19 November 2015
The tax seizure of a dissident American newspaper
It looks pretty certain by now that Metroland is dead. The Capital District arts weekly with a political bent hasn't published an issue since October. Its offices were seized by the government for tax delinquency. In its mix of national and local stories Metroland was probably the most anti-establishment in the region, though that really isn't saying very much. It was the paper most likely to be critical of the U.S. government regardless of which party was in charge, especially when it came to foreign policy. It was the paper most likely to endorse Bernie Sanders for President, unless the Green party came up with someone better. There's some sort of irony in taxes being the downfall of the paper most likely to advocate more taxes on the rich, but that's not why I bring this story up. What I want to point out is that Metroland was what we can comfortably call a dissident publication that was shut down, in effect, by the government for violating the law. Were Metroland published anywhere but in the U.S., Canada or western Europe, and were it shut down under the exact same circumstances, people would immediately speculate that the action was politically motivated, that the government was cracking down on a journalistic gadfly or a brave critic, and that freedom of the press in that country was in danger. In the actual case, however, not even the publisher of Metroland makes such an argument on the paper's behalf or against the U.S. government. He knows too well that business has been bad for print media for the last decade or so. In the U.S., then, the forcible closure of an independent element in the media is no cause for alarm, nor should it have been. That does not mean, as you may think I imply, that there's never anything fishy when governments close down independent media by taking them to court. But it does mean that we should avoid coming to the knee-jerk conclusion that something is always fishy when such actions are taken. The end of Metroland does not prove any conspiracy against independent media, but proves that media are not above the law. That should be true everywhere, and if you're going to question other countries' laws (other countries' leaders may be another story) you may as well ask why media shouldn't enjoy some sort of tax-exempt status, or even state subsidies, to guarantee a diversity of viewpoints in public discourse. No nation will ever do that; the media is as accountable to the market everywhere as it is to the law. Freedom of the press everywhere has limits; that's why freedom of speech is always dissent's last resort before violence. Media must answer to a bottom line, but the courage to speak truth to power is priceless.