George Will Hates Government Subsidies for Newspapers, Is He Opposed to the Charitable Contribution Tax Deduction?

February 21, 2024

George Will used his Washington Post column to go on a diatribe against proposals for subsidizing local news outlets. After noting the plunge in the number of local newspapers, and an even sharper drop in the employment of journalists (down two-thirds since 2005), Will attacks the ideas for public support of journalism developed by Illinois Task Force on Local Journalism.

Will lists various forms of proposed subsidies and then tells readers:

“What could go wrong? Everything.

“Soon, government would mandate hiring and coverage quotas for “underrepresented” groups, would enforce government’s idea of editorial “balance,” would censor what government considers “misinformation” about public health, diversity, equity and inclusion, and would dictate all things pertinent to government’s ever-lengthening agenda. The task force’s recommendations — journalism throwing itself into government’s muscular arms — are a recipe for making local news sources as admired and trusted as government is.”

If Will is really this adverse to government subsidies, then it is bizarre that he is not also ranting against government subsidies for cultural institutions, charitable organizations, and churches through the charitable contribution tax deduction. This deduction, which is almost exclusively used by high-income people, allows people to reduce their taxable income by the amount of their contribution.

For a rich person who faces roughly a 40 percent marginal tax rate, this means that the government pays for 40 percent of their contribution. That means if a rich person chooses to give $1 billion to a think tank, a church, or some other qualifying organization, the taxpayers pick up $400 million of the tab, effectively meaning this $1 billion contribution only cost the rich person $600 million.

For some reason, we haven’t seen a George Will rant in the Washington Post against this very large government subsidy. Is he unconcerned that the government will mandate hiring quotas, have diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements and other things he views as evil as conditions for being the tax deduction?

If this is not a concern with the charitable contribution tax deduction, why would it be a concern with other forms of government subsidies for news organizations? In fact, many news outlets, such ProPublica, are now organized as charitable organizations and benefit directly from this tax deduction.

In fact, some forms of subsidies are explicitly modelled on the charitable contribution tax deduction. Proposals in Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington would effectively give each resident a tax credit (e.g. $100) to support the local news outlet of their choice. This is comparable to the tax deduction, except that it would give the same amount to everyone, even people who are not paying taxes.

If Will is comfortable that we can handle the charitable contribution tax deduction without serious abuses, it is difficult to see why he is so confident that a tax credit would be subject to massive abuse. (It’s also worth mentioning that government-granted copyright monopolies are an explicit subsidy, as readers of the constitution know well.)   

Will has an important point in his column. We do want to encourage a press that is independent of government interference. This is a fair warning about how subsidies for local journalism should be structured. However, the track record shows that this turf can be, and is being, navigated well. That could change in the future (Donald Trump has explicitly indicated that he doesn’t give a damn about freedom of the press), but the risks here seem small relative to the potential benefits.


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