The list of things on which The Nation, Mother Jones, The Weekly Standard, and The National Review all agree is, by definition, rather modest: George W. Bush is, in fact, president of the United States. The earth is round; the sky is blue; wheat is plentiful; the Red Sox won the series.
But recently, these journals of opinion have joined hands across the political spectrum, together with a number of similarly small periodicals, to combat a significant rise in the postal rates about to be imposed by the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission at the behest of Time-Warner, Conde Nast, and other massive media megaliths.
Back in March, the Commission voted to approve a plan pushed by a coterie of major magazine publishers that will likely increase mailing costs for small periodicals everywhere by as much as 30 percent—a crushing burden for many small, editorial operations. Big magazines like Time and Vogue, however, may actually see their rates decrease, owing to the new bulk rates.
The plan is yet another chapter in the Bush administration’s seven-year campaign to ease the burden for the big businesses at the top at the expense of everyone else. But as is so frequently the case with everything associated with this administration and its appointees, it is far worse than meets the eye. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) notes, the rates hikes are “tantamount to a tax on free speech.”
About 5,700 small-circulation publications will incur the large rate increases. In many cases, the increase might put the final nail in their proverbial coffins. True, The Nation can absorb its likely additional $500,000 in postal costs by firing staff and cutting back in other ways; ditto National Review and its $100,000 increase. But for many smaller, particularly minority publications, the postal rates are literally a matter of life or death. And the death of these publications is a death in the marketplace of ideas and a blow to the function of a healthy democracy.
An increase in postal rates was likely inevitable, but never in the history of the United States has it targeted small publications so harshly; the postal service is of course a monopoly, but one that exists for the public good. Stretching way back centuries to colonial times, a tradition of partnership has existed between postal services and journalism. In the colonies, many early newspapers were even printed by postmasters. In 1758, it was Benjamin Franklin who pioneered the policy of free exchange of newspapers between editors in his role as colonial postmaster general.
In 1792 and 1794, Congress put colonial postal service under federal control. America’s founders understood that for the functioning democracy they desired to work, ideas had to flow freely among the citizens. The impetus for low postal rates for the press came from the same place, ideologically speaking, as the First Amendment. As a result, thousands of journalistic flowers were allowed to bloom, giving rise to the spread of ideas from the abolitionist movement, the populist movement, and the labor movement, among many others. As magazines, including The Nation, were flourishing in the 19th century, Congress again passed a Postal Act in 1879 that established a penny-a-pound rate for both newspapers and magazines.
Literally centuries of government policy expressly designed to promote a free and vibrant press are now under threat as a result of the Postal Regulatory Commission’s decision to cave in to big media. The movement to overturn them has made their voice known, including a recent hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia late last month, where, among other witnesses, Victor Navasky of The Nation pleaded elegantly for the reversal of the new rate policy.
It is possible for the rate hikes to be reversed, and crucial that it be done. As A.J. Liebling so famously said, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. And with most of the information Americans are receiving coming from just half a dozen companies, democracy demands that these voices be preserved.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.