When pundits bemoan Donald Trump’s “war on the media,” they’re typically referring to the illiberal sentiments he disseminates in his Twitter tirades and rally rhetoric. And there’s no question that the president’s relentless attempts to undermine all non-progandistic sources of political information — and to demonize those who supply it — are worth bemoaning.
But while Trump’s tweetstorms about “Fake News” were dominating the headlines, his administration was waging a much more concrete and consequential war on the Fourth Estate. Earlier this year, the Commerce Department imposed 22 percent tariffs on imports of Canadian newsprint. The White House claimed that the U.S. had a compelling interest in protecting American paper manufacturers from unfair competition: Since Canada provides its paper exporters with subsidies, America has no choice but to impose duties on their wares.
On Wednesday, the International Trade Commission (ITC) rejected this argument. In an unanimous decision striking down the tariffs, the five-member panel “determined that a U.S. industry is not materially injured or threatened with material injury by reason of imports of uncoated groundwood paper from Canada.”
Alas, the ITC’s ruling came after Trump’s newsprint tariffs had already “materially injured” America’s journalism industry (and, by extension, its democracy).
Of course, America’s small newspapers were in rapid decline before the president’s trade measure went into effect. Between 2004 and 2016, local businesses cut their investments in print newspaper advertisements from $44.4 billion to $12.9 billion, as Facebook and Google cornered the ad market. Nevertheless, regional papers still had farther to fall, and the Trump administration dramatically accelerated their descent. Overnight, the cost of newspapers’ main input increased by as much as 30 percent. For The Tampa Bay Times, the president’s attempt to “protect” American jobs translated into a $3.5 million increase in expected annual printing expenses — and thus, the firing of 50 staffers and elimination of whole sections of the paper.
It is hard to argue that the American people have a greater interest in protecting the profit margins of paper manufacturers, then in sustaining local journalism. Multiple studies have shown that when a city loses its local paper, residents become less knowledgeable about — and active in — local politics. One of the leading researchers on this phenomenon, Lee Shaker of Portland State University, explained its consequences to Wired last year:
“You can kind of see this cascading series of consequences,” Shaker says. Here’s the scenario, as he describes it: “If people don’t get local news, they don’t know what’s going on in their community. If they don’t know what’s going on in their community, they don’t get involved in their community. If they’re not involved in their community, and others aren’t involved in their community, their government may not actually function very well. If people aren’t involved at the local level, and they don’t know what’s going on, and the government’s not performing at the local level, they start to lose trust. And when they start to lose trust, they start to have concerns about whether or not democracy is working, whether the government is working. And those feelings are naturally then extended to the national government.”
It is unclear whether the president understood the implications his newsprint tariffs would have for local journalism when he first put them in place. But everything he’s done since taking office suggests that he would view collateral damage to the Fourth Estate as a feature of his trade policy, not a bug.