Published April 16, 2009
Influential Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks has hung up her journalistic hat and joined the Obama administration, but not before penning a public proposal calling for some radical ideas to help bail out the failing news industry.
Brooks, who has taken up a post as an adviser at the Pentagon, advocated upping "direct government support for public media" and creating licenses to govern news operations.
"Years of foolish policies have left us with a choice: We can bail out journalism, using tax dollars and granting licenses in ways that encourage robust and independent reporting and commentary, or we can watch, wringing our hands, as more and more top journalists are laid off," she wrote in her parting column on April 9.
Brooks said this would help rescue the industry from a "death spiral" and left the government unaccountable to the journalists who must keep it honest. "[I] can't imagine anything more dangerous than a society in which the news industry has more or less collapsed," she wrote.
But critics say her proposal would spell an end to the independent media and make journalists reliant lapdogs.
"The day that the government gets involved in the news media you see the end of the democratic process, because an independent news media is absolutely essential to the success of a democracy," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group.
Bozell said licensing journalists would violate American traditions and was a form of "intellectual prostitution."
"Since when did our Founding Fathers envision that ... you could exercise your right to freedom of speech provided you had a license from the federal government? This is the kind of stuff you have revolutions about," he told FOXNews.com.
Attempts to reach Brooks by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful. A columnist for four years at the Times, Brooks this week joined the office of the undersecretary of Defense for policy, the principal adviser to the Pentagon's top brass. She retains her post as a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and during the Clinton administration served as a senior adviser to the State Department.
Media experts said it was unlikely her calls for a bailout would be heeded by the government.
"I'm doubtful that one person taking a secondary job in the Pentagon is going to guide the policy on [bailouts]," said John Nichols, a longtime journalist whose own plans to help save newspapers were cited approvingly by Brooks, but who called licensing a "very dangerous move."
"I would be very surprised if the Obama administration actually proposed something like that," added Joel Brinkley, a visiting professor of journalism at Stanford University, who said that no one would trust the news industry if it accepted heaps of government money. "It's the first time I've heard this publicly discussed."
It is unclear whether the Obama administration is considering such assistance. A spokesman for Obama did not respond to questions about Brooks' statements, which were published after her appointment to the Pentagon.
Some in the government are already looking to assist the industry. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., proposed legislation in March that would allow newspapers to operate as tax-exempt nonprofits as long as they don't endorse political candidates. The move was heralded as a positive step toward finding a fix but condemned by critics for potentially making newspapers beholden to the government.
Some scribes are already closely bound to Washington. As jobs are axed and papers felled across the country, many journalists have sought work elsewhere. A number have gone to work for the Obama administration, including Chicago Tribune correspondent Jill Zuckman; Time magazine's Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney; former L.A. Times reporter Peter Gosselin; and Warren Bass, once the Washington Post's deputy editor.
Brooks is not the first journalist to support a broadsheet bailout, but she is the first member of the administration to publicly declare her support for the move, which appears to be gaining momentum.
Nichols and Robert McChesney suggested in an April 6 cover piece in The Nation that the government eliminate postal fees for smaller papers and periodicals and offer tax credits for newspaper subscriptions to help save the media. Looking for more direct assistance, the company that owns two Philadelphia papers approached Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in January seeking a $10 million bailout to help cover its massive debts -- and it's not the only conglomerate that's hurting.
The Tribune Company, which owns many of the nation's leading papers, including the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy protection in December. Many more newspapers have closed their doors, like the Rocky Mountain News, or have ended their print editions, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Brooks worried in her column that the death of such newspapers would spell an end to investigative journalism and leave the country with only "yapping heads" on television and "nothing in our newspapers but ads, entertainment features and crossword puzzles."
But many media critics say the troubles facing newspapers are of their own making, and that throwing around money won't fix the problem.
"Licensing is a simplistic solution for historic trends battering the traditional newspaper industry," said Ken McIntyre, a media and public policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who argued that a bailout would "preserve businesses that free enterprise and competition marked for failure -- or a transition into something else."