From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?
It is a whispering campaign to counter the harmful -- shall we say “hateful"? -- effects of freedom of speech and the liberty of inquiry. To whom are they harmful and hateful? To President Barack Obama. To his administration. To Congress. To tribal “communities” of every stripe. They know that the truth is out there, about them, about their actions, about their motives, and it must be suppressed. -- albeit without saying that it is being censored. The first evidence of Obama’s true intentions was the overt but clumsy invitation to Americans last summer to report via email to the White House any “fishy” anti-administration talk by other Americans. Obama received a stinging, well-deserved rebuke, one delivered chiefly in the Internet’s blogosphere and which spread like slow molasses to the mainstream media, which did not welcome a rebuke of their copacetic favorite and sometime messiah. The White House’s “rat-on-your-neighbor” site was taken down, but not before first crashing under the weight of countless thousands of retorts from Americans to Obama to mind his own business. But Obama and Company haven’t given up. They and Congress believe their “business” is to “run” the country, and that includes filtering and censoring what Americans read, think, and say. Like Muslims who object to images of Mohammed, their feelings are hurt and their sensibilities offended by criticism and caricature. Negative portrayals of Obama and his administration and his ilk in Congress are considered to be abrasive and secularly “blasphemous.“ Obama’s “approval ratings” are plummeting and Congress’s promise to shatter the floor. It’s all the fault of the First Amendment. It must be emasculated, qualified, and delegitimitized. Their ideological clones in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are assiduously searching for a means to impose censorship without calling it censorship. They are moved by a fear that the Tea Parties and an indiscriminate and unobstructed access to news other than what is reported by the MSM have demonstrated a power that threatens the hegemony of collectivism. They wish to silence anyone and everyone who pursues and exposes the truth. The FTC is casting about for the means to “save” journalism, that is, the journalism it approves of. That is, the Commission is searching for a justification for meddling. It concedes that Internet journalism exists, but by implication discounts it as “true” journalism. After all, it isn’t regulated or subsidized by the government; ergo, its news is highly suspect. What it wishes to do is find a way to bolster “traditional” news coverage and reportage, whatever that may be, for the concept is nowhere defined in its Draft report. They want a captive, obedient electorate as dumbed down and indoctrinated exclusively by government-approved news and government-vetted “journalists,” as hapless and helpless as school children instructed in the ways of Islam and the environment and “Native American” culture, while fed miniscule portions of Howard Zinn-style American history that guarantee children will grow up to be subservient tax-cows and “good,” selfless citizens. One of those means is to tax the blogosphere and force it to subsidize its competitors. Another is to establish a “public fund” to subsidize newspapers, other approved media, and journalists by taxing the broadcast spectrum, consumer electronics, commercial advertising, and cell phone ISPs. Still another is to rewrite IRS rules to better protect newspapers and broadcast stations from the Internet. Nine pages of The Federal Trade Commission Staff Discussion Draft of Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism (the Draft) are devoted to how the IRS can further perpetuate “traditional” journalism (pp. 21-29). Indeed, the IRS plays a heavy-handed role in what may be defined as public interest-oriented news and mere “commercial” news. If The New York Times, for example, claims that it is chiefly a “public service” and can prove it caters to the “public interest,“ while its editorializing is just a sideline, then it qualifies for tax exemptions or credits (in other words, a subsidy or tax break enjoyed by few other papers). If a newspaper’s chief purpose is to promulgate an ideology and is not published by a certified non-profit organization (and it‘s the IRS that decides what is a “non-profit“ organization), then it gets no exemptions or credits. The FTC Draft is essentially a 47-page excursion into fantasy land. Journalism has already “reinvented” itself without any government support. How many newspapers, for example, do not now have free or advertiser-paid or subscriber-paid online daily editions? The only “support” the government can legitimately provide is to stay out of it. The FTC staff discussions, however, created a smorgasbord of policy options to recommend (to whom? Congress? The White House? Cass Sunstein? Henry Waxman?). All of them require government action. Defenders of government action make the specious claim that the government has always been involved in promoting journalism and newspapers. Besides, the Draft assures the public, the report only seeks to prompt discussion of whether to recommend policy changes to support the ongoing “reinvention” of journalism, and, if so, which specific proposals appear most useful, feasible, platform-neutral, resistant to bias, and unlikely to cause unintended consequences in addressing emerging gaps in news coverage. The FTC has only discussed “suggestions,” not concrete plans of action. “These are nothing more or less than information gathering meetings,” says FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan, who adds that the agency has no current plans other than to publish the hearing results this fall. Beyond that, points out Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, protestations aside, government has played a role in encouraging a healthy press from the dawn of the republic. “First, we had an ink subsidy and then we had a postal subsidy both of which helped a free press to flourish,” she says. Yes, Miss Graves, the government played a role in encouraging the press -- by largely not meddling in it except for the “ink subsidy” and the postal subsidy. (I could find no reference anywhere about an “ink subsidy,” unless Graves was referring to a tax break on printer’s ink purchases or to a tariff or excise tax break on its importation.) Much of the Draft seems heavily influenced by the findings and recommendations of a USC/Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study, “Public Policy and Funding the News.” It claims that the Internet and its blogging news reporters have benefited from government investment in development of the Internet, and will benefit again from TARPs I and II. Long before the United States was founded, the Postal Service was subsidizing the news business. It was in good measure the free-mailing privileges conferred by many postmasters that allowed a robust network of colonial newspapers to emerge. George Washington wanted all newspapers, in fact, to have 100 percent subsidized mailing costs. The Postal Act of 1792 rejected the idea of a total subsidy, but it codified highly subsidized and extremely low rates. What brought a halt to publishers’ receiving 75 percent discounts on their mailed news products was the financial crisis that engulfed the Postal Service in the late 1960s.