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In Congress, No Love Lost for Newspapers

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."

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.

Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who appeared to be the lawmaker at the hearing who is most sympathetic to the newspaper industry, pointed out that "we're so rooted in the antitrust philosophy" that "you won't have a newspaper to sit there with your morning coffee or tea."

"It's not in anybody's interest to have there be no newspaper in any of our towns," Shapiro replied.

No? How about public officials whose activities would no longer come under scrutiny? Law professor C. Edwin Baker told the committee that "the biggest correlator with less government corruption is newspaper readership: When people are reading newspapers, corruption goes down." Another witness gave Conyers a helpful example from his own home town: the Detroit Free Press's Pulitzer Prize for exposing the sex scandal that brought down the mayor.

But the lawmakers, and other witnesses, were determined to turn the proceedings into yet another partisan brawl. Dan Gainor, from the conservative Media Research Center, complained that journalists "support liberal causes and vote for Democratic candidates."

"Some folks," countered Johnson, "believe strongly that there is an unhealthy connection between Fox News and the Republicans."

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) chimed in with the view that the "media are too liberal," while Conyers quizzed Gainor about various conservative groups. "The reason these big monopolistic newspapers are indeed going into the toilet," the chairman said, is "because of the way they're run and the poor quality."

"Respectfully," said Tierney, "they're not all rotten operators."

"How do I know that?" Conyers shot back.

Another panelist, journalist John Nichols, pointed to an oil painting on the wall of Peter Rodino, chairman of the committee during Watergate. "I keep looking over at Chairman Rodino and remembering that Chairman Conyers was on this committee when a newspaper revealed the wrongdoing of a president," he said.

Neither the Judiciary Committee nor the newspaper industry looks so strong today.

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