What Jeff Jacoby gets right — and wrong — about tax subsidies for local news

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby devoted his Sunday column to laying out his case against the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which is aimed at easing the community news crisis through a series of federal tax credits. Jacoby’s opposition was no surprise, but I think it’s worth taking a look at his two major objections. One of them ought to be taken seriously; the other is grounded solely in his own boutique political philosophy.

The act would become law if it is included in the final reconciliation bill now being considered by Congress, assuming that Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will allow it be dragged at long last across the finish line. Here is a good overview of the bill by Steve Waldman, a founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition. It would provide three tax credits for a five-year period, giving local news organizations some runway as they figure out how to transition to the confounding economic realities of the digital era:

  • News consumers would be able to write off $250 a year that they spend on subscriptions or on donations to nonprofit news organizations.
  • News organizations would receive tax benefits for hiring or retaining journalists.
  • Local small businesses would receive tax credits for advertising in local newspapers and news websites and on television and radio stations.

Jacoby’s argument is that tax credits amount to government subsidies, and even though these would be indirect, they could still be wielded by government officials to reward their friends and punish their enemies. “Government subsidies, almost by definition, are antithetical to the spirit of an independent press and the First Amendment,” Jacoby writes. “A newspaper that takes money from the government is apt to pull its punches when it covers that government — especially if it grows addicted to tax breaks that will have to be renewed every few years.”

There’s no question that could be a problem. The optimistic view is that the tax subsidies will end after five years, so there’s not much incentive for news organizations to soft-pedal their coverage. But I can easily envision a lobbying effort to extend those tax breaks, and then you end up in exactly the situation that Jacoby warns against.

There’s also the possibility that news organizations, especially those owned by corporate chains and hedge funds, will not use the five years wisely by making the kinds of investments that might move them toward financial sustainability, like customer-focused digital products, seamless payment systems and newsrooms robust enough to be produce journalism that people will be willing to pay for. (All steps, by the way, that Jacoby’s employer has taken to good effect.) Instead, they’ll just pocket the savings and ask for more. These are real concerns.

Jacoby’s other concern can be dismissed easily enough by anyone who doesn’t share his purist libertarian views: he’s opposed to government subsidies for any sector of the economy and for any reason. As he writes, “I have never found that a persuasive claim and over the years have opposed targeting tax credits to many politically wired special pleaders, including biotech firms, video game makers, arts organizations, convention centers, higher education, movie and theater producers, Fortune 500 corporations, and public broadcasting.”

Here Jacoby has identified what many of us would regard as the flaw in his argument, because the tax credits envisioned in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act are not materially different from those granted to nonprofit news organizations in general. From PBS to nonprofit hyperlocal websites, nonprofit status enables donations to be tax-deductible and enables the news organizations themselves to avoid paying taxes.

Jacoby appears to be taking a more extreme position now than he has in the past. In his current column, he writes that he opposes tax credits for public broadcasting, which seems to go a step beyond his previous position: In 2011 he called for an end to direct government payments to public broadcasting, arguing that the system would do fine without such payments. There is nothing in that column to suggest he opposes the indirect government benefits that public media receive as a consequence of their nonprofit status.

As I’ve written before, I think it’s worth taking a chance on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Although there are some hazards, a few of which Jacoby has identified, overall it strikes me as a worthwhile response to the decline of community journalism.

Speaking of subsidies, I hope you’ll consider becoming a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. Members receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content.

The Times profiles right-wing media figure Dennis Prager. Here’s some background.

Dennis Prager. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

The New York Times today profiles Prager University, a right-wing meme factory founded by media figure Dennis Prager. In case you don’t know anything about Prager, I thought you’d be interested in some background.

In 2017, I gave a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award to YouTube and its owner, Google, for restricting access to a pro-Israel video made by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for Prager University. The video could still be accessed, but by installing a speed bump, YouTube sent a clear signal that there was something transgressive about it — a ridiculous stance regardless of what you think of Dershowitz’s views.

