FTC Chief: No Tax to Save Journalism

The agency is “looking at the future of news”

The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission Tuesday dismissed as “a non-starter” any chance that his agency would recommend a tax to support or “save” journalism.

Opening the last of three FTC roundtables on the future of journalism, Jon Leibowitz said, “There is a threshold question before we reach any proposal: Is there a government role here?” Leibowitz told the forum at the National Press Club. “It’s a question the commission has not yet answered.”

Leibowitz said that the commission has come under fire from both the right and the left, as the result of a compilation of suggestions to help journalism included in a summary report on earlier workshops.

But, he insisted, the report was just that – a compilation of suggestions received – and it doesn’t mean it supports any of those suggestions.

Among the suggestions were some to collect a government tax to fund journalism, much as the U.K. funds the BBC. Others included anti-trust exemptions. 

“Taxing anyone to subsidize journalism is just a non-starter,” he said. “As a competition agency we are pretty allergic to anti-trust exemptions as well to changes that would expand copyright laws.”

The FTC and the Federal Communications Commission are each conducting examinations of public policy issues raised by recent structural changes in the media and cutbacks in reporting. While the FCC is mostly examining issues about local broadcast media, the FTC is looking more broadly and examining not only issues about the amount journalism taking place but also anti-trust issues and financial issues that could play a role.

Leibowitz said the agency is “looking at the future of news — a topic that is vital to the future of democracy. Without the kind of journalism that holds government businesses and others accountable through thorough fact check reporting, we can’t be the well-informed citizens necessary to a well functioning democracy.”

He said journalism’s current “period of creative destruction” is bringing some “truly astounding” changes.

“People can help create news stories. They can comment on them and react to them in ways we never could have anticipated.”

He said, he is worried though, about the “destruction part of creative destruction. Could we lose journalism we really care about –the kind of journalism, beat reporters have been doing for years attending town council meetings … investigative journalism.”

Leibowitz said that among initiatives he might be able to support are allowing the Small Business Administration to make loans to new nonprofit centers for gathering news.

FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch also said that new taxes and copyright changes are not being considered and unlikely to be.

“The chances of it ever happening are nil,” he said.