legislation that created special economic regulations like joint-operating agreements, which permitted two newspapers in a number of cities to combine business operations in hopes of keeping both publications economically viable.

So what’s to criticize about the Citizen’s arrangement? Here’s where we go back to the “Falwell” maxim.

The founder of the Moral Majority was talking about direct government aid to religious organizations, not newspapers. His warning was that — even with the best of intentions going into the process — the rules, regulations and oversight attached to funds from the government might impinge on the First Amendment’s free-exercise rights and run afoul of establishment-clause protections concerning church and state.

That concern translates very easily to the Citizen situation. Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton is quoted in an online news report as saying, “There’s no opportunity for the town to use the relationship to get an outcome they might want in the media.”

Chilton just might be a modern-day hero for free-press advocates at home and elsewhere — but, with respect, what about the next mayor? Or the next members of the Board of Aldermen? Therein is the rub with the principles, practices and — lest we discount it — the public perceptions about a free press.

Just a few minutes into a visit to the blogosphere — or to the First Amendment Center’s annual State of the First Amendment survey results — will produce multiple, vocal views that the news media is biased (either left or right), fabricates stories or is either a tool of the powers-that-be or is hell-bent on tearing down the American way of life.

Borrowing money directly from those local powers, however benign the current administration, would seem counterproductive in building trust and a belief in a free and independent press — particularly in the storied role as a watchdog on that same government entity. Presumably the Carrboro town leadership would have been free to say “no” to the newspaper’s request, as well as “yes.”

If the loan had been denied, it’s asking a bit much from the Citizen’s readers — or Carrboro’s citizens — for no one to link any negative coverage of local officials to the funding rejection. Likewise, while there may well be much to praise about local government there, an already-suspicious public may see more than honest, objective coverage in a “good news” news report.

Journalism in America faces severe economic challenges, particularly newspapers. But the nation’s founders saw government in a very different way than as a friendly local banker — they knew licensing, censorship and repressive taxation as tools to subvert and eliminate contrary voices.

Many generations of journalists have treasured and been guided by what fabled Chicago newspaper editor William Storey wrote in 1861: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.”

I can’t find that he made any reference to drawing financial support from a local business-development fund.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail:

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