In 2016, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby mixed it up with Prager after Jacoby accused his fellow conservatives of hypocrisy for throwing in with Donald Trump despite his well-documented moral depravity. That led to some back-and-forth between Prager and Jacoby in which Prager accused Jacoby of “gratuitous hatred.” Jacoby responded:

For me, the most disheartening aspect of the whole Trump phenomenon has been the sight of so many good, principled people deciding that their good principles need not keep them from marching behind Trump’s squalid banner.

As you’ll see from Nellie Bowles’ Times story, Prager is quite a piece of work.

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The James Foley video and bearing witness to evil

James Foley
James Foley

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The horrifying execution of journalist James Foley raises an uncomfortable if familiar question: Is there anything to be gained by watching the video of his beheading at the hands of an ISIS terrorist?

It’s a question that I explored 12 years ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was similarly murdered. I searched for the video online and found it at a website whose sick operators presented such fare for the entertainment of their disturbed viewers. I shared it with my friends at The Boston Phoenix, who — to my surprise — published several small black-and-white stills of Pearl’s beheading and provided a link to the full video. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” the Phoenix’s outraged publisher, Stephen Mindich, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The Phoenix’s actions created a national controversy. I defended Mindich and editor Peter Kadzis, first in the Phoenix, later in Nieman Reports. (At the time I had left the paper to write my first book, though I continued to contribute freelance pieces. My departure turned out to be temporary. And Kadzis, my editor then, is also my editor now: he is the senior editor of WGBH News.) I wrote in the Nieman piece:

Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11…. We turn away from such evil at our peril.

I stand by what I wrote then, but I haven’t watched the execution of Jim Foley. In contrast to the Daniel Pearl footage, the Foley video is bright and clear, in high definition. I’ve watched a bit of it, listened to him speak while kneeling in the desert; but that was all I could handle.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby takes a different view, writing, “The intrepid and compassionate reporter from New Hampshire didn’t travel to Syria to sanitize and downplay the horror occurring there. He went to document and expose it.”

I don’t disagree. But it should be a matter of choice. Gawker, among the first media outlets to post a link to the video, made sure its readers knew that what they would see if they clicked was “extremely disturbing.” By contrast, the New York Post and the Daily News published front-page images of Foley (I’ve linked to a Washington Post story, not the actual images) just before his beheading — in the New York Post’s case, barely a nanosecond before.

It’s a fine line, but I’d say Gawker was on the right side of it, and the New York tabloids were not.

At the time of his capture, Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization. GlobalPost co-founder and chief executive Phil Balboni, in a tribute published in the Globe, wrote:

For those of us who knew Jim, the road ahead will be particularly long and trying. As a lifelong journalist, the path forward for me will be rooted in a renewed and profound respect for a profession that for Jim was not a job, but a calling.

And here is an interview with GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott, talking about Foley on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM).

We’ve learned a lot since the execution of Daniel Pearl. One of the things we’ve learned is that bearing witness does not necessarily lead to a good result. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not created a safer world.

Do we have a right to view the James Foley video? Of course. Twitter, a private company that has become a virtual public utility, is heading down a dangerous road by banning images from the video. Should we watch the video as a way of witnessing unspeakable evil, as Jeff Jacoby argues? That, I would suggest, should be up to each of us.

Above all, we should honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists like Daniel Pearl and James Foley, who take risks most of us can scarcely imagine. Let’s keep the Foley family in our thoughts, and celebrate the safe return of Peter Theo Curtis. And let’s send offer whatever good thoughts we can for Steven Sotloff, a fellow hostage of Foley’s who was threatened with death last week.

How offline relationships affect online debates

I had an interesting experience Friday debating politics with Jeff Jacoby and Howard Owens on Twitter. It was the usual: big versus small government, federal versus local, food stamps and the best way to help the poor, etc.

I thought we had a civil discussion, although it got a bit heated at times. Then others came in and were pretty disparaging of Jeff and Howard. And I realized what a difference it makes when you know someone in the real world, and how that changes the way you frame your online discussions. I know Jeff and Howard offline, and I also know they are as intelligent and well-read as I am, if not more so. Yes, I think they’re wrong on some issues, but I know they arrived at their positions honestly and that I’m not going to change their minds by shooting off 140-character rockets.

