Free Speech Week: Not a Moment Too Soon

With two and a half months still to go, 2014 has been one of the toughest years on record for freedom of speech in the USA.

In February, for instance, two “climate change” groups collected 110,000 names on a petition they then sent to the Washington Post.  The petition demanded that the Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  In a press release issued by one of the groups, columnists George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and the Volokh Conspiracy blog were singled out by name as “climate change deniers.” Happily, the petition went nowhere, though the Los Angeles Times has adopted an editorial stance similar to what the petitioners demanded of the Post.

In March, Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site, demanded that the producers of an anti-abortion film about convicted abortionist Kermit Gosnell remove from their proposal vivid language about the way Gosnell went about his work. Kickstarter said the language in the proposal went against its “Community Guidelines.”  One day after the producers refused, and loudly took their proposal to another crowd-funding site, Kickstarter said it would allow the proposal, and later said it was amending its guidelines.  Too late.  To date the film has raised over $2 million on the competing crowd-funding site, Indiegogo.

April was an especially busy month for the nation’s speech police.  On April 3, Brendan Eich resigned his position as CEO of Mozilla Corporation.  Eich had been roundly attacked on social media, and by LGBT activists, for a contribution he made six years earlier to California Proposition 8, which sought to establish that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be recognized as valid in that state.

Five days later, on April 8, Brandeis University reversed its decision to award an honorary degree to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, following heated criticism of the award to her by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Arab American Institute.  As a young Muslim woman, Hirsi Ali endured genital cutting and later wrote the screenplay for the film “Submission,” which was critical of the way Muslim women are treated. Defending the decision, the president of Brandeis said that Hirsi Ali was free to come to the campus “to engage in dialogue” but that there is a difference between having a provocative speaker on campus and awarding an honorary degree.

Things proceeded apace in May, with Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde being targets of opportunity for local censors.  The former secretary of state withdrew from a commencement address at Rutgers after student and faculty protesters criticized her role in the Iraq war.  (We can only wonder if, a few years from now, the same students and faculty will protest campus addresses by members of the Obama Administration for their role in the bombing of ISIS.)

And Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as commencement speaker at Smith College following the appearance of an online petition objecting to her role, at the IMF, in strengthening “imperialist and patriarchal systems.”

The media’s own PC patrols were out in June, as the struggling St. Louis Post-Dispatch used its mischaracterization of a George Will column as an excuse to drop the columnist altogether.  Will had argued, in a piece titled “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” that colleges were opening themselves up to litigation in cases where allegations of sexual assault deny due process to those accused.  The paper’s editorial page editor, no friend of conservatives, averred that Will’s column caused hurt among people in the social media and some female friends of his … or that Will was past his prime, take your pick.

The months of July and August were relatively free of such fireworks, presumably because the PC too need a vacation, but the current month has already been marked by more of the same.  On Oct. 6, for instance, Scripps College, a women’s liberal arts institution and one of the five undergraduate colleges that comprise Claremont Colleges, disinvited George Will from delivering an address as part of a program that was designed to bring prominent conservatives to the Scripps campus.

Will’s offense?  The same column he wrote last summer about sexual assault on campus.  In the inscrutable words of the Scripps president: “Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue.  And it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy.”  One assumes, on reading such stuff, that the Scripps president was engaging in some kind of liberal arts equivalent of speaking in tongues.

Interestingly, the Scripps president doesn’t appear to honor the distinction made by the Brandeis president – that there’s a difference between allowing someone to speak on the one hand, and giving that person an award on the other – but who’s to question disagreements between such giants?

Ensuring that October will not go out like a lamb, no matter what happens from now until the end of the month, comes the latest brouhaha, an attempt by the City of Houston to subpoena sermons delivered in five area churches by pastors who oppose passage by the Houston City Council of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).

After the city disqualified a petition by opponents to put HERO to a referendum, some of the petition organizers filed a suit against the city; in response Houston and its pro bono attorneys subpoenaed the sermons and other information from the five churches, though none of the five was among the groups suing the city.

It is (or was) the city’s position that the subpoenas are a legitimate tactic in the discovery process, but since the mayor and the city attorney have now reversed themselves and say that they think the subpoenas are overbroad, it’s not at all clear where this matter will end, most likely in the withdrawal or quashing of the subpoenas.

October 20 begins the start of the annual celebration called Free Speech Week.  As demonstrated by events to date this year, one hopes it will grow and gain traction.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

The WAPO/Koch Brothers/Keystone XL Pipeline Affair

The recent Washington Post story linking the Koch brothers to the Keystone XL Pipeline, via their leaseholds on acreage in the Alberta, Canada, tar sands, is interesting because of what was said in the piece, and because of what its critics have said about it.  But mostly it’s interesting because it’s the kind of flap whose resolution will be an early indication of the kind of editorial product Jeff Bezos wants to own.

