Fact and Opinion

Name a national news organization that commands the respect both of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Can’t do it? Neither can I, but as the head of The Media Institute, and as a citizen, I wish I could.

At a time when there is no governmental institution in America—and scarcely any institution of any kind– that is not the subject of contempt or contention, the news media have a rare opportunity right now to play a meaningful and unifying role, and in the process to do wonders for their own flagging fortunes. But it’s not happening.

The United States today is fairly seething with fear and anger. It is no overstatement to say that many people in this country, left and right, literally hate some of their fellow Americans– a state of mind that will only be exacerbated as the presidential campaign yields a winner, and as the financial crisis takes its inevitable toll. A few years ago I used to say jokingly that I didn’t think the country was up for any more foreign wars, but that I thought there might be an appetite for a good civil war. I don’t think it’s funny anymore.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, and a lot that is right, with opinion journalism. But when, as now, people in large numbers are fearful about the future and questioning what’s best for themselves and for the country, it is as ominous as it is lamentable that we don’t have at least a few national news organizations that are trusted, for their rigorous commitment to thoroughness and objectivity, by people of different political persuasions.

There is no need to define objectivity with mathematical precision; two parts of this to two parts of that. Neither is there any suggestion that objectivity means pleasing everyone, even some of the time. There are, after all, some people–like Marxists on the left and fascists on the right– whose views can’t be reconciled with any strain of objectivity.

But the larger point survives, and is all the more dolorous for those of us whose careers are linked with these organizations, by the fact that this glaring void exists at the same time that the news media are facing a difficult present and a parlous future.

At what better time, and in what better way, could the legacy media demonstrate their continuing and essential value to this country than by recommitting themselves, at this very moment, to a journalistic standard that strictly adheres to objectivity in the gathering and reporting of the news?


Political Reporters, the Economy, and the Presidential Race

In 1991, the Greek-owned cruise ship Oceanos sank off South Africa’s eastern coast. All of the crew, including the captain, abandoned ship before many of the passengers got off, leaving them to the safekeeping of the shipboard entertainers.

Watching the presidential candidates mumble and fumble their way around the country’s financial mess, it’s hard not to feel as those passengers must have felt—abandoned and alone, and every man for himself.

In fact, though, the more astute will have felt that way for some time. This, because though you wouldn’t know it from the stories filed by this country’s political reporters, the nation’s financial agony isn’t something that just sneaked up on us in the last few weeks.

From the extraordinarily high price of commodities like oil and gold, to the drying up of business and consumer credit, to the collapse of the housing market, to the sinking value of the dollar against foreign currencies, to the erratic and downward spiraling action in the equity markets, the U.S. economy has been sending out SOS signals for at least a year.

Like the presidential candidates, though, political reporters have been serving up economic mush, when they haven’t ignored the economy altogether in favor of “horse race” stories.

It’s in this environment that John Harris and Jim Vanderhei, co-founders of Politico, accuse Obama and McCain of putting on a bad show. “Tuesday’s debate,” they say “was a look through the wrong end of the telescope. Men with fascinating biographies seemed conventional.”

No argument with that assessment here. But then they come up with this: “Both Obama and McCain were once cult-of-personality candidates, running on their inspirational personal biographies and reformist profiles more than on their policy records.” D’ya think?

In my lifetime there have never been two candidates more uncritically acclaimed by the media. No Republican politician has ever gotten the kind of press coverage that (prior to this campaign) McCain received. And as for the press coverage of Obama, well, to say it’s been fawning is like saying that an eon lasts awhile.

So as the country’s staggering economic problems cast a giant shadow across the land–and in the process reduce the two presidential candidates to dwarflike proportions—it seems kind of late in the day for political reporters to blame the candidates for their lack of substance, much less because they no longer seem “inspirational.”

Journalists have had innumerable chances, over a long period of time and in an eerily declining economy, to explicate and challenge the presidential candidates’ economic policy views. Why haven’t they?

Pining for the candidates lost allure, Harris and Vanderhei close their article with this: “Obama and McCain are men with large life stories, asking to lead the country at a large moment. With one more debate to go, could someone turn the telescope around?”

Perhaps a better question would be when political reporters are going to turn that telescope on themselves.


