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Editorial: Rejecting crippling newsprint tariffs a win for the First Amendment

It was a ludicrous claim to begin with and on Wednesday, the International Trade Commission agreed, finding no reason to believe that Canadian pricing policies on newsprint materially harmed American producers. With that, it rejected the crippling newsprint tariff imposed by the Trump administration.

It’s a relief, both to newspapers, which are already under severe financial strain, and to the communities they serve, many of which have no other source of reliable information about their cities and towns.

This tariff was a direct threat to the survival of many newspapers and, given that they were uncalled for, a back-door attack on the First Amendment.

“These tariffs were extremely harmful to our regional papers – the lifeblood of our local communities,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted. “ITC made exactly the right decision to completely eliminate them. I will remain vigilant to make sure that they never return.”

The initial tariff was imposed earlier this year at the request of a single American producer of newsprint that claimed Canadian policies were hurting business.
In fact, the evidence suggested that the problem was not Canada but the economic influence of the digital revolution – the same issue that has put newspapers under a financial gun.

With the full-court efforts of newspapers and a bipartisan collection of political leaders – including Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross agreed this month to lower the tariff from a strangling maximum of 22.16 percent to a merely suffocating high of 16.88 percent.

Fortunately for the industry and its readers, the International Trade Commission had the last word. An independent, bipartisan, quasi-judicial, federal agency, the ITC has jurisdiction of tariffs and on Wednesday, it came to the conclusion that Ross and President Trump should have understood before they imposed this reckless tax: It was never justified. It was a switchblade, and it drew blood.

In July, the chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Times sounded an alarm.“The water is already at our chins, and these tariffs will push it higher,” said Paul Tash. The company announced layoffs of some 50 people. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reduced newspaper delivery to five days per week. A North Carolina paper discontinued the Sunday color comics.

The industry was already struggling. Beset by declining advertising as the internet economy staked its claim, many newspapers had already taken drastic steps to maintain profitability.

Even justifiable tariffs would have had a crushing impact. But they weren’t justifiable. The administration wanted to impose them so it did.

The industry had many supporters in this effort. Schumer lobbied Ross and worked behind the scenes. Higgins testified in person. So did a number of Republicans, including Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

“The threat of losing the newspaper in this country is a tremendous threat to the First Amendment.” Printed newspapers, Isakson said, remain integral to “our democratic governance and civic life.”

They’re still under stress but, on Wednesday, an arbitrary one was eliminated.

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