And it underscored the futility of getting into social-media battles with people you don’t know. It is a massive waste of time. Yes, talking politics with people we know is always a good idea. Listen and learn. Even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll understand more than you did before. And don’t bother fighting with strangers.

Speaking of online conversations … like many, I have found that discussions are often richer and more substantive on Facebook than anywhere else. So feel free to weigh in here.

A Rapturous new attack on climate science

It’s the latest meme among commentators who want to downplay or dismiss concerns about climate change: those doomsayers are just like the Rapture wackos! Three examples:

  • Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby: “The May 21 apocalypse foretold by the fundamentalist minister Harold Camping never materialized, but end-of-the-world doomsaying goes on as usual among the global warmists.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose: “You can, on the one hand, listen to Bill McKibben, who says the raging Midwest and Southern tornadoes are still another sign of global warming doom. Or you can listen to Harold Camping, who recently announced the world would go kaput not too long after Christians were sent heavenward on May 21 by none other than God himself.”
  • Detroit News editorial-page editor Nolan Finley: “The rapture predicters are no more looney than those who want to connect the serial natural disasters to global warming.”

As with Al Gore, Camping and company are a lot easier to dismiss than atmospheric scientists.

Here is a splendid account of how D.R. Tucker, a Massachusetts conservative, moved from denial to acceptance as he immersed himself in the facts. Well worth reading.

Jeff Jacoby tortures torture’s defenders

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes a fine comeuppance to those among his fellow conservatives who claim the killing of Osama bin Laden proves that torture works. Whether waterboarding helped produce the intelligence needed to track down bin Laden is irrelevant, Jacoby says, arguing:

Torture is unreliable, since people will often say anything — invent desperate fictions or diversions — to stop the pain or fear. That doesn’t mean waterboarding will never yield valuable information. Feeding a detainee into an industrial shredder, as Saddam Hussein’s torturers sometimes did, might yield valuable information too. But some techniques are forbidden not because they never work, not because they aren’t deserved, but because our very right to call ourselves decent human beings depends in part on our not doing them.

Jacoby also picks apart the disingenuous notion that waterboarding isn’t torture, citing — as have I and others — the execution of Japanese officers who waterboarded American prisoners of war.

Tax Nazis

Oh, my Godwin. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, onetime scourge of left-wingers who compared George W. Bush to Hitler, now proudly reminds us that he once compared liberal tax-and-spenders to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible.

Globe seeks false balance on Goldstone mea culpa

Richard Goldstone

I’m disappointed that editors at the Boston Globe decided they needed to balance Jeff Jacoby’s column on Richard Goldstone’s remarkable mea culpa regarding Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war with a piece arguing, in essence, that Goldstone didn’t really mean it.

Goldstone, a South African judge and diplomat, headed a U.N. investigation into the Gaza war several years ago, and concluded that Israel had committed war crimes against the civilian population. The so-called Goldstone Report has been a cudgel wielded by Israel’s enemies ever since.

So it was (or, rather, should have been) big news when the Washington Post published an op-ed by Goldstone last Friday in which he says that he and his fellow investigators were way too hard on Israel and not nearly hard enough on Hamas. And he credits Israel for investigating the report’s findings while criticizing Hamas for doing nothing. Goldstone writes:

Some have suggested that it was absurd to expect Hamas, an organization that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel, to investigate what we said were serious war crimes. It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigations. At minimum I hoped that in the face of a clear finding that its members were committing serious war crimes, Hamas would curtail its attacks. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hundreds more rockets and mortar rounds have been directed at civilian targets in southern Israel. That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality. The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.

Other than a brief Associated Press story that ran on Monday, today is the first time the Globe has addressed Goldstone’s turnaround. Jacoby characterizes the original Goldstone Report — hyperbolically, though not without cause — as a “blood libel,” and writes, “The Goldstone report did incalculable damage to Israel’s good name. Breathlessly hyped in the media, it accelerated the already frenzied international campaign to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.”

