What Overholser, Karr, and a handful of other journalists and academics point out is that government has always played a role in American journalism. Major government subsidies include reduced postal rates, copyright protection, state sales-tax exemptions, government advertising, and the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allowed regional newspapers with distinct editorial staffs to merge business operations. The Freedom of Information Act, government press officers, and public education and libraries (which promote literacy and distribute content) have also been cited as examples of government support for the press. And certainly, nonprofit-owned media should be considered government-subsidized given that their parent organizations are tax exempt.
Government plays an even more significant role in subsidizing broadcast media, a role that has important implications for how Uncle Sam might help the flailing industry of print journalism. Moreover, many newspapers and magazines are controlled by companies that also own television and radio stations and, as such, indirectly benefit from broadcast subsidies. In an essay on the role of government in the press for the 2004 Breaux Symposium, Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News and PBS, recalls an argument he once had with Abe Rosenthal, then the editor of The New York Times, over the premiere of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report: “Abe launched into a passionate attack against the very idea that public television, a government-created institution, should report the news and practice journalism, insisting that it could not do so without kowtowing to the government.” Grossman “responded rather mischievously” that the Times’s radio and television stations received their broadcast licenses free from the government, a subsidy worth millions of dollars. “Did Abe think the Times’s radio and television stations also should refrain from reporting the news?” asks Grossman. As he and others note, the enormous profits of network television and radio companies are in no small part due to their free access to the public airwaves. (The print press, on the other hand, receives no such subsidy for its equivalent—paper and printing costs.)
Meanwhile, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private nonprofit established in 1967, receives money from Congress every two years to support public radio and television programming. Though it no longer provides the majority of support to PBS or National Public Radio, the corporation was responsible for the formation and early financial viability of these outlets. As Steven Rattner noted during the CJR panel, radio news “was a classic case of market failure. There was a latent demand for it If you hadn’t had government subsidizing it, demonstrating that there was an audience, we wouldn’t have NPR.” The explosive growth of NPR—a roughly 100 percent increase in listenership over the last decade—has also shown that consumer demand does not always guarantee profitability. Some products and services need more time to develop into something consumers are willing to pay for. (Listener contributions now make up one third of NPR’s revenue.)
Of course, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has had its problems. The fact that its board members are presidential appointees makes it vulnerable to political influence. Both the Nixon and the current administrations have attempted to censor or influence programming. But, says Karr, “We have a system in place right now that generates four to five hundred million dollars for public media. We can’t just destroy it. We have to build upon it.”
Another government media subsidy, which has thus far been more harmful than helpful to traditional print media (though arguably helpful to democracy), is the Internet. Similar to the development of the telegraph, which was subsidized by the government, the Internet began as a Defense Department initiative that later received significant funding from the National Science Foundation before being turned over to the commercial sector. “Without government subsidies, there would be no Internet,” writes Grossman. “No for-profit company or entrepreneur would have taken the risk.”