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Involving government in free press ill advised

The Federal Trade Commission was created a century ago when the nation was in a populist, monopoly-busting mood. However, lobbyists who speak for those same powerful corporate interests that the FTC was designed to fight have neutered the agency's original democratic functions.

Now, under President Obama, this allegedly independent body decided to probe deeply into problems of a large industry.

The FTC's new inquiry doesn't target price-fixing in the gasoline business, or collusion in the price of prescription drugs. An FTC task force under the strong arm of Chairman Jon Liebowitz has decided the newspaper business needs saving.

It is true that the print newspaper business is struggling under a wave of contraction -- its third since 1960. Some speculate that the printed daily newspaper will go the way of the incandescent light bulb.

"We're from the government and we're here to help you," the FTC seemed to say in May 2009, when it launched a project called "The Future of Journalism." Its 47-page report now suggests some innocent-looking taxpayer remedies to compensate for the shrinkage in circulation and advertising revenues experienced by the dailies. Here are some of the FTC's ideas for government intervention:

A Journalism Division ofAmeriCorps; a national subsidy for local news; federal grants for investigative journalism; government loans; "industry-wide licensing" of reporters and media; and provisions to grow tax-exempt publications.

There are a host of suggestions to let newspapers retain "intellectual property rights" to prevent bloggers from reusing newspaper stories without paying for them. Subsidy money might be provided by new taxes on media, and by a kind of citizen check-off for "the non-profit media of their choice." Like too many Obama initiatives, help -- whether it is for health insurance, auto dealerships or investments -- too often takes on the odor of control, of manipulation.

This project has drawn interest from a strange collection of folks including journalism professors, unemployed reporters calling themselves consultants, foundation-backed bloggers, newspaper industry spokesmen, leftist busybodies, the National Press Club and conservative Rupert Murdoch, who heads a worldwide media empire that controls Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

No one does anything for just one reason, the sage of Alexander, N.Y., the late Congressman Barber B. Conable Jr., used to say. But two things, I think, do unite this odd crowd: a craving for relevance inside the Beltway and post-Woodstock goofiness. The Age of Aquarius, this epoch of sunny trust, has prompted too many to forget why the republic's founders passed the First Amendment, which says "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press "

That's because the powerful always ache to massage the spoken and printed word. It's a hunger as ancient as Socrates and as current as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Great investigative reporters like Jack Anderson quite properly saw even American politicians and bureaucrats like today's FTC as potential enemies of freedom.

One backer of the FTC project told me government subsidies to newspapers are as old as the Postal Act of 1792 that allows mailing of papers at special rates. Another said the FTC's data on newspaper competition needs updating. This can be done without government-paid local reporters or "industrywide licensing." Government intervention in the free press is not warranted or necessary.

Obama won't stop it, but Congress should bar the FTC from spending another dime on this dangerous escapade. Meanwhile, insiders predict the task force will produce a report for the full commission. Fortunately, we have a Supreme Court which, for all its faults, is history's strongest defender of freedom of speech and of the press.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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