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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Do We Need “Progressive” Newspapers?

Or will entrepreneurs come to the rescue?

I recently read Alex S. Jones’s Losing the News, which says if that American newspapers go out of business, Americans will lose the “iron core of news” that permits us to be a “self-governing people.” If a few more of these outfits go under, he says, we’re doomed! Are we?

Let me start by I acknowledging that I worked with Jones 32 years ago, and I like him. But I believe he does not understand the U.S. economy and the power of entrepreneurship. Most important, newspapers as we know them are relics of the Progressive Era, and we can easily do without Progressivism.

Most Americans are taught that the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a time of great reforms. If we read the history books (and the newspapers), we are told that American businesses had turned the country into a cesspool of filth, long hours, low pay, high prices, and hopelessness, and then, like the White Knight on his steed, the government rode to the rescue. Jones certainly seems to believe it.

Yet the so-called Progressive Era was not a time of progress at all. In reality, it was an attempt by political elites, including Big Business, to destroy what was left of constitutional government and return to a time when government and privileged businessmen cartelized the economy.

For example, while typical history books paint the government’s successful endeavor to regulate the railroads and a “good” thing for Americans. However, the truth is much different from the history-book version. Government regulation of railroads led to decay of the rolling stock, not to mention decay of the tracks and railroad service, and the railroads ultimately did not recover until government controls were drastically changed in the 1980s.

Progressives did not just want to control transportation and business. The crown jewel of Progressivism (other than the America’s disastrous entry into World War I) was the creation of the Federal Reserve System (a banking cartel) and the implantation of the income tax. The combination of these two things guaranteed a State that was sure to grow well beyond its means and the means of the taxpayers that must support it.

Modern newspapers, with their veneer of “objectivity,” also had their roots in the Progressive Era. Before then, people understood that newspapers represented political parties and political points of view. However, during the Progressive Era people who ran newspapers said they would separate their editorial and news functions to “demonstrate” their commitment to “objectivity” in presenting the news.

For all of our belief in newspaper “objectivity,” asking a journalist, and especially a journalist who has a very strong set of views about the way the world works (and should work) simply to recite a set of “facts” is like asking fans to assess the “objectivity” of the referees after their team loses a close game. As the late Michael Kelly, the editor of Atlantic Monthly, once wrote, most journalists view events through a preconceived template and write their dispatches as such.

Those of us who have been advocates for freedom and free markets know full well the scorn that our points of view receive from mainstream journalists. As True Believing Progressives, mainstream journalists believe that only government can guide that entity known as an economy and that any viewpoint which holds that entrepreneurs acting freely can do any better is based on ignorance and outright stupidity and never should be taken seriously.

The real myopia is with Progressives and the journalists who hold such views. Just as newspapers were the creation of entrepreneurs, so entrepreneurs also can find other ways to deliver “news” to people who wish to hear and read it. Has Jones heard of the Internet? He may claim that if we lose modern newspapers, we will “lose the news,” but that is not so, at least not while entrepreneurs still are permitted to do what they do best: serve consumers.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.