Friday, March 27, 2009

Cardin Cans Constitution

When I first heard about Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) bill to allow newspapers to become nonprofits, I said to myself “you need to stew on that for a minute.” I felt I needed time to percolate the idea through my little brain and try to think of all the permutations of the impact of that legislation. This morning I caught an email in which the sender asked a serious question:

“Anybody have a clue why it would require "local, national, and international news stories"...why the "and" v. an "or"?

As written, this would favor regional dailies, subscribing to AP, etc., and actually exclude independently owned, truly local community newspapers like your hometown weekly. Is this intentional?”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have never liked Ben Cardin. It goes back to 1997, when I, as a Maryland resident and constituent, called his office to arrange a meeting. At that time, he was still a lowly Congressman, not a Senator. I was told by his scheduler that Congressman Cardin did not meet with individuals unless they represented some group. I said that I was his constituent and wanted to discuss a matter important to me. She flatly refused to schedule the appointment unless I was coming as a representative of a group. Now I don’t know if she was huffing something that day, but I have never forgotten that conversation and because I carry a grudge like Stalin, I have not since voted for or liked the man.

But back to the legislation.

The concerned emailer is right. Here it is in the bill:

QUALIFIED NEWSPAPER CORPORATION.—For purposes of this title, a corporation or organization shall be treated as a qualified newspaper corporation if—

‘‘(1) the trade or business of such corporation or organization consists of publishing on a regular basis a newspaper for general circulation,

‘‘(2) the newspaper published by such corporation or organization contains local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose…”

Does this mean that our little weekly, The Columbia Flier, could not qualify under this act to gain nonprofit status unless it publishes national and international news? By the way, I don’t want the Columbia Flier to publish national and international news, that’s what the Washington Post is supposed to do. I want the Flier to tell me what the heck happened in my town, that’s where my information gap is, I have little clue as to what is going on locally. The only time I find out that our County Executive is once again spending money like a drunken sailor is when I pick up the Flier.

I am also bothered by “news stories of interest to the general public.” Who is going to decide that? Sue me, but I am completely disinterested in the High School Lacrosse championships, which the Flier spends a good deal of space reporting. And I’m not happy about the “distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose.” Again, who’s going to decide that?

Am I being educated by the latest goings-on of the Kiwanis Club? Maybe, I don’t know. Or the Lost Dog reports? Or the section on whose kid got that fine scholarship to college in the “Why I prefer Burger King over McDonald’s essay contest”? Is there a difference between being “informed” and “educated”? I can be informed all day long but am I really being educated?

As bothered as I am about those sections, I think the next section really set me off:

‘‘the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally
accepted as educational in character.’’

What the heck does that mean? The “preparation follows methods generally accepted as educational in character”?

So I’m some frosh reporter with her first newspaper job. Never mind it’s some dinky hometown paper, I am thrilled to be working as a professional journalist. I go out to cover my first story about how some farmer’s hogs got out and created a major traffic jam on Main Street. I talk to the farmer, I talk to the disgruntled drivers, I talk to the Mayor and the Health Department Director, I write it all down, take my notes and take a few pictures. I go back to the newspaper office and type it all up, attach a picture and send it off to the editor.

Have I just followed methods generally accepted as educational in nature? When my editor approves the story and sends it off to be printed in the next day’s edition, has he or she followed methods generally accepted as educational in nature? At the printing press, as the morning edition is being run, is it being printed through a method that is generally accepted as educational in nature?

I believe in newspapers and I like the feel of newspapers, it’s a tactile experience you can’t get by reading something online, I’m old school that way. The idea that we might be able to save some newspapers by letting them become nonprofits is not a bad one. However, dictating what stories they are going to cover and how they should cover them, does not preserve one of our most precious freedoms, freedom of the press.

Maybe Senator Cardin (and his staff) need to get “educated.” I know it may sound crazy, but a group of people sat around a table and came up with a wild thing called the First Amendment. And since Senator Cardin is so enamored of “groups” rather than individual constituents, maybe he’d be willing to take their suggestion that the press be free from governmental interference, a bit more seriously.

*** Post Note: I've just been told that the language will be changed from "and" to "or" that it was an oversight. However, even changing that part, doesn't remove the other troubling parts of the bill. I still ask "who decides?"

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