By Neil Cosgrove
The stimulus packages passed by Congress and signed by the President over the last two months are designed to prevent economic collapse and sustain “life-essential” activities such as health care and food supply. But what about those institutions that sustain our already badly wounded democracy—institutions like a free press and a postal service? Too many of our politicians have decided those institutions aren’t worth the money or the effort needed to sustain them.
This country’s founders sought to ensure a free press with the ratification of our constitution’s First Amendment, recognizing its importance to a vibrant civic life and “marketplace of ideas.” That marketplace has shrunk considerably in the decade-and-a-half since the internet and social media started significantly eating into newspapers’ advertising revenue and circulation. “At least 1,800 newspapers went out of business since 2004,” reports the Seattle Times.
Despite this attrition, the Seattle Times adds, “Local newspapers continue to provide most original reporting in their communities.” Readership of those newspapers’ content has risen dramatically during the pandemic, but a crippled economy has meant a 20% to 30% further drop in ad revenue, according to the International News Media Association.
For many news outlets this latest threat is existential, and the wreckage has been carefully tracked by Kristen Hare of the Poynter Institute. Locally, Trib Total Media has combined its two print outlets – the Greensburg Tribune-Review and the Valley News Dispatch – and laid off news staff. The Pittsburgh Current, an alternative paper, stopped issuing a print edition, since the gathering places in which that edition were distributed have been shuttered. (A reality even The NewPeople has had to reckon with.) Alt-weeklies, dependent as they are on arts and entertainment advertising, have been particularly hard hit. Across the state, the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader dropped its print edition for three days a week.
Nationally, large circulation dailies such as the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Jose Mercury News have laid off news staff, as has McClatchy, which owns 30 newspapers across the country. Gannett, owner of more than 100 newspapers, has cut the salaries of any one in their newsrooms making more than $38,000. Even digital news outlets are feeling the pinch, with Vox furloughing more than 100 workers for three months.
Eighteen U.S. senators have lobbied for inclusion of funds to support local journalism, pointing out that state governors consider journalists essential workers and arguing that “communities have become increasingly reliant on their reporting amidst the public health crisis.” All 18, unfortunately, caucus with the Democrats—not surprising given a Republican administration unhappy with anyone who refuses to embrace the “reality” it has been peddling to the public for three-and-a-half years.
The Trump administration seems equally unconcerned regarding the fate of another constitutionally guaranteed institution, the Postal Service. Article I spells out that the establishment of Post Offices is a specific duty of the Congress.
Already weakened by a lame-duck 2006 Republican Congress insisting that the USPS pay over $5 billion a year to the U.S. Treasury to pre-fund retirees’ health care, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has insisted that stimulus bills cannot include any support for the Postal Service. Free of any taxpayer funding for the last 40 years, the USPS relies on mail revenues to function, and those revenues are down a reported 30% due to the pandemic. Both Postmaster General Megan Brennan and Mark Dimondstein, leader of the American Postal Workers Union, have predicted USPS will run out of money and have to cease operations between July and September.
Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out such a collapse would jeopardize delivery of prescription drugs, pandemic relief checks, and census correspondence. United Parcel Service and FedEx handled less than 7.5% of the units of mail the Postal Service did in 2019, and could hardly be expected to step in and absorb the work, or to deliver without higher charges to rural parts of the country.
Why would the administration so doggedly oppose funding such an essential service, funding that even numerous Republican legislators are seeking? One explanation, Dimondstein recently told In These Times, is that the White House’s 2018 Office of Management and Budget report “openly called for an opportunity to sell off the Post Office to private corporations.” Such privatization has long been an ambition of some Republican politicians, regardless of any constitutional stipulations about public ownership.
The Trump administration may also believe they can use the pandemic to destroy the postal unions. “The presidential task force that Mnuchin headed up actually called for an end to our collective bargaining rights,” Dimondstein said. The USPS currently provides around 630,000 middle-class jobs, employs the most veterans of any entity, and has one of the most diverse workforces.
On the level of “plausible paranoia” a collapsing Postal Service would also endanger the increasing need, in the midst of a pandemic, for “mail-in voting.” The ultimate in voter suppression, such a catastrophe, only partly the fault of the virus, would cap the destruction of our democracy and the institutions that sustain it.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.