Thursday, November 01, 2007
Going Postal: Arguing for Media Diversity, Debate & Democracy
BY John Nichols
Those of us at The Nation have been banging on for some months about the issue of postage rates. In particular, we've been expressing deep concern about the radical restructuring of those rates in a manner that favors magazines with large circulations and transfers costs to small- and mid-circulation publications.
On the rack of journals of opinion, The Nation is indeed a large publication. Along with its ideological opposite, the conservative National Review, The Nation's circulation makes it one of the major jousters in the current clash of ideas. But against consumer magazines that are less engaged with the political and policy fights of the day than with the pursuit of mass circulation and the advertising dollars that follow it, The Nation definitely falls into that "mid-circulation" range of publications that is taking a huge hit as big media companies flex their muscles in the regulatory sphere.
This fight is about more than one magazine, and more than one ideology. Representatives of journals of opinion from across the ideological spectrum are united in their loud objection to the stacking of the distribution deck against publications that explore the issues from libertarian, old-right, new-right, centrist, liberal and progressive perspectives.
The message delivered at today hearing of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's subcommittee that deals with the postage service was a fundamental one: The sort of publications that the founders imagined as the essential documenters and arbiters of our democratic discourse are being threatened by federal policy making that favors size over content, that favors bigness over quality.
Scott McConnell of The American Conservative magazine explained in testimony submitted to the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and District of Columbia Subcommittee of the House Committee "the postage increases we are facing under the new provisions are little less than catastrophic.
Christopher L. Walton, editor of UU World, the terrific quarterly magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations explained that, "It is disturbing to learn that the new rates abandon the long-standing American tradition of supporting a diverse marketplace of ideas with a fair and uniform postage rate for periodicals. Historically, the periodicals rate allowed small journals of opinion to reach a national audience. But the new rates reward high-circulation periodicals with discounts that smaller-circulation periodicals simply cannot qualify for. Instead, we face a steep and unfair increase in mailing costs.
In These Times editor Joel Bleifuss, with his usual laser focus on the core issues involved, informed the committee that, "In August 2007, In These Times, an independent magazine based in Chicago, was hit hard by a 23 percent postal rate increase. This complex new rate structure, designed by and for the benefit of the largest publishing companies, has severely impacted our small magazine's ability to do business. We face an immediate threat to our financial health. These reckless postal rate increases are aimed at the heart of our nation's independent press. I urge you to ask the spokespeople of the media conglomerates whether they would support these increases if their mailing costs had risen 23 percent. This is a democracy issue. The founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, created a system that made it cheaper for smaller publications, irrespective of viewpoint, to launch and survive. In 1792 the United States Congress converted the free press clause in the First Amendment from an abstract principle into a living reality for Americans by providing newspapers with low postal rates. These low rates were crucial for the growth and spread of the abolitionist movement, the progressive movement and, later, the civil rights movement. More broadly, they have been central to the development of participatory democracy in general. Today, low postal rates remain crucial to the survival of independent American publications like In These Times."
Not all testimony was submitted in written form. Some of it was delivered personally. Among those appearing before the committee was Nation Publisher Emeritus Victor Navasky, who now serves as director of the Delacorte Center for Magazines and Delacorte Professor of Magazine Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and director of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Navasky told the committee that he hoped to speak "not only on behalf of CJR and The Nation, and on behalf of small-circulation political journals, but also on behalf of the highly influential readers of these periodicals -- journals in general, editorial writers, legislators and their staffs, non-profit executives, corporate public affairs officers, the academic community, students and teachers, among others. In other words, all of those engaged in, and informed by, the public discourse these magazines exemplify."
Navasky explained to the committee in prepared remarks that, "I have never understood why of all the services government provides--defense, education, environmental protection, health, housing, highways and the rest--only the mails are required to break even or make a profit. The founders, who saw the mails as the circulatory system of our democracy, made no such presumption. George Washington himself was in favor of the free delivery of newspapers (which, by the way, in those days were often weekly and usually partisan, and as such the equivalent of today's journals of political opinion). These journals, whose core franchise is public discourse about public affairs, are, like water, national defense, public highways and public education, a public good and as such it would seem to me ought to be paid for out of public funds (i.e. general tax revenues)."
The author of A Matter of Opinion admitted "this view is generally regarded as quaint and unrealistic--utopian, as it were--and so the rest of what I have to say does not depend on it, but I thought in the interests of full disclosure, and the hope that it might set some of you to thinking, that I ought to share it."
With that, Navasky outlined a number of practical steps the committee, Congress and the United States Postal Service could make to right the imbalance created by a wrongheaded rate restructuring. Among other things, he proposed reviving a very good proposal by former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall- a liberal Democrat who was supported in the initiative by conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater --to allow the first 250,000 copies of all publications to be mailed at reduced rates. Or, Navasky suggested, why not embrace legislation proposed in 2002 by Bernie Sanders, then the congressman from Vermont and now the senator, that proposed a moratorium on postal increases for magazines with a low percentage of advertising content, low circulation or non-profit status?
Ultimately, however, Navasky proposed a practical and necessary fix for an immediate crisis: Noting that the postal service has the flexibility, working in tandem with Congress, to roll back and/or redistribute rates in the short term, he proposed that Congress ask the USPS to extend non-profit rates to small-circulation political magazines.
That's not a final fix. But is an appropriate move in a moment of crisis by a postal rate increase that will, if it is not addressed, hinder the free flow of ideas and opinions in America.
"It is no accident that the president of The Nation and the publisher of National Review, two periodicals on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, recently teamed up to write an Op Ed essay sounding the alarm," concluded Navasky. "Such small political journals -- which, by the way, carry the most discourse -- bear the heaviest rate increases. The unpopular ideas and opinions that these journals propagate and circulate today often turn out to be tomorrow's wisdom. They act as intellectual and political gadflies, they prod their larger and staider colleagues, they question conformity and complacency. By helping them recover from the grievous wound inflicted upon by the recent rate increase, this Committee will have deepened and strengthened our democracy."
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