The Need for Increased Press Subsidies

U.S. press subsidies have greatly diminished in the past century as more democratic nations continue to fund free press at a much higher per capita rate.

| January 2015

  • “Digital Disconnect,” by Robert W. McChesney, is a groundbreaking critique of the Internet and an urgent call to reclaim the democratizing potential of the digital revolution while we still can.
    Cover courtesy The New Press
  • If the U.S. government subsidized journalism at the same level of GDP that it did in the 1840s, it would have to invest at least $30 billion annually.
    Photo by Fotolia/minoandriani

Digital Disconnect (The New Press, 2013), by Robert W. McChesney, offers an in-depth analysis of how commerce has corrupted the Internet, collapsing credible journalism and freedom of access to information in favor of unchecked consumerism. McChesney also reminds us of our early hopes that the Web would eliminate media monopoly and provide a truly level playing field, and reveals how we might reclaim the Internet. The following excerpt from Chapter 6, “Journalism Is Dead! Long Live Journalism?,” explains how adequate press subsidies nourish democracy and tries to show how much America lags behind more democratic countries in terms of free press investing.

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In 1787, as the Constitution was being drafted in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson was ensconced in Paris as this young, undefined nation’s minister to France. From afar he corresponded on the matter of what was required for successful democratic governance. The formation of a free press was a central concern. Jefferson wrote:

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

For Jefferson, having the right to speak without government censorship is a necessary but insufficient condition for a free press and therefore democracy, which also demands that there be a literate public, a viable press system, and easy access to this press by the people.

But why, exactly, was this such an obsession to Jefferson? In the same letter, he praised Native American societies for being largely classless and happy, and he criticizes European societies—like the France he was witnessing firsthand on the eve of its revolution—in no uncertain terms for being their opposite. Jefferson also highlighted the central role of the press in stark class terms when he described its role in preventing exploitation and domination of the poor by the rich:

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