The Good and the Bad of It

Because, as they say on TV news promos, "you need to know," herewith some thumbnail opinions of certain journalists and media outlets:

Daily Kos—Not since the Ku Klux Klan started wearing sheets has anonymity been put to a more malevolent use. If you worry only about the right, spend a little time reading the anonymous posts here and see if you still feel that way.

Drudge Report—If anyone had told you, back in the day, that Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report were destined to become the news leader in American journalism, would you have believed it? Well, you should have, because these days that is not only the fact, it’s the acknowledged fact. News organizations from the great to the obscure fall all over themselves trying to get a link to one of their stories on the Drudge Report. As Drudge himself says, “they kiss the ring.”

Christopher Hitchens—The scourge of all things politically correct, and a very entertaining writer. Wrong about a number of things, but who cares?

Charles Krauthammer—Smart, clever, serious.

Mainstream media (generally speaking)—In immediate and urgent need of more (and more prominently displayed) economic reporters. Looking back on the financial crisis gripping the country at this time, historians will marvel at the shallowness of the media coverage of it. In significant part this is owing to the fact that the media have too many political reporters covering economics and not enough economic reporters covering politics (or economics).

Keith Olbermann—If he’s not deliberately channeling Howard Beale he gives a good impression of it.

Politico—Though its coverage of politics is devoid of anything even remotely artful and features an overabundance of “horse-race” analyses, this relatively new journal is already the best in class. The online version is updated frequently, including on weekends, and taken as a whole its political slant is neither pronounced nor off-putting.

RealClearPolitics—One of the best of the political news aggregators, though they provide too many links to the same few (and politically predictable) sources. The greater value is found in their links to less familiar outlets, including blog sites, and in their own contributors like Jay Cost.

Robert Samuelson—Though he writes impressively about many things, Samuelson’s greatest strength is his understanding of economics. His pieces last month and this about the financial crisis are far and away the best things written on that subject by anyone at the Washington Post.

Tom Shales—In the way that some people are said to have a perfect ear, Shales has a perfect eye. His take on everything from speeches to TV shows is almost always spot on, and the class of the field. Unfortunate, therefore, that he occasionally wanders into matters of politics and policy. Note to Tom: Don’t do it. You’re not good at it, and it diminishes you even to make the effort.

Slate—Not perfect but a serious place for serious people, and marked by terrific writing. If the Washington Post, which owns Slate, were more like it, it would be a fresher and more widely admired newspaper.

George Will—The best of the commentariat. Made his journalistic bones, so to speak, during the Nixon regime where, second perhaps only to Woodward and Bernstein, he was the leading critic of that Administration. Though a conservative Republican, not averse to taking on conservatives and Republicans, as seen in his recent scathing criticism of John McCain (McCain Loses His Head). One of the very few journalists (Robert Samuelson being another) with a broad understanding of the speech clause of the First Amendment.


Fairness Doctrine: The Talk Goes On

The Fairness Doctrine, or at least talk of a reimposed Fairness Doctrine, just won’t go away.  It was finally killed off in 1987 but the current Democratic Congress has been making periodic noises about bringing it back.

The big question now seems to be what would happen under a President Obama.  Would he actively support a return of the doctrine?  Would he accede to a Congress controlled by his Democratic friends who put a Fairness Doctrine bill in front of him?  Would he dare (or bother) to go against his congressional allies and veto such a bill?

All we know for sure has been ferreted out by the hard-working John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable.  He reported back on June 25 that Obama’s press secretary, Michael Ortiz, told him that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," and that the candidate sees the issue as “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."

On Sept. 18, however, George Will opined that an Obama-led government would bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  Will wrote:

“Until Ronald Reagan eliminated it in 1987, that regulation discouraged freewheeling political programming by the threat of litigation over inherently vague standards of ‘fairness’ in presenting ‘balanced’ political views.  In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide.  Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats.  Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives’ dominance.”

Will’s comments have stirred the pot once again, particularly among right-leaning blogs where much of the speculation and hand-wringing takes place.

In support of Will’s assertion are two factors.  The first is that Obama need not actively support a reimposition of the doctrine to sign a bill pushed by his fellow Democrats.  The second is that his press secretary also told Eggerton that Obama supports “media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets" – in other words, the traditional Democratic media-policy platform in which the Fairness Doctrine plank would fit snugly.

The Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea for a lot of reasons.  It should be allowed to rest in peace.  Sen. McCain gets that, and has co-sponsored legislation to keep it dead.  Sen. Obama says he opposes a new Fairness Doctrine.

Yet George Will can be a hard person to bet against.  In the case of Obama and the Fairness Doctrine, however, I’m hoping Will is wrong.

A Matter of Trust

We’ll know soon whether the proposed Google-Yahoo! advertising deal will be challenged by the Department of Justice. Certainly there are signs, most notably the hiring of antitrust litigator Sanford Litvack, that it may do so.

But figuring out what is, and is not, in restraint of trade is kind of tricky these days.  In 2002, antitrust concerns derailed the merger of DirecTV and Echostar, a union that would have reduced the number of satellite TV companies from two to one.  Yet just this summer, the two companies that comprise the whole of the satellite radio industry were allowed to merge.

So the opinions that follow aren’t informed by any special knowledge of what the DOJ will do, or even by the factors that will carry the greatest weight within that agency.  By whatever market analysis the DOJ employs, the deal that some refer to as GooglyHoo either will or will not be allowed to go forward.

The question being addressed here is narrower.  It is what the deal might mean to online publishers.  Because of the inherent uncertainties in a deal not yet consummated, much less experienced, we don’t have all the facts.  But there’s a difference, as someone once said, between a lack of complete knowledge and a complete lack of knowledge.  We don’t know everything about GooglyHoo, but we know enough to be worried.

Importantly lurking in the background of this matter is the parlous state of journalism and the legacy media.  In the introduction to its State of the News Media 2008, here is how the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) put it: “The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not strictly be loss of audience.  It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising….  Online, the problem is that the revenue model is in search, not conventional, advertising — and journalism sites are now already lagging behind other Internet sectors financially.”

In a Perspectives piece published by The Media Institute earlier this week, attorney Stephen Kinsella suggests a number of ways in which the Google-Yahoo! ad deal could harm the interests of publishers.  Most directly, he says the deal would mean that “online publishers will earn less revenue from their search syndication and contextual advertising deals.”

“Google and Yahoo!,” Kinsella notes, “are currently the two major players in syndicated search and contextual advertising, and compete with each other for these deals with online publishers.  This competition is what pushes both companies to offer more advantageous terms to online publishers.  A Google-Yahoo! agreement will weaken Yahoo!’s competitiveness in bidding for these deals, simply because Yahoo! will have fewer of its own ads to serve as advertisers increasingly migrate away from Yahoo!’s higher prices following the implementation of the deal.”

A similar argument was made by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).  On Sept. 15, this umbrella organization for some 18,000 newspapers worldwide asked competition authorities in Europe and North America to block the deal, saying it would have a negative impact on the ad revenues that the search firms provide to newspapers.

Quoth the WAN: “The competition that currently exists between Google and Yahoo! is absolutely essential to ensuring that our member titles receive competitive returns for online advertising on their sites….  In our view, the proposed advertising deal between Google and Yahoo! would seriously weaken that competition, resulting in less revenues and higher prices for our members.”

Concerns about the prospective anti-competitive effects of the deal have also been expressed by the leading U.S. advertising association, the Association of  National Advertisers, and with less vigor by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

The concerns and objections raised by these individuals and organizations do not, of course, prove that the Google-Yahoo! ad deal would be ruinous to online publishers, or that the deal would mark the beginning of the end for Yahoo!.  But given the current state of the legacy media, and their future reliance — if they have a future — on online advertising, it is not surprising that this deal has alarmed many people.

Judging by some of its business practices and policy positions, as posted here in July, Google the company (as distinguished from Google the search engine) disappoints in many ways.  And at the end of the day this disappointment, if shared, may be a matter of some moment.  Because given the opacity and potential harm of this proposed deal, the question of support for it may come down to a matter of trust.  And the view from here is that Google hasn’t earned that trust.

Journalists, and the future of the media. Part II

From Johannes Gutenberg to the dawn of the Internet, the press (or the media as we now call it) has been characterized by two things: It has been one-way, and it has flowed from the few to the many.  Comes now the Internet, where everyone’s a publisher/broadcaster, and all that has changed.

