The (Il)liberal Critics, Part II

Unless you hang in the fever swamps of the hard Left, you’re probably not aware that the group calling itself Free Press hosted last weekend the fourth annual National Conference for Media Reform.  Like the name of the host organization,  “media reform” is more a euphemism than a description of the group’s real agenda.  Mostly, what they’re interested in is using government to yoke the media — broadcasting in particular — to their ideology.

And what an ideology it is!  The president and founder of Free Press is one Robert McChesney, a professor of “communications” at the University of Illinois.  And he writes books. His latest, published by the book-publishing arm of what Wikipedia calls “an independent Marxist journal” (Monthly Review, of which McChesney was co-editor from 2000 to 2004), is titled The Political Economy of Media (PEM).

I recently sprang for the purchase of PEM because I saw that the good professor had written a chapter about the First Amendment.  Titled “The New Theology of the First Amendment: Class Privilege Over Democracy,” this chapter reveals, in remarkably transparent language, how real is the threat to the First Amendment from the Left.

But judge for yourself.  Herewith, some of McChesney’s observations on the subject, in a chapter that deals primarily with his unhappiness with the ACLU for its advocacy of what he characterizes as “extensions” of the First Amendment:

"In the hands of the wealthy, the advertisers and the corporate media, the newfangled First Amendment takes on an almost Orwellian caste.  It defends the right of the wealthy few to effectively control our electoral system, thereby taking the risk out of democracy for the rich, and making a farce of it for most everyone else.  These semi-monopolistic corporations that brandish the constitution as their personal property eschew any public service obligations, and claim that public efforts to demand them violate their First Amendment rights, which in their view means their unimpeded ability to maximize profit regardless of the social consequences….

"The job for progressives and activists, then, is to raise holy hell about our corrupt electoral system and our bogus corporate media system, and make it a key target of a social movement that takes direct aim at social inequality and class privilege….  And in the process of doing so we need to pressure the ACLU to return to its roots as a force for justice and democracy, or expose it as a liberal fig leaf for plutocracy."
 
PEM features more of the same — lots more — but you get the idea. The class struggle, the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie, the whole nine yards.  So the question you may be asking is why?  Why even mention Free Press or Robert McChesney? It’s not, after all, as though views such as his, or missions like that of Free Press, hoary and ludicrous though they are, are all that rare among academics in the liberal arts, or among left-wing activist organizations.

Sorry to say, the explanation is that Free Press is gathering strength among policymakers and regulators, many of whom (one hopes) are unaware of the group’s ideological underpinnings.  This, because the mainstream press have told us virtually nothing about the organization.  No I-teams or investigative reporters; no “following the money trail” here.  Though the group was only formed in 2002, it is these days accorded a matter-of-fact acceptance by mainstream journalists that is breathtaking.

Though Free Press is said to be the beneficiary of substantial funding from George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator and serial hypocrite, you can’t prove it by anything either party has divulged.  The only clue, shown in an IRS filing, is that the Soros-funded Open Society Institute is listed as a contributor.

Through its lobbying arm, the Free Press Action Fund, the group worked the halls of Congress recently in an ongoing campaign to undo the modest liberalization of media ownership rules recently enacted by the FCC.  And just last weekend, two FCC Commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, were featured speakers at the above-mentioned National Conference for Media Reform.

If, as appears to be the case, liberalism in the U.S. is on the rise, it’s going to be interesting, and perhaps of some moment, to see how, and in what ways, liberals deal with hard Left activists like the Free Press crowd.

The (Il)liberal Critics

One of the most underreported stories in the country today is the extent to which media bashing–formerly the almost exclusive preserve of conservatives–is these days being waged by liberals and leftists.

From blogs like DailyKos and the Huffington Post, filled to the gunwales with attacks on “corporate media,” to “media reform” groups like Free Press, Media Matters for America, and the Orwellianesque  FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), liberal activists are sounding and acting more and more illiberal. Indeed, they sound and act like conservatives.