(p. 11) (Italics mine.) These are some of the transparent rationalizations that seek to sanction “public funding” of newspapers, the broadcast spectrum, and the Internet. I italicized the first sentence of this vacuous rationalization because the “Postal Service” could not have predated the country’s founding. There was indeed a British Crown-controlled postal “service” but its purpose was not to foster the growth of colonial newspapers. See the USPS site for clarification of the purpose of the Crown and post-Revolutionary postal services, and Benjamin Franklin’s role in them. And for a history of the development of the Internet and the government’s role in its initial role as a tool of national defense (it did little to develop the commercial potential), go here. It does not follow that if, historically, government had some role in the growth of news communications, it should “monitor” the “reinvention” of it by taking control of it. The Annenberg study offers recommendations as woozy and ill-defined as those in the Draft. As policymakers debate how to respond to the fast decline of the news business, we offer the following principles as guidance: • First and foremost, do no harm. A cycle of powerful innovation is under way. To the extent possible, government should avoid retarding the emergence of new models of news-gathering. • Second, the government should help promote innovation, as it did when the Department of Defense funded the research that created the Internet or when NASA funded the creation of satellites that made cable TV and direct radio and TV possible. • Third, for commercial media, government-supported mechanisms that are content neutral – such as copyright protections, postal subsidies and taxes – are preferable to those that call upon the government to fund specific news outlets, publications or programs. However policymakers proceed, they should do so based on facts rather than myths. The government has always supported the commercial news business. It does so today. Unless the government takes affirmative action, though, the level of support is almost certain to decline at this important time in the history of journalism. (p. 16 ) In short, the study does not question a government role in journalism. It does not specifically oppose regulation of any media. It makes ambiguous suggestions that government “do no harm.” It seems to say: Wait until someone has a brilliant idea and a developed innovation; then you can jump in and control it for the “public good.” Whether or not that would be “doing harm” will be just someone’s subjective opinion. The “public interest” comes first. The FCC is more obviously out to control speech, that is, to prohibit speech it deems offensive, specifically “hate speech.” But, as one blogger pointed out, the protection of “hate speech” is what the First Amendment is all about. No one has ever taken exception to “love speech” or demanded that it be censored. The FCC is mulling over the petition of a collection of various collectivist groups, the “National Hispanic Media Coalition” (NHMC), to “monitor” speech on the radio and on the Internet, with a “view” to regulating its content and intent. But, to regulate or banish “hate speech” -- whose ever definition of the term it may be -- is to regulate or banish all speech. NMHC’s Petition urges the Commission to examine the extent and effects of hate speech in media, including the likely link between hate speech and hate crimes, and to explore non-regulatory ways to counteract its negative impacts. As NHMC has awaited Commission action, hate, extremism and misinformation have been on the rise, and even more so in the past week as the media has focused on Arizona’s passage of one of the one of the harshest pieces of anti-Latino in this country’s history, SB1070. There are forty-one more references to “hate speech” in the petition, the Future of Media and Information Needs of Communities in a Digital Age, while the phrase “hate, extremism and misinformation” appears four times. SB1070, however, is merely a replicant of the U.S. law, which remains haphazardly enforced. Again, nowhere in the petition are hate speech and misinformation defined. Their meanings are up for grabs by the most vocal and “victimized” communities (read tribes, groups, gangs). And, there is no “non-regulatory way” to “counteract” any speech, hateful or not, not without the use of government force. “Counteraction” means action, which means force, which can be either withholding a radio station’s license, or pressure put on a station’s sponsors, or just Hugo Chavez’s thuggish way of “counteracting” hate speech. If “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, the recent Helen Thomas episode has demonstrated one of the practical values of that Amendment: it allows individuals to reveal their philosophy, their morality, and their souls for all to see. One may agree with them, disagree with them, or ignore them. But, readers, viewers, and listeners should keep this in mind if they see anything benign in government regulation of speech: One of its purposes is to rig the airwaves, newspapers, television, and the Internet so that one cannot ignore its own propaganda, or know any truth but what the government says it is. How would one be able to judge or determine the truth? That would entail thinking, which is precisely what the government doesn’t want anyone to do. Just believe, and obey. Paul Hsieh’s article on the FCC and FTC’s “probe” of the media, "Use It or Lose It," outlines the necessary intellectual actions to uphold freedom of speech: If bloggers, independent journalists, and ordinary thinking Americans value our free speech, then we must do the following: 1. We must articulate and defend a proper definition of free speech and of censorship. 2. We must defend free speech on the proper grounds of individual rights, rather than on utilitarian grounds that it promotes some “social good.” This includes defending free speech in principle, even when some people express views we consider odious. For liberals, this includes defending speech they may find bigoted or offensive. For social conservatives, this includes defending speech promoting alternative lifestyles they may find morally repugnant. 3. We must defend the principle of free speech not just in politics but throughout the full range of our culture — including science, art, and philosophy. We must defend the freedom of individuals to criticize another’s scientific or religious views as vigorously as their right to debate banking regulations. “Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom,” wrote Ayn Rand. “Political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries.”* The current administration has made clear its attacks on intellectual freedom, political freedom, and economic freedom. An attack on one has always implicitly meant an attack on the other two. This is what those who would defend the First Amendment must also understand. They must grasp that indivisible integration of freedoms. One cannot uphold freedom of speech to the exclusion of the other preconditions of it, as liberals have done for over a century, which is uphold freedom of speech while advocating the seizure or control of property. Logical consistency required that they now attack what they once defended. Their more ideologically consistent and activist brethren on the Left are only too happy to oblige. *”For the New Intellectual,” in For the New Intellectual (1961). New York: Signet/Penguin Books, p. 25.