In a nutshell, the Post piece, co-authored by reporters Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, ID’d the Koch brothers as “the biggest lease holders in Canada’s tar sands,” and then suggested that this fact would “inflame the already contentious debate about the Keystone XL Pipeline.”  The authors admit that their article was based on a report produced by a leftwing organization called the International Forum on Globalization, and that it was IFG’s executive director who provided the material on which the WAPO article was based.

Curiously, the co-authors also go on to say in the piece that they don’t really know how many acres of land the Kochs own in Canada, or what they are doing there, and that in fact “the link between Koch and Keystone XL is indirect at best.”

Given that all of this is revealed in the first five paragraphs of the article, one could wonder why the piece was written in the first place, not to mention why it then goes on for another 29.  One answer to that question was provided by lawyer John Hinderaker, who published on PowerLine a devastating rebuttal of the Post piece, complete with evidence that the Kochs are not the largest leaseholders in the tar sands, that they have no interest in the Keystone Pipeline, and that in fact construction of the pipeline would actually hurt their financial interests.  Hinderaker also says this:

Why would the Washington Post embarrass itself by republishing a thoroughly discredited attempt to link the Koch brothers to the Keystone Pipeline?  Because that is a Democratic Party talking point, and the Post is a Democratic Party newspaper.

Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jack Kelly picks up on this theme, and concludes with the suggestion that “If Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post’s new owner, wants to run a newspaper rather than a Democrat propaganda sheet, he has some housecleaning to do.”

In the face of this kind of criticism, reporter Mufson replied with one of the strangest nonsequiturs in memory:

The PowerLine article, and its tone, is strong evidence that issues surrounding the Koch brothers political and business interests will stir and inflame public debate in this election year.  That’s why we wrote the piece.  (Emphases added)

As Jonah Goldberg subsequently wrote, “By this logic any unfair attack posing as reporting is worthwhile when people try to correct the record.  Why not just … accuse the Kochs of killing JFK or hiding the Malaysian airplane?”

Beyond the facts in dispute there is also the unseemly matter, as Hinderaker describes it, of Judith Eilperin’s (undisclosed) marriage to a man who writes on climate policy for the decidedly partisan Center for American Progress, something that prompts Hinderaker to also wonder if there was any coordination between Eilperin and CAP, or between her and any Democratic congressmen or staff.

Many people are closely watching the Post these days for any sign of a change in the editorial stance in the paper since Bezos acquired it, and there are those who believe they may have spotted something in the decision of the paper to start publishing the libertarian-leaning Volokh Conspiracy blog (which itself questioned the Mufson/Eilperin piece), and in the paper’s decision to pass on the editorial ambitions of Ezra Klein.

But both of those matters concerned opinion writing rather than news reporting, whereas the Mufson/Eilperin article was published as news.

As mentioned here, it would be a surprise if Bezos bought the Post in order to push any kind of political or ideological agenda, but as a businessman he is known to believe in giving customers what they want.  And if that’s the case the article in question must give him pause.

Put it this way:  When the Post was just a print newspaper, distributed mostly in the greater D.C. area with its large majority of registered Democrats, it made business sense to publish a paper that leaned liberal and Democratic.  But in the digital age the paper has the challenge of appealing to people throughout the country, including Republicans and conservatives, few of whom would be attracted by news stories like that of Mufson and Eilperin.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

The Koch Brothers’ Designs on Cato

Political gift giving, whether in support of candidates for public office or ideologically active nonprofit organizations, is fraught with the risk that activists of a different stripe (or journalists who are themselves of a different stripe) may take offense and retaliate. 

Such has been the experience of the wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David, two long-time funders of libertarian policies, politicians, and organizations who have been attacked without surcease by activists and journalists for about two years.  

In part, of course, attacks on them have happened because they’re easy targets.  As politically active billionaires, the Kochs quite naturally attract attention, and for all its intellectual strengths, libertarianism is a long way from being the “people’s choice.” 

Additionally, the Kochs have borne some of the brunt of the criticism that’s accompanied the Supreme Court’s correct undoing, in its Citizens United decision, of aspects of the McCain-Feingold Act.  From that time to this, advocates of campaign finance “reform” have been shrilly condemning  PACs, and particularly those, like the Koch-controlled Americans for Prosperity, that favor Republicans.

The motives of their critics aside, there have long been aspects of the Kochs’ philanthropy that are tiresome.  Take, for instance, Koch Industries’ and the Koch Foundation’s embrace of what they call “Market-Based Management,” a management philosophy developed by Charles Koch, and one that, it’s claimed, “can provide great value to non-profit organizations.”

A thing of some complexity – MBM features 10 “Principles” and five “Dimensions” – it can seem like about nine principles and four dimensions too many when pushed on grantees.

Now, though, comes the remarkable news that the Kochs have filed a lawsuit against the venerable Cato Institute, something that goes beyond the merely annoying to the virtually incomprehensible.  In a word, they want to take over Cato and fire its president and co-founder, Ed Crane.