As we’re seeing already, tomorrow’s media will be two-way and many to the many.  (And a generation from now, when Virtual Reality is prevalent, many to the few as well.)

A change so fundamental poses real challenges to professional journalists, because in the age of user-generated content — whether in the form of blogs, or social networking sites, or YouTubian video creations, or who knows what — many of the “stars” are likely to be what we used to think of as the audience.

In this tumultuous new world, professional journalists will not only have to share the stage with amateurs, they will have to put up with their slings and arrows, and even to defer to them in those instances, which will be legion, where some amateur’s expertise or diligence on a given subject is greater than that of the professional journalist.

And there is one other thing.  As we see even now, all of the amateurs will have opinions, and some will be able to express them very well.

Given all of this, one might ask who will want to be a professional journalist, and what, exactly, will be the role of one?  Though no one knows for sure, the answer to that last question may lie in the advantages available to the professionals.

Because they have financial resources, whole departments of reporters, vast networks of contacts, and the best equipment, professional journalists have now, and will continue to have, something the amateurs don’t — the ability to engage in the practice of gathering and reporting the news.

It follows from this that the media of the future may put a greater emphasis on thoroughness and objectivity, not necessarily out of high-mindedness or J-schoolish exhortations, but because this kind of reportage, unlike opinion and analysis, is something only they can do.

If this is in fact the future of journalism, it will mark a return to a journalistic standard that’s lately  been honored more in the breach than the observance, and it will be another example of how great societal benefits often derive from the pursuit of self-interest.

Journalists, and the future of the media. Part I

“Ladies and gentlemen, The Network News Hour with Sybil the Soothsayer … Jim Levitt and his Almost Truth Department … Ms. Madahare and her Skeletons in the Closet…. Tonight, another segment of Vox Populi….  And starring the mad prophet of the airwaves: Howard Beale!”  (From the movie “Network,” 1976)

Everyone of a certain age remembers the story of the unhinged anchorman, Howard (“I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it any more”) Beale.  Examples abound that playwright Paddy Chayefsky was onto something.  Keith Olbermann comes to mind – and all the more so after MSNBC took the highly unusual step of removing him from his anchor post for being too far over the top.  Where journalism is untethered to standards of professionalism, and ratings are all, journalism suffers.

But the sullying effect of entertainment values on journalism is well understood.  The thing that’s less well understood, and a much more intractable problem, is the role of journalists in the decline of journalism.

From their tiny and parochial grasp of the speech clause of the First Amendment, to their growing embrace of opinion rather than objectivity, to their response to all things Internet, the performance of much of the national press corps these days seems – to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Muggeridge – like the antics of an exhausted stock.

Journalists’ knowledge of and support for the First Amendment can be measured by the things they promote and the things they do not. They favor access to government information, the right not to have to reveal their sources, and weak libel laws.  And leaving room for a little quibbling around the edges, all of these are good things.  But note the parochialism.  Journalists want access to information in the same way, and for the same reason, that fishermen want access to nets.  The point being that, whatever the intrinsic public good, and it’s manifest, access to information is a practical need of journalists.

But what about the speech needs of people who are not journalists?  Like the commercial speech of advertisers of legal products?  Or the speech of college students, circumscribed by campus speech codes?  Or the political speech of groups or individuals who, close to the date of federal elections, wish to make political arguments through issue ads?  Or, even within the industry, of the right of media companies not to have to yield to onerous and government-mandated “public interest” obligations?

On these and other First Amendment issues, far too many journalists are silent if, as with campaign finance reform, they aren’t actually on the other side.

Controversy over media coverage of this year’s extraordinary presidential election campaign opens a window on another journalistic sore spot, the twinned issues of objectivity and media bias.  In an article dated 9/3, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observed, without a hint of irony, that “denouncing the news media as biased plays well with many Republican voters.”

A similar observation was made the next day in an article in the New York Times. “If there is one mission Mr. McCain wants to accomplish at his convention,” it says, “it is to galvanize conservative voters who have shown signs of depression this year.  Traditionally, one surefire way to do that has been to attack the ‘elitist’ mainstream news media.”

But whether we’re talking about conservatives, who represent maybe one-third of the country, or Republicans who, at least at election time, represent half, the obvious question is why do they feel this way?  Why is it that attacking the media is a “surefire” way to galvanize Republicans and conservatives?  In all the years that I’ve been watching presidential campaigns, I don’t ever recall reading a similar line about Democrats, or about liberals for that matter.

