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 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    

From AJR,   December 1997  issue

Dialogue With a Retired Publisher   

Ben Franklin thinks this trendy notion could cost papers big money.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Ben Franklin was one of the sharpest businessmen among the Founding Fathers, a successful Philadelphia publisher who knew how to make money as well as turn a phrase. AJR has been able to establish contact with him from time to time on the outernet, a device combining our Web site with a ouija board and a key on a kite.

We put through the latest call to tell him some newspaper managements are saying the newspaper's only obligation is to the shareholders.

BF : What's a shareholder?

AJR : One of the owners, somebody who has risked money on the success of the newspaper company. They used to be called stockholders, but there were people who thought "stockholders" sounded like greedy rich people. So now everybody says "shareholders."

BF : Got it. I wish I had thought of calling myself a shareholder.

AJR : Well, what do you think of this new idea?

BF : Not sure what you mean, A.J. They're saying that the paper's only obligation is to the owners? Is that it?

AJR : Right.

BF : We thought about that, you know, and it seemed a pretty bad idea. The king's people wanted to keep it that way, of course. We didn't like it, so we gave the press special protection.

AJR : But you didn't seem to have anything against making money.

BF : A penny saved...

AJR : Cut that out.

BF : ...penny wise, pound foolish. Is that any help?

AJR : Not much. What's wrong with saying your only obligations are to the shareholders?

BF : It's all right, really, if that's the way the owners want it. They ought to tell the readers, though. Of course, they lose their protections, but it's their choice.

AJR : Protections?

BF : The Third Amendment. Oh, but I forget. It's the one that became the First Amendment. Nothing about shareholders.

AJR : But the press is protected. Freedom of the press, even when the press abuses its special privilege. We've built a lot of law on that guarantee – law involving prior restraint, libel, and so on.

BF : Given the turn of events that you describe, you'll just have to redo all that. We meant what we said.

AJR : We don't get it.

BF : Listen, the only reason we wanted the press to have special protection was that it serves the public. Pretty badly a lot of the time, as I read the stuff you people have been doing down there lately. And no good aphorisms, either. You could use a sense of humor, you know.

AJR : Yes, but you knew there would be abuses. And even so you said the press has to be free.

BF : Right. But when it openly declares it's not the press, well, that's different. If it says it's just for the owners it's like any other business. I can tell you, business is business. I can also tell you the press is the press.

Say, if anybody files a libel suit against one of those businesses you've just described, let me know so some of us up here can figure out a way to join the plaintiffs. I'd love to hear the other side justify its constitutional protections. We'll clean them out and then make some money investing in newspapers.