Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 512, March 29, 2009

"Maybe it's not such a bad thing to be thought a barbarian.
People usually don't mess with barbarians, after all."

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No Bailout for America's Newspapers!
by L. Neil Smith

Distribute freely and and attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

I have never had anything but contempt for America's "greatest" newspapers. During my lifetime, a little over six decades, they have never been anything but contemptible. Everything that was foreseeably harmful to individual liberty—or later proven to be so—they have championed. Everything that would have been good for it, they have opposed.

Regarding a small, exceptional handful of dire matters of life and death—the ugly little war in Vietnam comes to mind—where they finally aligned themselves with the proper, decent, moral, and Constitutional side of the issue, they were opinion followers, not leaders

Now, according to the "new media" to which I happily switched ten years ago or more, in preference to being libelled, threatened, and lied to on a continuous basis as a member of the nation's Productive Class, America's "greatest" newspapers, on the brink of financial collapse as millions of other readers and advertisers make the same change I did, are looking to be "bailed out" by the current political administration. They've agreed to stop making political endorsements, giving us to wonder what good they'll be after they seal this devil's bargain.

The argument is that these publications possess sublime historical significance, that they are monuments to themselves, really, and that they must be preserved, like Colonial Williamsburg, at the involuntary expense of the people whose hopes, dreams, and aspirations they have damaged most over the years, even though they long ago ceased fulfilling the function (assuming they ever did)—of opposition to the state—that the authors of the First Amendment had in mind for them.

I saw a late-night discussion on public TV a few years ago (back when papers were still making money) in which academics specializing in media discussed, with media professionals, the fact that never, in any other industry was there a greater disparity between documented customer satisfaction (down to single digits) and corporate profit. In other words, most consumers of newspaper and TV news hated what they were getting, but the companies were making gobs of money none the less.

I knew that was this possible only because there was a disconnect between a newspaper or TV station's revenue, which comes from its advertisers, not consumers, and its performance. (A similar disconnect is at the core of this society's problems with medicine; the actual customers are insurance companies, not patients, and the interests of the two seldom coincide.) I also knew that the situation was bound to change, as alternatives to the old, establishment media sprang into existence.

Newspapers have been in a state of decline ever since then. Over the years, I have often written suggesting two or three measures which—according to information they themselves garnered and occasionally made available—might have saved them, or at least slowed their demise.

The first measure is the ultimate no-brainer. Survey after survey indicates that the thing newspaper readers like the best, and turn to first, are the comic pages. Some of my own earliest memories are of lying on my grandmother's living room floor, taking in all the latest comings and goings of Alley Oop, the Phantom, Steve Canyon, and Prince Valiant. Oh, and Gordo, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, and Terry and the Pirates.

Anybody remember Funky Winkerbean?

And yet, over the years, the number of comic pages, the number of strips, and the sizes of panels have steadily diminished, their space consumed by advertising. What good is more and more advertising in a publication fewer and fewer people read less and less? I suppose it's perfectly all right if you're an accountant, but if you're a writer, an artist, or an editor who cares about what you write, draw, and edit—as well as the people who see it—it's slow, particularly painful death.

The obvious cue, and I'm talking about dailies, here, is to boost the number of comic pages—four would be acceptable, six would be even better—the number of strips (most of those being published now aren't funny or even mildly entertaining; they desperately need some competition), and the panel size. My understanding is that more than one famous cartoonist has quit over that last item. As readership grows, so will the value—and accordingly the price—of your advertising.

A second strategem for resuscitating newspapers involves the jaw-dropping differences between the denizens of the newsroom, and the habitues of the editorial department. There are, in fact, newspapers with a rational, morally respectable editorial policy. They include the Review-Journal in Las Vegas, the Orange County Register and its sister Freedom publications including the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, and, I hear most recently, the Dallas Morning News.

I know a lot of libertarian editorial people, and they always seem to feel a need to apologize for their paper's newsroom gang, composed, for the most part, of callow young graduates of journalism schools with an ideological slant somewhere to the far left of Patrice Lamumba University.

The obvious solution to that difficulty is to regard a j-school degree as a disqualification, and to hire only those whose names first appeared over stories published on the Internet. Writers, artists, and editors who have been mortally repulsed by unbelievably bad behavior of creatures like Joseph Farah might be a good place to start. It may also be necessary to assure them that whatever they write, draw, or edit will show up online, as well as on dead-trees. It might work best to turn the paradigm inside-out by making the paper edition an adjunct to the Internet edition instead of the other way around.

We turn now to the last, but far from least, reason newspapers are turning toes up, and how they might be saved: a little matter of the truth. Have you ever been present at some public event—a parade or a convention, or an accident or some other kind of disaster, and when it was later reported on TV or in the newspaper, it was scarcely recognizable?

I can't count the number of times I have folded the local birdcage liner in disgust and tossed it aside, or seen others do exactly the same.

It's the equivalent of yelling at the TV.

Part of the problem is simple. Those responsible for the coverage are usually supremely ignorant, stupid, and incompetent. But a greater part of it arises from an underlying elitist bias that motivates mainstream journalists never to treat people attending science fiction events, for example (vastly more intelligent and better informed than the average reporter), as anything but geeky, propellor beanie-wearing nerds.

That's one of the major reasons libertarians and their party have never gotten an even break in the American press and were compelled to create their own media in order to communicate freely with the public. Perhaps there's justice, or at least irony, in the universe, after all.

It may be true that there's no such thing as real objectivity in reporting, and that well-intentioned people will always differ on what the truth is. I'm certainly not the most objective writer on the planet.

But my bias is out there, clearly visible, for everyone to see and comprehend: (1) I believe in the absolute right of an individual to own and control his own life and all the products of that life; (2) I adhere to the Zero Aggression Principle which holds that nobody has a right to initiate force against another sapient being for any reason; (3) I believe the best political expression of those ideas (so far) is the Bill of Rights, which to this day, remains the highest law of the land.

Understand that and you understand me. I see, report, and reason consistently—as consisently as I can, in any case—in terms of those three notions: self-ownership, zero aggression, the Bill of Rights.

So I will prescribe, without undue modesty, that newspapers find and hire more people like me. Not necessarily dedicated, unswerving libertarians (which would be preferable, I confess), but those who make their motives clear from the outset and stick with what they say they believe, no matter what. It's nothing new. Integrity has always existed, and it has always been an essential ingredient in any human endeavor.

And it would alter the bias of newspapers, since leftists seem to feel a need to skulk along the baseboards, trying to conceal what they really believe, and the motto of most right-wingers might as well be, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... I'll change them."

Do America's dying newspapers have what it takes to step up and survive?

Don't bet on it.

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas was recently completed and is presently looking for a literary home.

Neil is presently working on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Roswell, Texas, with Rex F. "Baloo" May.

The stunning 185-page full-color graphic-novelized version of The Probability Broach, which features the art of Scott Bieser and was published by BigHead Press has recently won a Special Prometheus Award. It may be had through the publisher, or at


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