It’s true, of course, that there are people to the left of liberals who are critical of the media.  But the great divide in American political life isn’t between Republicans and conservatives on the one hand, and Marxists and leftists on the other. It’s between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.  And thus, when journalists suggest, as they have for decades, that the existence of critics on the left as well as the right proves that their efforts are balanced, they miss the pregnant truth by a mile and persuade no one.

At what may be a tipping point for all of the professional media, isn’t this a problem that the industry should redress?  Is there any other industry that, upon hearing that half of their market feels they’re being dissed, wouldn’t move to correct, or at least ameliorate, that problem?

Of course the media are different from other industries in another way too.  Owing to the “firewall” erected over time between the journalistic “product” and the management of the companies that own that product, the news industry is the only one in which corporate management exercises little control over what its writers, reporters, and editors produce – little control, in other words, over their very products.

So with management hamstrung by the firewall convention, who is willing and able to mind the store, so to speak?  Certainly not those institutions that exist to fund, study, promote, and chronicle contemporary journalism.

Of the handful of foundations – like the Knight Foundation – that routinely provide funding for journalism-related programs at universities and nonprofit organizations, all share a mindset, whatever their funding priorities, that can be characterized as Old Newspaper.  As such, they cling to journalistic notions that are outdated, uninformed, and fundamentally irrelevant.  And what is true of the foundations is true, and then some, of the rest of the journalism infrastructure: TV critics, media reporters, ombudsmen, and the journalism reviews.

If, as they say, war is too important to be left to generals, perhaps it’s not too much of a reach to say that journalism is too important to be left to journalists.

Next: The Internet and its growing impact on journalism.

Sheer Lunacy: Taxing the Technologies of Freedom

Imagine that someone came up with an idea to solve the “problem” of information overload (a.k.a. “too much information”) by levying a tax on the technologies that have sparked our information explosion.  Making it too expensive for many people to blog or otherwise send and receive information through digital and Internet-based technologies would not only reduce a lot of superfluous, self-indulgent electronic clutter, but would reverse the fragmentation of opinion threatening our democracy, the theory would go.

Well, someone has come up with just such a scheme.  An environmental attorney named Dusty Horwitt published his incredibly outlandish idea in the Aug. 24 Outlook section of the Washington Post.  (“If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?”)  He proposes a “progressive energy tax” that would “make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.”

Anyone who has the faintest sensibility about the free flow of information must find this notion not only preposterous, but repulsive.

Forget, for a minute, that such a scheme would be utterly unworkable.  (How, for instance, would the government tax the electricity going into your computer differently than the electricity keeping the beer in your refrigerator cold?)  And we’ll leave it to our economist friends like Harold Furchtgott-Roth to point out the fatal flaws from an economic standpoint.

From a First Amendment perspective, Mr. Horwitt’s proposal is simply horrendous.  Restricting the means of disseminating information is tantamount to restricting information itself.  And information is speech, almost all of which is protected from government interference by the First Amendment. 

It is freedom of speech, and the free flow of information, that distinguishes the United States from China, totalitarian regimes, and most third-world countries.  Restricting the availability of information is a totalitarian tactic that is the antithesis of democracy, not something undertaken in support of it, as Mr. Horwitt alleges. 

Under Mr. Horwitt’s scheme, who would decide how much information was enough? Perhaps we would need a Ministry of Information to make those decisions.  And if the quantity of information were regulated, would the regulation of content be far behind?

In an earlier age, maybe Mr. Horwitt would have favored a stiff tax on printing presses and newsprint.  It’s no coincidence that the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, because taxing the means of producing speech was a form of government coercion they found utterly repugnant. 

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mr. Horwitt never mentions the First Amendment or acknowledges any constitutional concerns about his proposal.  I don’t see how his scheme could possibly pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s O’Brien test, for instance.  Taxing speech isn’t the same as taxing cigarettes or gasoline.

The technologies that Mr. Horwitt would like to tax into oblivion, or at least into submission, are the latest iteration of what Ithiel de Sola Pool famously called the “Technologies of Freedom.”  Give me my newspaper and my traditional radio and TV, but also give me the rollicking, raucous world of the blogosphere, satellite and Internet radio, hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, and the incredible wealth of information available on the Web.  These are today’s “technologies of freedom” that make our democracy what it is. 

