Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment

By Sam Brunson

Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name “Johnson Amendment” (and I kind of hope you are—it’s a stupid name), that refers to the phrase in section 501(c)(3) that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. It was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, and inserted into the tax code with little fanfare and no legislative history.

There’s a lot that can (and, in fact, has) been said about Trump’s proposal, which follows up on a campaign promise he made, apparently repeatedly. I wouldn’t doubt if we return to it a few times here at Surly. But I just wanted to point out one potential consequence:

Several years ago, as newspaper circulations declined and there was a lot of hand-wringing about the future of news, some people started thinking about newspapers shifting into the world of tax-exempt organizations. Not all of them, of course, but some of them. (And, in fact, there are a handful of tax-exempt online investigative newspapers, including ProPublica and Voice of San Diego.) In 2009, Senator Cardin even introduced a bill that would have inserted “qualified newspaper corporations” into the list of entities that qualified for tax exemption.

Even with that, it’s unlikely that many newspapers would have gone the tax-exempt route. Why not? The prohibition on endorsements. Newspaper endorsements may or may not have any value (apparently, they don’t make much of a difference on national elections, but may have marginal effects).

Whether or not they’re effective, many newspapers seem to view endorsements as a central part of their missions. From On the Media:

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for most editors. Even those who can see a potential in nonprofit status, they can’t swallow the fact that under your bill, their editorial pages would no longer be able to make political endorsements.

If Trump does in fact get rid of and totally destroy the prohibition on endorsing and opposing candidates for office, a tax-exempt newspaper would not have to give up its traditional endorsements. And if that happened, would newspapers move to the world of tax-exempts?

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