Federal Communications Commission

Citizens' news vouchers: $200 for everyone?

March 16th, 2010 by Irene Wu

Would you get more of the news and information you want if the government let you direct $200 of taxpayer money toward your favorite media outlets? This is the proposal most recently suggested by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in their new book The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books, 2010), which builds on a proposal by Dean and Randy Baker. In McChesney and Nichols’ proposal, every American adult would have a citizen news voucher in his or her tax return. On that voucher he or she could divide $200 among eligible media outlets. Which media outlets would be eligible? Public broadcasters and not-for-profit media, for example. In return for the government subsidy, McChesney and Nichols suggest eligible media should be required to forgo advertizing and to make all their content public domain, in other words, not covered by copyright. 

The goal of the voucher system would be to increase funding for public media that citizens want to see flourish, including start-up web-journalism, without getting the government involved in evaluating the viewpoint of the media receiving the subsidy. McChesney and Nichols refer to the postal subsidies the federal government granted newspapers in the 1700 and 1800’s. This helped newspapers and magazine of all political viewpoints by lowering their distribution costs and creating a vibrant public debate in the early days of the republic. 
Adam Thierer in his blog identifies three problems with the proposal. First, most Americans will not want to spend their taxpayer money on media, which has largely succeeded as a commercial industry. Second, determining which media would qualify would be a headache. What if people chose to spend their vouchers on comedy news or movie star highlights? Would that be all right? Finally, inevitably if the government is funding something, there will be strings attached. Giving up copyright protection is a serious demand, does that really further the creation of good news and information? What do you think?

15 Responses to “Citizens' news vouchers: $200 for everyone?”

  1. Guest says:

    This is a great idea.

    If we had a serious news media that wasn't motivated by profits and advertising influence, perhaps we wouldn't have wasted over 1 TRILLION DOLLARS and thousands of lives on a war in Iraq that was based on false information.

    Maybe also we could have not needed to waste TRILLIONS more on bailouts to big banks that caused our financial system to collapse.

    I believe that because these same institutions sponsored the news media, they were reluctant to do the necessary investigative work that the American people need.

    Markets don't solve everything. Good Information is a PUBLIC good that needs to be sponsored by the people. I hope this idea gets adopted for the sake of our nation, who continue to rely on shoddy for-profit journalism.

  2. Maneesh Pangasa says:

    Here's what I would do if I had a voucher that could be redeemed for federal grant money going to media:

    1) I would invest the money in public broadcasting and public forms of journalism -- public media in the U.S. unfortunately is vastly under-funded compared to some other countries and in recent years public broadcasting has been threatened with budget cuts unfortunately. This includes NPR, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting etc.

    2) I would seek to provide incentives for other forms of noncommercial media especially independent media companies that are noncommercial as well -- through the use of subsidies for local news stations on the radio dial and local news channels on TV presenting a local picture -- with some grant money also for commercial media if its needed but invest most of it in noncommercial and independent media that's accountable first and foremost to the public. After all the corporate news media are accountable only to their advertisers and shareholders of the corporations that own news media outlets. Do you think MSNBC, CNN or FOX News are accountable to the public -- wrong they are accountable to General Electric, Time Warner, and News Corporation first.

    Independent news media outlets are more likely to do investigative journalism even if it exposes corporate corruption -- MSNBC journalists are less likely to expose corruption at parent company NBC Universal or its parent General Electric -- because they don't want to embarrass their bosses and risk getting fired for doing so -- same goes with FOX News and CNN which all do slanted reporting -- FOX News gives news reports too biased in favor of Republicans, MSNBC is too liberal, CNN is somewhat liberal but less than MSNBC.

    All are owned by corporations though that pick and choose what qualifies as news and what doesn't. I am a proud supporter of Free Press and the national media reform movement -- critics may try to scare people with words like Marxist, or socialist they are wrong and often times they are lying to try to scare people to oppose such measures. Public policies that promote competition, protect consumers and keep markets free and open are needed. Public policies should not be re-written for corporate special interests benefit -- the laws passed need to benefit the public interest. Even if a law passed is disliked by a corporation but benefits the public it should remain law. Sometimes public/private partnerships can be reached and are a good thing but the future of the media should not be left to corporations to control. Corporate censorship is just as bad as government censorship -- individual free speech should remain protected online.

    Government should not allow corporations to censor speech online or thru any medium nor should corporate gatekeepers be allowed online. Journalism as a public good provided by full time journalists has been in danger for some time in the U.S. We need public policies to promote and foster more independent, noncommercial sources of news and to invest in quality journalism.

  3. Diana says:

    We need this! Instead of spending $200 on chips and junkfood, I think we can spare that for this program. I would like better news coverage and less celebrity channels.

  4. Max says:

    Giving everyone a $200 voucher to choose the non-profit media that best serves their community is a great idea. The voucher would go toward building and sustaining non-profit media by helping to pay salaries for journalists and editors.

    Even more significantly, the voucher could be used for any non-profit media of choice. This lets the consumer decide what kind of journalism best covers their community.

    Every non-profit organization struggles for sufficient funding and with major cutbacks to newsrooms and the failure of for-profit journalism to do critical reporting, a $200 payment will go a long way towards sustaining local journalism, beat reporters, and conducting investigations. This proposal will benefit everyone and has the potential to save journalism - the lifeblood of democracy.

  5. Guest says:

    This is a joke, isn't it? With the deficit as it is, we are going to redirect $200 per person toward media? Why not think big, how about $2000?