How could anyone be fearful of “too much information”?  Information is the lifeblood of democracy, and the more the better.  The idea of restricting speech by taxing the messenger is repulsive indeed.    

Conservatives and the Media

For maybe 50 years, self-described conservatives have been alienated from the dominant U.S. media — the Big Three TV networks, big-city newspapers, the national newsweeklies.  This alienation of a group that comprises as much as a third of the electorate has provided opportunities for such as talk radio companies, and the FOX News Channel, to pick up the pieces.

And even on the Internet conservatives are having success.  They may not have the political influence on the Republicans that the “netroots” have on the Democrats, but websites like the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics are highly influential and display a clearly discernible right-of-center profile.

With this kind of success — owing entirely to the marketplace and deregulation — one would think that conservatives would be very chary about doing anything that might invite government control over media content.  And perhaps some are, but the loudest voices belong to those whose actions and agenda invite precisely this.

Take, for instance, the empire created by L. Brent Bozell.  From entertainment programming to journalism, the House that Brent Built gives voice to a brand of conservative criticism that spans issues from “broadcast indecency” to “liberal media bias.”

And if this were all that they did, there would be no qualms here about the Bozell-founded Parents Television Council (PTC) or his Media Research Center.  Media criticism, after all, is itself free speech.  But it isn’t all that they do.  Through organized letter writing campaigns, position papers, and filings at the FCC, the PTC actively encourages both legislative and regulatory action against “broadcast indecency.”

That this position contradicts one of the central tenets of modern conservatism — the imperative of limited government — is something that Bozell himself has acknowledged to be a conservative critique of his organization.  Alas, inconsistency (some would call it hypocrisy) of this sort does not weigh so heavily on the gentleman as to cause him to reconsider.

Like the late Reed Irvine, another conservative media critic who came before him, Bozell apparently believes that government regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  In Irvine’s case, the classic example of this was his support of the Fairness Doctrine.  Irvine believed that, without the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives would be bereft of any influence over the liberal sensibilities of broadcast journalists.  Of course we now know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the dominance in talk radio not of liberals but of conservatives!

In demonstration of the tenacity of history, this same Fairness Doctrine may yet prove to be Brent Bozell’s undoing too.  This, because these days all the talk, endorsed by such as the Speaker of the House, is of the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Through the Media Research Center, Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against any such plan, but because of the pro-regulation stance of his PTC there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.

Oh, he will, one assumes, be able to organize a letter writing campaign, but such campaigns don’t equate  with credibility in the same way, and for the same reason, that power doesn’t equate with integrity.

Is China Big Enough for Free Speech?

The Olympics are now in full swing in Beijing after a spectacular opening ceremony that displayed many of the Chinese people’s finest attributes.  The Chinese government and free speech, however, are another matter.

Our friend Kurt Wimmer has written an excellent piece for us on this topic titled “The Beijing Olympiad: A Fleeting Opportunity for a Freer China.”  Kurt notes that by July, Chinese officials had imprisoned almost 50 Chinese writers whose opinions the government found subversive or threatening.  And the clampdown was not limited to native Chinese.
Western journalists were ordered out of the ravaged Sichuan province following the earthquakes there, and at least 10 foreign journalists covering Tibet have had their lives threatened since March.  Meanwhile, the “Great Firewall of China” blocks access to Internet content that criticizes the government, lest Chinese citizens hear anything untoward about their leaders.

The drumbeat continued in the days just prior to the games with stories about journalists denied access, activists deported, and even the U.S. press corps plane being delayed for a baggage search.  Subtlety is not in the playbook of Chinese censors, from all indications.

Still, Kurt finds a glimmer of hope in all of this.  If the United States and other nations can bring enough media pressure to bear, perhaps the will of the Chinese people can prevail and usher in a new era of greater transparency, he says. 

It’s a big “if,” as Kurt acknowledges.  There are no guarantees that free speech will take root just because the Chinese are hosting the Olympics.  But as the Games focus the world’s attention on China, they do provide an opportunity – however fleeting – to begin a process that could just lead to greater freedom of speech and press.