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The relentless effort to control the news

By Henry Lamb
web posted June 14, 2010

The Constitution is quite clear:  "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…."  This treasured principle of freedom is unknown in most of the world, and greatly compromised in many nations.  Canada, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Slovenia, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Australia and France, all provide subsidies to the press ranging from $7 billion to $35 billion per year.

The Obama administration, and some in Congress, are looking for ways that government might exert more control over free speech, and particularly, over the press.

Since 1987, when the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned by the Federal Communications Commission, every Democratic majority in Congress has tried to restore it.  Through its power to license broadcast stations, the Fairness Doctrine gave the federal government the power to force radio and television stations to also air content that countered opinions and points of view the government didn't like.  The sad result of the Fairness Doctrine was a chilling effect on all controversial opinions.   Broadcasters simply chose to avoid controversial programming that might invoke an FCC-required Fairness Doctrine response.

A more sophisticated effort is now underway to give government control of the information that is available to the public.

"News" is what newspapers, radio and television, and now, the internet delivers to the public.  "News," it is argued, is what provides the information needed for a free people to make intelligent public policy decisions.  Therefore, "news" is a public good, in much the same way the national defense, and highways are public goods.  Consider the reasoning of University of Illinois Professor, Robert McChesney, in a paper prepared for a Federal Trade Commission workshop:

"The starting point for exiting this dead-end street is the recognition that journalism is best understood as increasingly having the attributes of a public good, not a private good. It is like military defense, physical infrastructure, education, public health and basic research in that regard. It is something society requires, and people want, but the market cannot generate in sufficient quantity or quality. It requires government leadership to exist.  There may be an important role for the private sector, but with public goods the government plays quarterback or the game never starts."

If it is appropriate for government to pay for national defense and highways, then it must be equally appropriate for government to pay for "news."  This is the logic that prevails in Europe, and is being advanced here. 

The argument is reinforced by the fact that the Internet is having a devastating effect on the news-gathering capability of both newspapers and television.  Plummeting advertising revenues have forced dramatic newsroom layoffs across all media.  The Obama Administration, and some Congressmen, are looking for ways that government can save the Republic by assuring that there is an abundance of the right kind of news available to the public.

The Federal Trade Commission, for example, is holding the third in a series of workshops on "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?"  The event will be held June 15 at the National Press Club.  In preparation for the day-long event, the FTC released a 47-page "Discussion Draft" that provides a variety of ideas about how the government may insure the continuation of a healthy news media.

Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory affairs, has also published a lengthy argument for government involvement in the news media.  Some of the ideas he advances are quite consistent with those offered by the FTC.  

What part of "Shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…," do these people not understand?

If there is a demand for news, the free market will meet that demand – unless government gets in the way.  Professor McChesney's conclusion that the market cannot generate sufficient quantity or quality of news is incorrect.  The market is providing a greater quantity, and because of instantaneous fact-checking, a much higher quality of news than ever before. 

The real problem being addressed by this administration and academic double-speak is this: "the media are producing more information to a broader audience about ideas that are not supportive of our progressive-Marxist philosophy and we have to find a way to stop it".

 This administration and Congressional majority have already demonstrated their commitment to expand government control over the market, and over the lives of the people.  Control over the flow of information is essential, if they are to be successful.  Control over the flow of information is a critical step in the construction of a dictatorial regime.  The only way to prevent it is to replace the Democratic majority in Congress with people who honor the Constitution, instead of trying to find ways to ignore it. ESR

Henry Lamb is the author of "The Rise of Global Governance,"  Chairman of Sovereignty International , and founder of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO) and Freedom21, Inc.

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