The importance of Goldstone’s turnaround can’t be exaggerated. Yet running along with Jacoby’s column today is a piece by Nimer Sultany, described as “a civil rights lawyer in Israel and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School,” accusing Goldstone of giving in to pressure from fellow Jews and of making another Israeli incursion into Gaza more likely.

“The lingering question,” Sultany writes, “is whether Goldstone can look hundreds of Palestinian civilian victims in the eye and say he stood up for them in the face of severe Israeli and American criticism.”

Goldstone’s turnaround, of course, is not above questioning. As Sultany suggests, there have been reports that Goldstone had been ostracized by the South African Jewish community — although be sure to check out the correction at the bottom of this New York Times story. (The Times also reportedly rejected Goldstone’s op-ed before he shopped it to the Post, though Ben Smith of Politico says otherwise.)

Nevertheless, what Goldstone is saying now hasn’t received nearly enough attention from the media in general or from the Globe specifically. By running Sultany’s rebuttal on the same page as Jacoby’s column, the Globe opens itself up to criticism by those who have long believed the Globe is guilty of anti-Israeli bias.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Globe’s opinion pages beef up

Joshua Green

A year ago, the biggest question at the Boston Globe was whether the New York Times Co. was serious about shutting it down if it couldn’t squeeze out $20 million in union concessions.

These days, the story is considerably more pleasant. Though no one thinks the Globe is entirely out of the woods (there is, after all, a revolution under way), the paper keeps expanding in modest but useful ways.

The latest initiative is coming tomorrow: a weekly column on the op-ed page by the Atlantic’s fine political writer, Joshua Green, who, according to Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos, will offer a Washington perspective from a non-ideological perspective.

“He’s a pure reporter and analyst,” Canellos says. “And I think that for somebody looking at the changing landscape of Washington these days, this is a happy meeting of a writer and subject, because it’s a fascinating time.”

This coming Sunday will mark a significant expansion of the opinion pages. For years, the Globe has published a third opinion page, reserved for letters, every other week. Now the paper will publish three and four pages on an alternating schedule.

Newish op-ed columnists Joanna Weiss and Lawrence Harmon will join standbys Joan Vennochi and Jeff Jacoby. Harmon, the Globe’s chief editorial writer on city issues, will continue to write his column once a week. Weiss will now write twice weekly, picking up Harmon’s Tuesday slot.

On weeks when there are four opinion pages, Canellos says, the extra space will be used for features such as “visual op-eds” by cartoonist Dan Wasserman and longer essays by columnist James Carroll and other writers.

Finally, Canellos says that a somewhat nebulous new online feature called “The Angle” will be beefed up with some definition and some original content as the result of a new partnership with “Radio Boston,” which WBUR (90.9 FM) is expanding from a weekly to a daily program next week.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The so-called free market for food

Jeff Jacoby writes in today’s Boston Globe:

[N]ot even Ted Kennedy would have suggested that Washington nationalize US food production or overhaul the clothing industry. It is precisely because food and clothing are seen as commodities, because we do leave their availability to the market, that they can be had in such abundance and diversity.

From the New York Times, Nov. 9, 2005:

Even as the Bush administration tries to persuade member nations of the World Trade Organization that it is serious about trimming agricultural subsidies, federal spending on farm payments is closing in on the record of $22.9 billion set in 2000, when the Asian financial crisis caused American exports to fall and crop prices to sink, pushing the Midwest farm belt into recession.

If export sales stay weak, this year’s subsidies could hit a new record. Just last week the United States Agriculture Department raised its projection of payments to farmers by $1.3 billion, to $22.7 billion. In 2004, the subsidies were only $13.3 billion.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writing in the Times on Sept. 9, 2009:

[F]ood system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

If Jacoby had wanted to argue against government health-care reform, he could have done it quite easily by using the food industry as his prime example. As Pollan and others have shown, we are awash in a sea of cheap, federally subsidized corn that has been transformed into oceans of sweet soda, unhealthy beef (corn is toxic to cattle) and a host of other dubious products that barely deserve to be called food.

Do we want the government to do to health care what it’s done to the food supply? It’s not an argument I would make. But Jacoby could have made it, and he’d have produced a much more valid column if he had.