Published June 02, 2010
A list of potential policy recommendations to reinvent the field of journalism that has been compiled by the Federal Trade Commission is a "dangerous" overreach of power and a waste of taxpayer funds, critics of the project told FoxNews.com.
FTC officials began a project in May 2009 to consider the challenges the journalism industry faces in the digital age. The federal agency recently released a discussion draft titled "Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism," a 47-page document that outlines a major government push to rescue the country's flailing media platforms -- specifically newspapers, which have seen advertising revenues drop roughly 45 percent since 2000.
Among the numerous proposals mentioned in the document are:
-- the creation of a "journalism" division of AmeriCorps, the federal program that places 75,000 people with local and national nonprofit groups annually;
-- tax credits to news organizations for every journalist employed;
-- establishing citizenship news vouchers, which "would allow every American tax payer to allocate some amount of government funds to the non-profit media organization" of their choice;
-- increased funding for public radio and television;
-- providing grants to universities to conduct investigative journalism;
-- increased postal subsidies for newspapers and periodicals;
-- a 5 percent tax on consumer electronics, which would generate roughly $4 billion annually, to pay for increased public funding.
But some critics are voicing concerns about the draft document, saying that if the government has any influence over the Fourth Estate, it could lead to a dizzying web of conflicting interests and the eradication of independent journalism.
"I find it dangerous for government to have a role in speech because the government gives and the government taketh away," Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, told FoxNews.com.
"Most of the ideas examined in this are politically untenable," Jarvis said. "The problem with this is that the FTC is trying to set an agenda here, that some sort of government intervention is necessary. It's a power grab by the FTC and it's also an example of one old power structure circling its wagons around another."
But the FTC stressed that the draft is just that -- a draft -- and it said it does not represent conclusions or recommendations by the agency. Officials cited excerpts from the document as their response to criticism:
"Rather, through this document, we seek to prompt discussion of whether to recommend policy changes to support the ongoing 'reinvention' of journalism, and, if so, which specific proposals appear most useful, feasible, platform-neutral, resistant to bias, and unlikely to cause unintended consequences in addressing emerging gaps in news coverage," the report reads.
The list of proposals is "no doubt incomplete," the report continues, and members of the public are encouraged to submit additional proposals.
"We anticipate that different participants in the roundtables at which this document will be discussed will criticize some or all proposals, improve others, and add ideas of their own," the report reads. "The purpose of this document is precisely to encourage such additional analyses and brainstorming."
But Cliff Kincaid, editor of Accuracy in Media, a Washington-based media watchdog group, questioned the "legal and constitutional justification" for the FTC's involvement in the news industry, noting that the agency's website indicates its mission is to protect the American consumer.
"It seems to me America's consumers are making their choices," he said. "I don't know why the FTC should interfere with that. [The report] seems to lament the decline of old liberal newspapers. But they're in decline because consumers are finding their news and information elsewhere."
Kincaid also questioned the time, money and effort devoted to the FTC project.
"If there was evidence that consumers were somehow being shortchanged, that'd be one thing," he said. "But consumers have more choices than ever before."
Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture for the Media Research Center, a Washington-based media watchdog group, put his take on the proposals more succinctly.
"The mere fact that they're holding these hearings is the beginning of the problem," Gainor said. "They should have no hand in the future of journalism."
Jarvis, who attended the FTC's December roundtable and will attend the final session on June 15 in Washington, said Capitol Hill should stay out of the news business -- period.
He said he found the potential policy recommendations "disturbing," since they used the perspective of newspapers to show the issues facing journalism as a whole. He noted that the word "blog" appears only once within the 47-page report. (It appears several times in the report's footnotes.)
He said all of the proposals seek to "support the old power structure of the dying model of newspapers" rather than searching for new growth opportunities.
"No one is going to support a tax to support old newspapers," he said. "They're talking about the future of journalism, but they only talk about the past of journalism. They equate journalism with newspapers strictly."
"It's too soon to give up on the market, which is what the FTC is doing," he added. "Everything you see in that document is an attempt to stifle new competition by sustaining the incumbents."
He said he expects "more wasting of tax dollars" at the FTC's next meeting in two weeks.
"I don't even understand why they're doing this," he said. "This document is an anti-competitive and even unconstitutional world view."