9 August 2006: Debasing Freedom of the Press

Liberal label debases freedom of the press

A few weeks back the Bush Administration fired another salvo in conservatism’s ongoing war on the free press when it attacked the NY Times for a story about tracking terrorists despite the fact the Wall Street Journal had reported the same story. It was amusing to see how quickly the Times was thrown overboard for not playing the role of useful idiot like when it printed Judith Miller’s propaganda pieces in the build up to the War on Iraq.

The press was given special protection by the Founders as they understood that a free press should serve as a check and balance on the powers of both the government and special interests such as corporations. What has undercut that idea is corporate ownership of the media. That has been the result of the Fairness Doctrine being done away with by the FCC under Ronald Reagan, aided and abetted by a circumspect ruling by then activist judges Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork.

Conservatives, beginning with President John Adams, have historically considered the free press a threat, preferring a deferential and servile media to serve up its propaganda. Progressives and liberals, on the other hand, cherish the constitutional protection of a free press because it serves as an invaluable source for the “marketplace of ideas,” as noted in the 1969 Supreme Court Red Lion v. FCC decision, thus an essential bulwark in defense of the Republic.

The Fairness Doctrine had its roots in 1927 in the debate over the Radio Act. Rep. Luther Johnson (D.-Texas) prophetically stated, “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations, for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a republic. And when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one person, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership or dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

In Red Lion v. FCC, Justice Byron White wrote: “[S]tation owners and a few networks would have unfettered power to make time available only to the highest bidders, to communicate only their own views on public issues, people and candidates, and to permit on the air only those with whom they agreed. There is no sanctuary in the First Amendment for unlimited private censorship operating in a medium not open to all.” In other words, corporate monopoly and control of the message should be taboo.

Since the Goldwater debacle in 1964, conservatives have been aggressive in doing what they can to circumvent the First Amendment given they cannot outright repeal it. Over the past two decades, dominion over the press has been concentrated into six corporations: News Corporation (Fox), Viacom (MTV), CBS, General Electric (NBC), Disney (ABC), and Time Warner, (AOL, Time, and CNN). Each in turn owns and controls countless other ventures including publishing houses and movie production companies. One other dominant force is Clear Channel Communications that owns hundreds of radio stations across the country including KOA and KHOW in Denver and KBCO in Boulder.

Over the past few years, progressives and objective journalists have fought back. To expose the myth of a “liberal media,” Eric Alterman wrote What Liberal Media? and David Brock produced The Republican Noise Machine. In 2004 Brock founded Media Matters for America to focus attention on the biases, inaccuracies, misleading information, and downright lies put forth both by conservative “journalists” such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Ann Coulter, and by the MSM—the mainstream media. A few weeks ago, the first statewide network, Colorado Media Matters went online to focus on such across our state.

Like purchasing anything else, the same rule applies to how and where you “buy your news”—buyer, beware. Even with usually reliable sources, it helps to apply Reagan’s aphorism about dealing with the Soviets—trust, but verify. Online sources essential to verifying authenticity and truth of news and information include Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): http://www.fair.org/; The Center for Digital Democracy: http://www.democraticmedia.org/; Media Matters for America: http://mediamatters.org/; and of course, Colorado Media Matters: http://colorado.mediamatters.org/.

I like to encourage my readers, “Don’t take my word for it; do your own homework.” Only the survival of the Republic is at stake.

Timely Quote: “If Americans cannot engage in analytical thinking as a result of Republicans’ using fear for their own political purposes, we are all in serious trouble.” From Conservatives Without Conscience, by John W. Dean

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