The Case Against Funding Local Journalism

This column by Brian Klaas of The Washington Post correctly diagnoses a malady of contemporary republicanism—the decline of local journalism and the rise of celebrity politics at the national level—but prescribes a perilous treatment: public subsidies. Klaas correctly notes that Americans trust local media more but pay attention to it less. But there is something worse than a continued erosion of local reporting: local reporting dictated, or substantially influenced, by government. It’s a bad idea for the same reason James Madison said public funding of religion was a bad idea. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Madison had this to say about religious establishments:

[E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?

In other words, state support corrupted religion. The same would be likely to happen with journalism. It is hard to conceive of subsidies to which strings are not attached. Pick your poison on this: a mandate for diversity coverage from the Biden Administration, for example, or one for the 1776 Project from former President Trump.

It is true that, once subsidies are provided, the state would violate the First Amendment if it discriminated on the basis of what newspapers say. Government certainly cannot prohibit local media from publishing.

But the issues may get murkier from there: Today, what counts as local media? A neighborhood blog? An affiliate of One America News Network? As far as the structure of funding, what about government inducements rather than mandate, like subsidies for newspapers that agree to give more coverage to structural racism or to promoting a certain concept of patriotism? I would have serious First Amendment qualms there as well. But I would be unwilling to bet the independence of journalism—even the perception of it—on the judiciary holding the line. I would be equally unwilling to assume that journalists would not be subtly influenced—even of their own volition—by their funders. I would rather Americans read Tocqueville on the importance of local government—and get back to reading local newspapers on our own.

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