Calling Uncle Sam

How government can and should support a free press
June 6, 2007

At a moment when our government appears to be battering the Bill of Rights in the name of combating terrorism and protecting national security, it’s important to keep in mind the many ways in which government–the state–can and should be a friend to and guarantor of free speech, the free flow of information, writers’ rights and liberties, and, yes, the press. There is our Freedom of Information Act, for example, which, if administered in the spirit in which it was originally intended (not always the case), facilitates the dissemination of information the public needs to make the informed decisions our democracy requires.

Along similar if less well-known lines, the House recently passed by a wide margin a new and stronger version of the Whistleblower Protection Act (first enacted in 1989, to protect government sources). It is now before the Senate. In the aftermath of Judith Miller’s eighty-five days behind bars for refusing to divulge her source and the spectacle of too many journalists hauled before grand juries in connection with the Scooter Libby case, we would pair with it a national shield law, protecting reporters’ rights to protect their sources. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia already have shield laws and all states but Wyoming recognize some degree of reporters’ privilege, but the federal government does not. As we point out in a profile on page 48, the chief congressional champion of such a federal law happens to be a conservative Republican who believes that the necessary and best set of brakes on government power is journalism.

We agree, and we’d go further: political candidates in the coming campaign ought to be routinely queried about their information policy, just as they are asked about their domestic and foreign policies. An ideal plank might call for strengthening the independence and resources of public television and radio; increased and energetic antitrust action to hold at bay the conglomerates whose constant swallowing of media ultimately impedes healthy competition and homogenizes content; a Net Neutrality Act (to preserve a free and open Internet); and a tax break for those who inherit small family newspapers so they will not be forced to sell to the nearest chain.

Finally and urgently, we would propose that anyone, including candidates, who is seriously interested in ways government can help rather than hinder free expression could do worse than focus on that boring institution, the post office. From the first days of the Republic, the founders believed that the mails were the circulatory system of our democracy. George Washington thought that newspapers should be delivered free. As postmaster general, Ben Franklin arranged for magazines to be sent free. That is why ever since 1978 second-class mail (now called periodicals class) has been the beneficiary of less expensive rates than first class. It was understood then and in the early days that our best national periodicals help bind a vast country together by the exchange of ideas.

It is therefore particularly disturbing that recently the board of governors of the postal service announced dramatic rate increases in periodicals-class mail that will hit small journals and magazines–left, right, and center–hardest. And under the new postal regulations, the Postal Regulatory Commission will charge editorial content based on how far that content travels in the postal system. Previously, only advertising was charged on that basis, and the change is an ominous sign for the future of national discussion and debate. For those reasons, Columbia Journalism Review has joined with other magazines–including The Weekly Standard on the right and The Nation on the left, the secular New Republic and the Christian World Magazine–in petitioning the board of governors and Congress to hold hearings to consider a rollback. Absent such action, in the short run, it’s the periodicals that will suffer, including the one you hold in your hands. But in the long run, it’s the public sphere itself.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.