Hardly a day goes by that at least one of them fails to fault the mainstream media for their coverage, or non-coverage, of some issue in which they have an ideological investment. And when that’s not enough they don’t hesitate to call on policymakers for laws or regulations they think would help promote their political views.

In this and in other ways, the Left’s assault on the media is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Right. The conservative Parents Television Council petitions the FCC for sanctions on TV indecency; the left-leaning Free Press petitions the FCC to stop media consolidation. Media Matters purports to expose “conservative misinformation” in the  media; the Media Research Center “leads in documenting, exposing, and neutralizing liberal media bias.”

Both sides incorporate “content analysis” as a research tool, and both organize letter-writing campaigns aimed at Congress and the FCC.

But it’s the rise of liberal media bashing that is the newer and more worrisome thing, because liberals have a past history of tolerance for free speech.

The transparent lie among all organized media bashers is that their attacks are objective and selfless. They are not. Ideologues see the media as a kind of blackboard on which to write and spin their political opinions. This, and nothing else. Not fairness. Or accuracy. Or a free press.

Cross Ownership: That ’70s Show in the Senate

There they go again. No, not the FCC.  This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.  The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.

In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.

The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions.  The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”

There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way.  Could the reason be political?  Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups.  The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is.  Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil.  But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival. 

Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public.  The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.

It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity.  The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands.  It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod. 

Where Are the First Amendment Champions?

First Amendment advocates must acknowledge a stark reality:  Too many players in the new generation of digital media either do not understand the First Amendment, or think the First Amendment is irrelevant to their piece of the digital action, or both.    
   
This is a dangerous situation because these digital gurus are the future of America’s media.  Are they eager to uphold constitutional principles like freedom of speech?  No.  Their interests revolve around technological innovation, software and hardware applications, content availability, distribution platforms, consumer acceptance, cost per unit … business considerations wherein technology and the marketplace trump policy concerns.  What does this bode for the future of free speech and free press as we know it?
   
Right now, the equipment manufacturers appear to be the standard bearers for the First Amendment rights of the new media.  Their Washington reps at the Consumer Electronics Association aren’t afraid to invoke free-speech arguments in policy circles.  But even within this industry, and certainly among the new media generally, we have yet to see emerge an entrepreneur or company head willing to lead the First Amendment fight in the way that William Paley championed freedom of speech in an earlier era.
   
We need a new generation of First Amendment champions.  They must, of necessity, be recruited widely from the ranks of the new media.  Before they can be champions, however, they must be educated about the First Amendment.  They must realize that the First Amendment will prove utterly and crucially relevant to all manner of digital media in coming years.  And they must be willing to embrace our cherished constitutional guarantee of free speech and free press as their unqualified ally.  

Taking Care of Business

The challenges facing broadcasting as an industry have been told so often there’s no need to recite them all here. Unfortunately, broadcasters’ understandable focus on business issues is being offered up by some as an excuse for doing little to protect the First Amendment, even in matters directly related to broadcasting, like FCC v. Fox Television Stations.

There’s no doubting the industry’s need for communications policies–in areas like ownership, public interest obligations, and carriage– that are broadcaster friendly. But that is emphatically not a good reason for broadcasters to diminish the fervor with which they promote their own, and everyone’s, freedom of speech.

Just the opposite. As policymakers consider laws and regulations governing things commercial and technological, it is all the more important that broadcasters rigorously defend constitutional principles, lest they too be swept up in the general mayhem.

Going forward, broadcasters are going to be much more in the content business than the signal distribution business. And as the Internet, like cable and satellite before it, takes on more content distribution (including broadcast content) it is going to be very important for broadcasters to be free to incorporate programming that they think best.

This is exactly what is at stake in the Supreme Court’s review of the FCC’s crackdown on indecent speech.  The FCC is looking to impose content controls on broadcasters that they would not, and cannot, impose on the Internet. This, despite the fact that actual pornography, as distinguished from “fleeting expletives,” is ubiquitous on the Net.

Broadcasting faces a commercial and technological future with which it may, or may not, be able to adapt. But there is no scenario under which broadcasting survives if its content is controlled by government, or dictated by special interest groups masquerading as “media reformers.”