    With regard to the author's argument that postal subsidies were provided to early newspapers...well huge subsidies have been provided through the creation of the internet. Now that has worked, we need to 'fix' the fix?

    In the end, the markets will work it out, and people will get the information they are willing to pay for one way or another. People, in the end, will get exactly what they 'want' even if that is not 'good for them.'

  6. RonD says:

    One of the most appropriate places to pass the $200 to would be to the struggling P.E.G.
    entities in our nations towns & cities. While a very few are well funded by their communities
    the majority are on the bottom of their town's budget list, particularly in this economy.
    I'm astounded that the suggested number is only $200, but at least this woul be the place that it would do the most good.

  7. Brenda says:

    This is stupid. We have so many to choose from now! Cnn for the more liberal, Fox for the more conservative, PBS for the super liberal! In this age, we can go online and find just about anything your mind could think up! This would be just another tax from the tax payers of this country! We are over taxed now! I want the government to stop all spending until they can balance a budget. No more entitlements!
    As said earlier, I hope this is a big JOKE!

  8. Guest says:

    This is stupid! No more taxes until the government can control their spending! Let the free market do it's job!

  9. Guest says:

    No more taxes levied on the citizens of America! Government intervention will only harm the system.

  10. Don says:

    So, we are going to take another self sustaining segment of the economy and turn it into another Government welfare program? On the backs of the American Taxpayer? Where does it end? It sounds as though it will only come to an end when the American Taxpayers are out of money.

    The American population did not decide to go to war in Iraq, or stay in Iraq because of bad Jounalism. It was a political decision by Republicans and Democrats!

    Do you really think that when a Governement controls the purse strings you get a more pure result? Any Government? Ask the decenting Media in Venezuela how Hugo Chavez is managing the Media. Oh, is there any decenting Media left in Venezuela.

    The only cure for a corrupt Government or Corporation is an independent, vigorous and cynical Media.

    Speaking of a Government subsidized media, how is PBS? Not many Pulitzer Prize winning exposes' that I recall. As a matter of fact, there is no noticable decenting (Conservative) thought. Consequently, most of the Nation looks to Talk Radio for broad opinions.

    Just my $0.02

  11. Braniff says:

    I live in an area subject to severe weather (i. e. violent thunderstorms and tornadoes). I would suggest that if I were to appropriate $200 to a public radio or television station, it would be on the condition that said station INTERRUPT ALL PROGRAMMING IMMEDIATELY whenever a severe weather or similar alert is announced. I speak from experience. I used to listen to my local public radio station. That ended after one tornado warning when I heard the warning sirens sound--but the public radio station did not broadcast any information about the details. Shame on that station!!!!

  12. Josh Stearns says:

    I think this idea has a lot of merit - but needs to be more fully studied and the details examined and debated. That said, the notion that people could have more say in where their tax dollars are going is a good thing, and an opportunity to structure a form of government support that has little government involvement and could foster innovation instead of privileging incumbents.

    It is worth thoughtfully responding to Thierer's critiques. Thierer argues that journalism has succeeded as a commercial industry, but I think it's clear that's not true. His suggestion that people wouldn't want their tax dollars going to media is disingenuous as well given the number of people who already donate to public media in America - people want to support good media. Thierer himself said at the Newseum that he gives monthly to his local public media station.

    Thierer 's second point is legitimate. The debate over a national journalist shield law has illustrated the difficulty of defining what counts in the future of journalism. However, this is not a insurmountable issue. One can look at the IRS process for defining a nonprofit as one model. Almost every federal agency that funds people or orgs has had to struggle with this issue in some respect.

    Thierer's last argument suggests that government funding of any kind = government control. And yet we have numerous domestic and international examples of political firewalls that can keep government from having any control over content (see NPR, PBS, BBC, etc..). Year after year in the Roper Poll NPR and PBS are ranked as the most trusted source for news and information and ranked as one of the best investments of tax payer dollars by people on all sides of the political spectrum. Any policy must first protect free speech and this idea of vouchers is interesting because it puts the control in the hands of the people.

    I think the vouchers proposed by McChesney and Nichols are worthy of debate and careful examination. We need fresh thinking about these issues. It would be worth creating ways to test this and other ideas to identify the strengths and weaknesses.

    Josh Stearns, Free Press and SaveTheNews.org

  13. James says:

    Yet another push for government control of the media. Robert W. McChesney is the co-founder of Free Press, a group with openly Socialist / Marxist views. A media outlet that accepts this money would certainly find itself bound by limits on what they were allowed to say or print. Free Press is only about free speech as long as it is speech that they agree with. Use caution folks, look closely at the ones pushing for these types of programs. Ask yourself a few questions before supporting this. What is their stated motive for doing this? What is their real motive for doing this? Has any government program ever stayed within the "narrow confines" of its original stated purpose? Read this warning from one of the Founding Fathers.
    "The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers... [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper." --Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13, 1785

  14. Russ says:

    Great idea. It's clear that journalism, as a public good provided by full-time journalists, is in danger in the United States. We need a policy to address that NOW--we can't allow journalism to die out or wait for the invention of some online business model (beyond subscription/ad revenue) that still has not--and will very likely never--happen.

    It's likely that many outlets would gladly switch to a non-profit model and forgo advertising, if such a model was a sustainable choice. If a new business model IS to be found, the described policy would thus quicken that process by creating a pool of residual advertising dollars for existing outlets/start-ups looking for a so.

  15. Guest says:

    This is so stupid!! We are overtaxed! Stop trying to find ways to spend my money!

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