I didn’t start off with an assumption that government shouldn’t be the main player. I have no ideological disposition about the government taking major roles in things when appropriate. It’s more that when you look at the particulars of how it could work, in none of the cases did it make sense to me, and in some of the cases there was real risk that you could make things worse. If you look at the recommendations, again, a billion dollars is twice the size of the CPB’s budget. If we had proposed a 50 percent increase in the size of the CPB budget that would have been viewed as a big, dramatic, radical thing. So we proposed moving twice that amount to local media and that’s somehow nothing.

But if you get down the particulars and look at some of the ways you could have a big government role, I think each one of them has real problems to it. For instance, the proposal that we tax advertising and then give the money in grants to worthwhile local media seems to have at least two problems with it. One is that advertising is the main source of revenue for local media. To tax advertising right now is going in the wrong direction. And if you’re taxing advertising, you’re basically saying, “We really don’t like the commercial media and we’re casting our lot only with the nonprofit media.” I don’t agree with that. I think it has to be a mix of commercial and non-commercial. As you can tell from the report, I’m very supportive of nonprofit media, but not at the expense of commercial media. It seems like we need both right now.

Then you have other questions. If you had a subsidy of some sort, how could the government implement something like that? I’m not a purist who’s saying it’s absolutely impossible for the government to ever distribute any money to journalism. The government does it now. Newshour gets government money; it seems to work well. But the more you get into accountability journalism, I think the tougher the issues get, and you come up against a “picking winners” issue. You don’t want a situation where you end up in the nonprofit sector privileging one group over another. Are you going to give it all to PBS and NPR? And none of it to the new websites? At a time when they’re trying to get traction? You could end up killing them in the crib.

A response to that might be that while it seems it would be excruciatingly difficult to fairly allocate funds, does that necessarily mean you shouldn’t recommend that we try?

I think we did recommend that we try in two really important ways. One is: let’s get more advertising into the market. Using the government’s spending power, in other spheres, is actually viewed as a legitimate thing. The other thing is that there is a big subsidy for nonprofit media: it’s called the charitable deduction. This is a really important point. There are two systems currently for subsidizing nonprofit media. One is the direct grants system through CPB; the other is the charitable contributions system, which happens through the tax cut. They both have a role. But I think given the diversity of different players in the nonprofit sector, the charitable contribution system is arguably a more effective way of doing it. You are piggybacking on the judgments of consumers. So, it has a good market element to it in the sense that these websites or entities still have to do good work and they have to convince readers and viewers—or philanthropists—that they’re worthwhile, not a government grant-making body.

I think that that is a really important piece of the puzzle. And it sort of works. We’ve seen evidence of it. The government in effect already subsidizes the Columbia Journalism Review and Mother Jones and American Spectator and the National Review Foundation, and all sorts of nonprofit media. It’s not a bad system.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.