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Post office shafts Small Presses

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
— Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 16, 1787

What’s at Stake

Our nation’s founders understood the First Amendment would be worth little without a postal system that encouraged broad public participation in America’s “marketplace of ideas.”

Thomas Jefferson supported this with calls for a postal service that allowed citizens to gain “full information of their affairs,” where ideas could “penetrate the whole mass of the people.” Along with James Madison, he paved the way for a service that gave smaller political journals a voice. Their solution included low-cost mailing incentives whereby publications could reach as many readers as possible.

Other founders soon came to understand that the press as a political institution needed to be supported through favorable postal rates. President George Washington spoke out for free postage for newspapers through the mail, and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton — no proponent of government deficit — conceded that incentives were necessary to spawn a viable press.

The postal policies that resulted have lasted for more than 200 years, spurring a vibrant political culture in the United States. They have eased the entry of diverse political viewpoints into a national discourse often dominated by the largest media organizations.

Time Warner Rewrites History

All of this could change in 2007.

In an unprecedented move, the agency that oversees postal rates in the United States has quietly attempted to unravel much of what the founders accomplished. Earlier this year, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) rejected a postal rate increase plan offered by the U.S. Postal Service. Instead they opted to implement a complicated plan submitted by media giant Time Warner. (Click here to read the decision and click here for a timeline)

Under the original plan, all publishers would have a mostly equal increase (approx. 12 percent) in the cost for mailing their publications. The Time Warner plan overturned this level playing field to favor large, ad-heavy magazines like People at the expense of smaller publications like In These Times and The American Spectator. It penalizes thousands of small- to medium-sized outlets with disproportionately higher rates while locking in privileges for bigger companies.

Fight Back: Tell Congress to Act

The PRC has aligned itself with a media giant in an apparent effort to stifle smaller media in America. The stunning move is an unprecedented abuse of the agency’s discretion. Congress must now step in to protect smaller media from these unfair rate hikes.

The Post Office should not use its monopoly power to favor the largest publishers and undermine the ability of smaller publishers to compete. It must be held accountable for a plan that could drive smaller publications to the brink of bankruptcy. With public involvement we can reverse the PRC decision and restore the postal system that has served free speech in America so well.

Demand a formal and open accounting of why more than 200 years of pro-democracy postal policy was abandoned.

Stop The Rate Hikes, Stand Up for Independent Media:

For individuals: Send a Letter to Congress and the Postal Service

For publications: Sign the Letter to the Postal Board of Governors

References:

John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). Kielbowicz, Richard B. News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700-1860s (Greenwood, 1989). Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (New York: Public Affairs, 2006). Fuller, Wayne E. “The Populists and the Post Office.” Agricultural History 65, no. 1 (1991): 1-16. Kielbowicz, Richard B. “Postal Subsidies for the Press and the Business of Mass Culture, 1880-1920.” Business History Review, 64 (Autumn 1990): 451-88 Kielbowicz, Richard B. “Origins of the Second-Class Mail Category and the Business of Policymaking, 1863-1879.” Journalism Monographs 96 (April 1986): 1-26. Kielbowicz, Richard B., and Linda Lawson. “Protecting the Small-Town Press: Community, Social Policy, and Postal Privileges, 1845-1970.” Canadian Review of American Studies 19 (Spring 1988): 23-45. Kielbowicz, Richard B., and Linda Lawson. “Reduced-Rate Postage for Nonprofit Organizations: A Policy History, Critique, and Proposal.” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 11 (Spring 1988): 347-406. Kielbowicz, Richard B. “Cost Accounting in the Service of Policy Reform: Postal Rate Making, 1875-1926.” Social Science Quarterly 75 (June 1994): 284-299. Nichols, John and Robert W. McChesney. Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy (New York: The New Press, 2005).Peters, John Durham. “The Marketplace of Ideas: A History of the Concept,” in Andrew Calabrese and Colin Sparks, editors, Toward a Political Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-First Century (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), pp.65-82.

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