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In Congress, No Love Lost for Newspapers

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thomas Jefferson famously said that if asked to choose between "a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

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The leading lights of the current Congress evidently have a different view.

The House Judiciary Committee called a hearing yesterday to study the decline of the newspaper business, but it quickly deteriorated into a press-bashing session. Ideologues of the left and right made no effort to conceal their yearning for a day without journalists, when public officials would no longer be scrutinized.

"More than twice as many Americans say the news media are too liberal rather than too conservative," claimed Lamar Smith (Tex.), the ranking Republican.

John Conyers (Mich.), the chairman, countered with his contempt for Fox News Chairman Rupert Murdoch "telling us how important it is that the media remain free and viable." He recalled his own "hard feelings" about once being arrested while protesting outside one of the Detroit newspapers. "I'm going to ask their editors if I should meet with them tomorrow," he said bitterly. "Now that they're in bad shape, maybe I should help them?"

Conyers, who has collected his share of less-than-favorable headlines over the years, went on. "Newspapers remind me of automobile corporations," he said. "All of a sudden they need help, they need a lot of help and they need it fast."

Actually, Mr. Chairman, the industry hasn't asked for a bailout. The hearing was held after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested the need for an antitrust exemption to save papers in San Francisco, her home town. The biggest request for help at the hearing was from the Philadelphia Inquirer's Brian Tierney, who wanted protection for newspapers to talk about creating a national alternative to Craigslist.

But even that seems to be too much to ask. "We do not believe any additional exemptions for the newspaper industry are necessary," Carl Shapiro, head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, informed the committee yesterday.

The dominant sentiment of lawmakers was indifference; most of the 14 subcommittee members didn't show up. The task of leading the hearing was left to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who chairs the relevant subcommittee but seemed not entirely prepared for the job. He twice misidentified the ranking Republican member and introduced a panel of witnesses by saying, "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. . . . Come forward and assume the position." Johnson then directed reporters in the room to stand but assured them that "you will not have to assume the position."

At one point, Johnson asked whether there were "any spies" in the audience. "Don't forget that torture was once ruled legal," he said. And he alarmed attendees when he asked if someone would "call the physician's office . . . because we have several people who have developed a sudden case of colorblindness." (Eventually, people realized he was referring to witnesses ignoring the red light on their time clocks.)

Still, Johnson was able to maintain his composure long enough to frame the issue: "If Congress does not act or if something does not change, a major city in the United States will be without a newspaper in the fairly near future."

Shapiro, from the Obama administration, seemed to regard this as a sad inevitability. "I myself very much enjoy sitting down in the morning with a cup of tea and reading a newspaper," he said.


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