There's so much empty rhetoric spewed these days about American 'values'that words like 'freedom' have all but lost their deeper meaning. The Bush administration's illegal eavesdropping on American citizens and its high-profile attacks on dissent as 'unpatriotic'have been well covered. But there's another assault on fundamental American values underway that you may not have heard about. In fact, although the process that played out earlier this year was, in theory, public, the CityBeat staff caught wind of it only this week, thanks to a segment in Monday morning's Marketplace radio program aired on KPBS.
The issue is how the cost of sending magazines through the U.S. mail is apportioned among the companies that produce them. It isn't as sexy as the perceived choice between terrorism vs. civil liberties, but it's no less important.
You see, the guys commonly referred to as 'The Founding Fathers' had the good sense to prop up the spread of information through artificially low mailing rates. The notion was that representative democracy flourishes when ideas flow freely; democracy dies when only the well-heeled can afford to disseminate information.
Now, midsize magazines, including lefties like The Nation and righties like The National Review, are all lathered up over a new magazine-mailing price structure that, they argue, favors large magazines owned by even larger corporations, threatens the very existence of smaller competitors and might make it impossible for new periodicals to start up. And it's not like their claims are without basis: The Postal Regulatory Commission in February rejected a proposal from staff at the U.S. Postal Service that the critics considered equitable, instead endorsing, with some modifications, a recommendation devised by Time Warner, the largest media company in the world, owner of dozens of mainstream magazines, including People, Sunset, Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Money, Entertainment Weekly, Field and Stream and In Style.
Each of the five members of the PRC was appointed by President Bush, who hasn't been shy about catering to corporate America.
Postal commissioners counter that the new structure rewards companies that find certain efficiencies in the way they bundle, label and distribute their magazines; it's just a way to keep postal costs down, they say, so that ordinary stamp-lickers won't have to bear a larger burden.
But a mega-corporation like Time Warner wouldn't pay lawyers and consultants untold sums of money to come up with a complex postal-pricing scheme if it didn't reduce its costs and harm competitors. And the publishing company McGraw-Hill commissioned a study that concluded that roughly 7,000 small or medium-size publications would see their postal rates increase between 20 and 30 percent. Publishers of The Nation say the new rates will cost them an additional $500,000.
All this would be moot if the mail were open to competition, but it's not. It's a monopoly, so it's the only option for anyone who wants to mass-distribute printed information. Yes, the Internet is available now, but by and large, publishers have yet to figure out how to make money in online publishing, so they rely on the hardcopy for revenue.
The new rates, which will be effective come July, were approved with precious little time for small-scale publishers to figure out how the changes would affect them and to provide thoughtful feedback.
Please contact as many members of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives as possible and urge them to hold hearings on this matter prior to July. At the very least, Congress must reopen the process for scrutiny, to learn why the PRC endorsed Time Warner's recommendation over the Postal Service's and, more importantly, determine whether or not the adopted rates are consistent with this country's mission to encourage the free exchange of news and opinions.