• Ryan O'Connell

Another Way to Beat The Press

You don’t have to be a fan of conspiracy theories to think that Donald Trump has raised tariffs on Canadian newsprint mostly to open a new front in his war on the press…or, as he describes it, “the enemy of the people”.

The New York Times has reported that many local newspapers have had to cut staff and curtail their operations, because their printing costs have already soared 20-30%. Even Paul Ryan’s hometown paper is feeling the squeeze.

This is not an example of unintended consequences. The severe, adverse impact of these tariffs was highly predictable. American newspapers have relied on Canadian suppliers of newsprint for decades, partly because there aren’t many U.S. producers and partly because there are a lot of forests up north. Canada is good at growing trees.

No one seemed particularly perturbed about this situation—economists would say it was an efficient way of allocating resources, an example of different countries’ “comparative advantage”—until the Make American Great Again crowd took over the Commerce Department.

Sound far-fetched? Consider the following:

  • The U.S. enjoys an overall trade surplus with Canada, not a deficit, when services are included, as they should be.

  • There are only five newsprint-producing mills in the U.S., according to the Times, so domestic supply is limited.

  • When the Trump Administration first proposed the tariffs on Canadian newsprint, various newspaper trade groups and economists warned that the tariffs would hurt the industry.

According to the Times, Charles River Associates has forecast that newsprint prices will increase more than 30% in the next couple of years, imposing $500 million in additional costs. That’s quite a wallop for an industry that is already under great pressure as fewer Americans read newspapers.

Luckily for Trump, the White House can launch this attack on newspapers without worrying about First Amendment challenges, as it claims that it’s only trying to protect domestic producers. (All five of them.) That’s important for an Administration that has not generally fared well in dealing with legal challenges to its initiatives.

Governments in other countries, which haven’t enjoyed our tradition of a strong and free press, have controlled the supply of newsprint as a way to punish papers for running critical stories. French President Charles de Gaulle would occasionally slow down deliveries of newsprint to publications that had offended him. When Mexico had a one-party system, the government would influence newspapers by cutting newsprint supplies (as well as bribing journalists).

Those practices have faded into the past, in those two countries. It’s ironic, and troubling, that the Trump administration is pursuing a policy that so clearly damages the press.

Trump’s main targets, of course, are larger newspapers, such as The New York Times and the Washington Post, whose dogged reporters and exposés have made life difficult for Trump and several Cabinet officials, including several former Cabinet officials. Trump also targets CNN and other networks, which don’t use newsprint, as he tries to undermine our tradition of independent and critical reporting.

Trump probably has not thought much about small-town newspapers. But we should, because local papers play a crucial role in our democracy. They are the training grounds for young reporters, some of whom move on to work for big-city and national papers, as well as TV and cable networks. The local press is often a key check on politicians’ behavior.

It’s the local reporter who attends the routine, boring City Hall meeting, and suddenly, hears or sees something and his antennae go up. The reporter smells something fishy and digs into it. He or she writes the article exposing the sweetheart deal or other corrupt behavior, which ends or damages the politico’s career. They are watchdogs who help ensure that government officials do their jobs and obey the laws.

If these tariffs cause more local papers to close, that will be a very high price for protecting five American newsprint mills. Preserving a free press seems more important.

The Wall Street Democrat

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