Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reason for the Nonprofit Model

When I was a reporter writing about public policy, I used to love to call the in-house experts at the Cato Institute. Their libertarian logic was always clean and sharp, and it could slice almost any subject to the bone.

Well, the libertarians are it again, this time taking on the demise of the newspaper industry. In a new article entitled "Hired News" in Reason, the leading libertarian magazine, author Tim Cavanaugh argues that public relations professionals are taking over where investigative journalists are leaving off. He writes:

Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism. ... Communications is a highly competitive environment, and it is becoming more competitive. Frequently the most valuable information comes out just because somebody wants to make somebody else look bad.

This is a bit like arguing that it's okay for the patients to run the asylum because they know it as well as the professional staff. Now, I'm not arguing that P.R. professionals should be committed. Far from it. But they serve an entirely different role in our society, and that role shouldn't be confused with what journalists do.

Cavanaugh's argument is straight out of the Stone Age. In essence, he says that if we're both able to throw rocks at each other, it's a fair fight, and that's all society owes its members. But the fact that he is free to make his argument in a magazine owned by a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization underscores exactly why society benefits from thriving alternatives to for-profit journalism.

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