The nonprofit news: 501(c)(3) papers couldn't cover politics

On Tuesday, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) introduced a bill that would enable newspapers to operate as nonprofit institutions. The "Newspaper Revitalization Act" would give papers 501 (c)(3) status, a tax-exempt classification that is usually reserved for educational organizations.

This move comes on the tail of numerous newspaper bankruptcies and shutterings. Last Tuesday, The Seattle Post-Intelligencermoved its operation online after declining advertising revenues forced it to stop printing a hard copy edition. In April, The Christian Science Monitorplans to follow suit. At the same time, other news organizations, from the Tribune company to McClatchy are struggling with lower advertising revenues and reduced circulation.

While Senator Cardin's solution has some definite short-term strengths, it may have the net effect of saving the patient's body at the cost of its soul. Under the new classification, newspapers would be barred from making political endorsements. As the IRS website states:

All section 501 (c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign [...] Public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.

In our era of permanent campaigning, this would essentially make it impossible for newspapers to do any political reporting. After all, an article that is critical or supportive of Congressman Barney Frank or Senator John McCain could easily be interpreted as an attempt to influence their next elections.

On the surface, the idea of a non-biased news media sounds fantastic. Politicians often argue that the media is tasked with reporting the news, not commenting upon it, and that political perspectives only cloud the issues. In truth, however, every decision underlying news coverage is a political one. When a reporter decides to investigate a governmental assertion, he or she is making a political choice. Every interview that is included in a story helps support a position, and every fact that is omitted does the same.

Reporters are human, which means that they tend to have opinions about the issues that they report. So-called "non-biased reporting," then, becomes an act of concealment, in which the writer tries to hide his or her perspective and pretend that the facts that he or she chooses to muster are the only ones that have a bearing on the issue at hand. This is rarely true, however, and the effort at hiding political bias only renders it dishonest.

Senator Cardin's bill, as it stands, opens the door to endless arguments (and, eventually, legal cases) about the depth of political reporting, the relative length of various articles, and the balance of interviews. While it might save papers, it will ultimately destroy any illusion of a free and independent press. Even if his protections are only extended to local papers, chances are that this bill will end up clogging the courts in years to come.

Ultimately, daily hardcopy newspapers are doomed, which means that any solution will only need to keep paper companies in business until the release of a cheap, effective electronic print reader. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to think about what, exactly, this bill is designed to protect. If the goal is to preserve an independent media, then Congress should probably think about developing a new tax-exempt classification instead of shoe-horning papers into an existent nonprofit class.

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