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What's Black And White And Completely Over?

There's been a mini-debate going on over the last weeks in adjoining space about whether the national government should revive (from the New Deal era) the Federal Writers Project, an element of the Works Progress Administration that lasted from 1935 until the war. The F.W.P. employed 6,000 writers--some good, some mediocre, some abysmally bad--on standards I do not know. I do know some of the work, that in local history, quite useful. In wouldn't make sense unless very many millions were out of work and the feds had taken on giving a job to literally everyone who couldn't get one.

The present idea seems to come from the increasing number of journalists who are losing their work. To the depression in newspapers, magazines and other journalistic venues like radio, television, even websites. The current criterion for any kind of bail-out (which apparently is a much more dignified word than "relief") is that, if financial assistance is to be given, it is to be given to corporations that are at the lynch-pin of the whole economic system. Banks, of course, and re-jiggered investment houses.  Gargantuan insurance companies. The big three Michigan auto manufacturers. We'll see who else will get in under the wire. The wire will rise...and rise. Why the government should come to the deliverance of some shareholders and not others is still an unaddressed matter in capitalist theory. Why bank presidents should retain their jobs without even so much as a dip in salary is one question. Why the owner of a dress shop or of a restaurant should be out on the street with his workers is another. 

But wait: there will be more pigs at the trough, and there will be feed for some. 

Journalists and journalistic institutions should be barred from federal subsidy. One of the reasons is that they have gradually degraded their own currency. Another reason is that their currency can be had elsewhere. Now, I am parti pris the other way. So I have some moral authority on the matter. Oh, yes, but I do have one gripe. Publications that mail more of their stuff to a zip code, to any and all zip codes, than TNR and other distinguished sheets like The Atlantic do pay a lower mail rate than we do. Maybe the next administration will equalize the cost. But I doubt it.

I suppose that there are some newspapers that might be considered indispensable to the Republic, and one of them -maybe the only one- is the New York Times. An argument, a weak argument, perhaps, can be made that if the Times, like the Chicago Tribune is now, were to be threatened by bankruptcy the paper (not the whole messy journalistic jumble that surrounds it) might be a candidate for bailout. And maybe we should start naming this help in honest nomenclature: relief.

There are very few newspapers that are making money these days.  (Maybe the large Newhouse chain still is. But it is private, private. So nobody knows.) I read a enthralling article by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in Saturday's Financial Times.  It is called, "The grey lady's keeper: If the future of US newspapers rest on one person, this is he."  The "he" is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, scion of scions way back into the middle of the nineteenth century.  It could be said that the times have made a mess of the Times. That's what I believe. And what a mess it has made. But, then, I grew up with the old lady when she was truly gray. It is that no longer, except in its portents. Otherwise it runs after fashionable politics, up-to-date and soon dateable ideas, mawkish stories, dumb (and, worse yet, graceless) columnists. Some devolve the blame on "Pinch," as junior is called. There are others who blame it on "Punch," as his father is called. In any case, Edgecliffe-Johnson quotes Jon Stewart asking last week: "What's black and white and completely over?"

The Times is deeply in debt. One reason is that it followed the fashion of building a glamorous new headquarters. That can probably be mortgaged with a lease-back.  Still, it has hundreds of millions in other soon to be callable debt. It had at its last quarterly report, as I recall, $47 million in cash. Bankers can rescue the paper and the corporation. But at very high cost and with strict conditions. The Fed may lower its interest rate to banks to zero this coming week. The banks will charge the Times nearer to ten. 

Then, of course, Rupert Murdoch might buy the company. Or Mort Zuckerman.