Celebrating the Life of C. Edwin Baker

We at SaveTheNews.org and Free Press learned today that the eminent communications law scholar C. Edwin Baker died this week at the age of 62. Baker was a passionate defender of the First Amendment and a longtime advocate for media and democracy.

Baker took part in the early planning meetings before SaveTheNews.org was launched, and his ideas have helped to shape much of our work. Robert McChesney and John Nichols, the co-founders of Free Press, offered remembrances of Baker.

Robert McChesney writes:

It is impossible to gauge the immensity of the loss with Ed Baker’s passing. He has been the leading constitutional scholar on matters of freedom of the press for two decades. His commitment to a strong free press and a vibrant democracy guided all of his work. He combined open-mindedness, curiosity, a lack of pretension and creativity with intellectual rigor, rare knowledge and rock-hard principles in a manner that was unmatched. The American people and the Constitution have lost a friend and a defender. And those of us who knew Ed have lost a dear friend and a kind, sweet man.

John Nichols writes:

Baker’s genius was grounded in his determination to wrestle with the thorniest of policy questions, often before others were even paying attention to them, and to develop responses that guided citizens, activists and lawmakers away from frustration and toward action. He was an irreplacable public intellectual whose legacy will be fully understood only when we have established a media system that sustains journalism, informed the people and makes real the full promise of American democracy.

It’s perhaps most fitting to remember Baker through his ideas. At the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on “A New Age for Newspapers: Diversity of Voices, Competition and the Internet,” Baker proposed a new tax credit designed to reinvigorate public service journalism.

In his testimony before the committee, he identified the key challenge at the root of our journalistic enterprise as a gap between the benefits that quality journalism provides to society and the revenue obtained through that kind of reporting. He noted:

Much of the value produced by newspaper journalists goes to people other than media companies’ customers. We all, including non-readers, benefit from journalist reports exposing corruption and the consequential remedial responses. We all benefit from the governmental or corporate corruption or negligence that never occurs due to news media’s reputation for watchfulness. We all benefit by the wiser voting of those informed by journalism. To the extent benefits go to non-readers, newspaper companies cannot adequately turn these benefits into revenue. This gap between benefits provided and revenue obtained results in inadequate incentives to put resources into producing news.

Baker asserted that the real problem was not failing newspapers, but rather, “the decimation of the journalists employed by the media.” He believed that if we could close the gap between social benefit and financial revenue, we could encourage more news organizations – new and old – to invest in journalism. He said:

If the government gave these companies a tax credit for half of the journalists’ salary (up to a maximum credit of $45,000), the public interest would be served. These tax credits would reverse the incentive for newspapers to lay off journalists, which in turn would increase the quality of newspaper journalism and cause circulation to rebound. For the roughly forty-eight thousand journalists now employed by the nation’s newspapers, who are paid on average slightly less than $50,000 a year, this tax credit would cost about 1 ¼ billion, a fraction of the value in today’s dollars per person that the country provided in the form of a postal subsidy a hundred years ago. This targeted subsidy would duplicate the financial commitment of the country’s founders to the news media of their time.

Above all else, Baker believed that with careful and creative public policy, we could preserve the First Amendment and promote a new era of public service journalism. He understood that this was no easy balance, but that it was a debate that needed to happen.

His voice will be missed in that debate.

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