Editorial: Stay Skeptical About the FTC

By: E&P Staff

It’s always been a bit of a mystery why the Federal Trade Commission, busy enough with its main tasks of stopping price-fixing and deceptive advertising, felt it had to concern itself with the future of journalism. And now that we’ve had a look at their draft working paper that will be at the center of further discussions — and perhaps legislation or federal fiat — it’s our turn for concern.
 
Nobody feels the urgency of this moment in time for journalism more than E&P and its audience. But while it is true that in their lunging at new strategies and half-baked business models newspapers and other “legacy media,” as we’ve unfortunately come to be known even by our friends, occasionally resemble the theater after someone has yelled “fire!” — it is also true that this urgent moment calls for a healthy skepticism of would-be saviors. That’s especially true if the “help” is coming from the government.
 
In media circles, the FTC working paper has proved a polarizing document indeed, for good and bad reasons. The News Ecosystem proselytizers, sensing a conspiracy to keep Dead Tree Media alive in a rear guard action, see the Obama administration “federalizing” the news, in the words of the Washington Examiner’s conservative editorial page editor Mark Tapscott. In a scathing analysis on his BuzzMachine blog, New Media thinker Jeff Jarvis proclaims some of the proposals before the commission as flat-out “dangerous.”
 
Looking at this same paper, the Media Democracy forces see a lot of the “progressive” ideas they’ve advocated for all along, most of them revolving around empowering the government to get more directly involved with the news media. The mix of subsidies, tax breaks and public funding these folks like are measures that haven’t harmed the press in Western Europe, they argue. And of course they’ve taken to repeatedly trotting out early America’s subsidies of newspapers by the Post Office. (Somehow such post-Revolution government actions on the press as the Alien and Sedition Acts never get mentioned.) Chill, we’re told — don’t be so paranoid.
 
But on this one, we’re inclined to stand with those deeply, maybe even a tad hysterically, troubled by the direction in which the FTC seems to be going. We simply cannot imagine, for instance, any good coming from the feds defining what the draft calls “proprietary facts” that somehow belong to one or another news organization as if a finders-keepers law applied to reporting. And while we too mourn the loss of newspaper reporters in statehouses, city halls and the corridors of bureaucracy, surely their replacement by a federally funded corps would make their watchdog function suspect at best.
 
The federal government can do certain things to benefit a free press without inviting itself into their job. Just to name two: Permit IRS recognition of Low-Profit Limited Liability Companies (L3C) status for newspapers and other media, and force the U.S. Postal Service to treat direct mail advertising competitors just as they do second-class print publications.
 
Oh, and a third thing — stop trying so hard to be helpful.

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Published: July 1, 2010

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