To be fair, the Kochs have an important history with Cato.  Like Crane, Charles Koch was also a founder of the think tank, and the Koch Foundation has given millions to Cato over the years.  So if this were simply a management issue – that they wanted to replace Crane with someone else, or put new people on the Board – they’d clearly have the right to propose the idea, and whatever the merits of it, it wouldn’t be seen as an impossibly chowderheaded scheme.

Alas, issues with management are not the apparent reason for their lawsuit.  Instead, the Kochs’ designs on Cato seem to be a desire to more closely align the think tank’s policy analyses with the Kochs’ partisan political efforts, through such as Americans for Prosperity.

Taking advantage of the unusual fact that the nonprofit Cato has “shareholders” with the authority to select members of Cato’s board, the Kochs have lately been attempting to gain a majority among the directors (they already have seven of 16).

In a blog published on the Volokh Conspiracy on March 3, a senior fellow at Cato provided some background by revealing what was said at a meeting in November of last year between a Koch delegation and the chairman of Cato, Bob Levy:

They told Bob that they intended to use their board majority to remove Ed Crane from Cato and transform our Institute into an intellectual ammo-shop for Americans for Prosperity….  They’ve frequently complained … that Cato wasn’t doing enough to defeat President Obama in November and that we weren’t working closely enough with grass roots activists like those at AFP.

During a recent interview, Crane expressed contempt for those of the Kochs’ critics whose motive is political or ideological, even as he spoke of the “insanity” in the Kochs’ attempt to turn Cato into a partisan outfit.  “Were they to do it,” he said, “it would undo overnight 35 years of work and hard-won respect.”

Even though he personally would be a certain casualty if the Kochs succeed in their takeover attempt, Crane betrays little concern about that aspect of the battle at hand.  One might suspect that this is because, after 35 years at the helm of Cato, he’s had a good run, or because, like many of us, he’s reached an age where, professionally speaking, he can see the tunnel at the end of the light.  Or maybe he’s just confident that the Kochs won’t prevail.

Whatever, a few things are clear.  It’s been on Crane’s watch that Cato has grown into a leading U.S. think tank, along the way becoming one of the stoutest defenders of free speech in the country.  And none of that would have been possible if Cato had been perceived as a political front group.

One of Market-Based Management’s "Principles" is humility, described this way: “Practice humility and intellectual honesty.  Constantly seek to understand and constructively deal with reality to create value and achieve personal improvement.”

One wonders how much the Kochs thought about this Principle before they embarked on such an intellectually dishonest and destructive campaign.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Stuart Benjamin: The FCC’s ‘Spectrum Reformer’

Amid their other problems, broadcasters now have a new one: the FCC’s recently appointed Scholar in Residence, Stuart Benjamin, a law school professor at Duke University.  According to an FCC press release, Benjamin will work on “spectrum reform,” among other issues.  The problem that broadcasters have is with some articles written by Professor Benjamin, earlier this year, on that very subject.

One such, “Roasting the Pig To Burn Down the House,” seeks to answer the question being asked by all fair-minded people: “Should we welcome new regulations on broadcasters that will make broadcasting unprofitable?”  And the answer, according to Benjamin, is “yes.”  Or, as he puts it: “Some regulations that would be undesirable standing on their own will be desirable once we factor in the degree to which they will hasten the demise of over-the-air broadcasting.”

In the same piece Professor Benjamin happily acknowledges, in passing, something that broadcasters have argued – namely that some new administrative regulations, like the so-called advisory boards, “could prove fairly costly.”

A few months later, whilst opining on the Volokh Conspiracy blog site, Benjamin gleefully commented on another rueful development, a Supreme Court decision on indecency regulations (FCC v. Fox) that, as he puts it, “makes life worse for local stations” that can’t afford tape delay systems.  As with the added expense of advisory boards, Benjamin sees this too as a good thing.  “Local television broadcasters,” he says, ”have a new disincentive to airing live local events – and viewers have less reason to watch local broadcasters.”

Never mind for a minute that Benjamin’s comments are informed by what he sees as the inevitable collapse of broadcasting (he gives it only about 20 years to live, even without a nudge), and that he sincerely believes that broadcast TV is not the highest and best use of the spectrum.  The remarkable thing is why the FCC would bring aboard, and give this particular portfolio to, someone with Benjamin’s baggage?

It would be funny if it were a joke.  But as one long-time broadcasting executive put it, it raises real questions about the kind of personnel vetting that’s going on at the FCC.  If views like those that Benjamin has published aren’t enough to disqualify him from appointment to the position he’s just been given, what would it take?  A manual on how to poison station managers?

The dust has barely settled on the government’s years-long campaign to engineer TV’s digital conversion – a conversion that many broadcasters think holds great promise for their industry – and along comes this character, as out of some film noir production, whose ghoulish fantasy is to put broadcasters out of the broadcasting business.

Not to worry, though.  Once broadcasting has been polished off, the FCC can focus all its energy on regulating the Internet.