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Press complaints of bills more about money than principle

One thing that always has fascinated me, both when I worked in the industry and now observing it but interacting with it on occasion, is the self-righteousness of the media which often is used as a cover for baser motives. At other intervals I’ve discussed how some in the media see themselves as gifts to society whose efforts they feel are indispensable, if not irreplaceable safeguards to preventing tyranny by challenging the orthodoxy that may emanate from government – all the while promoting their own kind of orthodoxy even as they claim they are “objective.”

But besides plumping for a particular worldview, there is even a greater motivator explaining why the media does what it does – money. As I remind my students at the very beginning of sections in my courses that cover the media, the business of the media is not to watch over government, or to empower “neglected” sectors of society, or to do anything else, other than just plain making money. And we have some fine examples of this masquerade of their motives in discussions about changing the scope and methods of official journals for state and local governments in Louisiana.

HB 431 and HB 446 by state Rep. Hunter Greene would move the requirement that the official acts of the state be printed in a newspaper, the only difference between the two being the latter makes this a matter of law and the former enshrines it in the Constitution. HB 971 by Rep. Dee Richard would do the same legally for local governments. Predictably, there have been howls from the press about these – but never revealing their true source of distress, the loss of revenues for their industry as it continues to decline.

It’s humorous to witness the contortions the press goes through trying to justify this corporate welfare the bills seek to end. One argument is that publishing in a source outside of government allows for greater confidence that what gets published is somehow not been “corrupted” in some sense by government. In other words, you should trust what appears in a newspaper, not what appear from government. OK, I’ll buy this – but only if these publishers of official records prove to me they have been checking what gets handed to them to publish. This argument is specious if all these publishers have been doing is taking what’s given to them and republishing it. How is that any different from it appearing on a government website? Or, how is that any different that what any enterprising citizen can do now, go to the Legislature’s web site and have full text versions available of all acts promulgated for each session, regular and special (for example)?

Another is that having web-only access is too limiting, because not enough people have or can afford Internet access. Again, only the lazy would accept this line of reasoning: newspapers cost money, too; in fact, in some places a month’s subscription is more expensive than a monthly bill for Internet access. Of course, if you can’t pay for either or get either, a trip to the library can get you both – and actually, more locations probably have free Internet access than they do papers that are official journals. So if access ends up being no worse than equal, why duplicate services tolerating a far more expensive publishing component?

And one hears dead silence from the press on the issue of how this patronage by government to a publisher may influence what is published. Especially in some rural areas where the revenues from publishing an official journal as an overall part of an enterprise may be significant, those governments who have a choice of publishers can put pressure on these outlets to cover news a certain way by threatening to yank their contract. (I have witnessed a parish government do precisely this.) Responsible publishers realize these kinds of laws can protect the media from undue pressures.

However, I’m willing to give these guardians of democracy and champions of transparency the benefit of the doubt. If they really believe in what they preach, how about this compromise: governments would designate an official journal, but pay only for it to be online and open the bidding to everybody? For example, the $200,000 subsidy the state gives the Baton Rouge Advocate for taking computer files, formatting them on some virtual pages, and then putting them to ink on paper, might only cost $20,000 a year (if even close to that) in the form of an online archive (although essentially the state already does this). Of course, whereas in Baton Rouge only a handful of publishers have the capacity to do this, dozens, even hundreds of websites could compete for the business (and in rural areas, there often is only one publisher available).

If those in the press bleating about ideals of good government and democracy against these bills (although HB 431 is not deserving of passage because this kind of policy is not important enough to be a constitutional matter) are serious, they will support compromise language to HB 446 and HB 971 that allows publication electronically outside of government which likely will bring in far fewer revenues for them if not outright loss of this business to other outlets. Otherwise, we see them for what they really are – cloaking base motives in lofty language, more interested in fleecing the taxpayer than fulfilling higher goals, and therefore their complaints need not be taken seriously.

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