By Adam Thierer
In the battle over media and communications freedom, no group poses a more serious threat to a free and independent press than the insultingly misnamed regulatory activist group Free Press. Along with their founders, the prolific neo-Marxist media theorist Robert W. McChesney and Nation correspondent John Nichols, Free Press has engaged in relentless agitation for a truly radical media and communications policy agenda, and their influence is now spreading throughout the Obama Administration.
The Free Press-McChesney blueprint for media “reform” reads more like a script for State servitude. On the regulatory side, they call for media ownership restrictions, “localism” mandates, “Net neutrality” regulations, price controls on broadband, advertising and copyright restrictions, and layers of additional regulatory edicts. Once all that red tape smothers the life out the independent press and private communications providers, they plan to have the State step in become the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate and high-tech infrastructure. For starters, McChesney and Nichols advocate a $35 billion annual “public works” program for the press modeled after the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era. Their media WPA would include a “News AmeriCorps” for out-of-work journalists, a “Citizenship News Voucher” to funnel taxpayer support to struggling media entities, a significant expansion of postal subsidies, a massive new subsidy for journalism schools, corporate welfare for newspapers sufficient to pay 50 percent of the salaries of all “journalistic employees,” municipal government ownership of press and infrastructure, and many more bureaucratic programs.
Using its growing lobbying muscle in Washington, Free Press seeks to enshrine the McChesney-Nichols blueprint into law at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under the guise of a “National Journalism Strategy,” a veritable industrial policy for the press that resembles a Soviet-style five-year plan. They also want a “Public Media Trust Fund,” to make sure all the money they confiscate from private providers goes to public-subsidized competitors. Average citizens would be in for some sticker shock, too, since Free Press and McChesney propose funding much of this new media welfare state with steep taxes on our mobile phones, Internet connections, and digital gadgets. So, get ready for the iPhone tax and new fees on your broadband bills!
Surprisingly, Free Press and McChesney don’t try to sugarcoat their radical intentions. Their self-described “radical” goal is a world of “post-corporate” newsrooms. McChesney and Nichols often speak broadly of “the problem” for the press being the capitalist system itself. In their 2002 book, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, they argued that media-reform efforts begin with “the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media… Our claim is simply that the media system produces vastly less of quality than it would if corporate and commercial pressures were lessened.” More recently, in an interview with the Canada-based “Socialist Project,” McChesney went so far as to say that “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists” and that “Instead of waiting for the revolution to happen, we learned that unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution. While the media is not the single most important issue in the world, it is one of the core issues that any successful Left project needs to integrate into its strategic program,” he argues. Thus, nothing short of “massive public intervention” into the news business is required. Free Press adopts a similar tone and dials up the heat inside the Beltway with apocalyptic talk about the need to have government “save the news.” In true Rahm Emanuel-like fashion, Free Press insists, “We have a crisis. We have an historic opportunity. We can’t let either go to waste.”
If you’re beginning to think that the Free Press-McChesney plan sounds a bit like something right out of Hugo Chavez’s tyrannical press-police state, you’re not mistaken. In fact, McChesney imagines the Venezuelan strongman to be something of a misunderstood genius when it comes to how to run a “free press.” “Aggressive unqualified political dissent is alive and well in the Venezuelan mainstream media, in a manner few other democratic nations have ever known, including our own,” McChesney has written. That will certain come to a shock to those journalists and news outlets currently being subjected to Chavez’s reign of media terror. Luckily — at least till McChesney and Free Press get their hands on them — there are still a few independent media outfits here in the U.S. that can report the truth about Chavez’s “democratic” press, which McChesney glorifies as the ideal for other nations.
In fact, just yesterday, editorials by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady (“Chávez’s Assault on the Press”) and Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post (“Chavez’s Iron Fist”) painted a frightening picture of the press nightmare that now exists in Chavez’s thugocracy. O’Grady and Diehl both document the plight of Guillermo Zuloaga, who fled the country with his family to avoid being arrested by Chavez. Zuloaga’s crime? He has the audacity to speak the truth about the Chavez regime, and as the owner of Globovision, one of only three remaining privately held Venezuelan television stations, that makes him a threat to the thug-in-chief. “How is it possible that he can accuse me of such things and walk free?” Chavez has asked publicly about Zuloaga.
And Zuloaga and other independent media operators clearly have legitimate cause for concern. Chavez has already yanked the license of opposition broadcaster RCTV, who he said had been working to overthrown him. The U.S. government’s Open Source Center, which provides information on foreign political, military, economic, and technical issues, has documented how “President Chavez’s government is moving forcefully to silence critics by introducing a Media Crimes bill that would give it sweeping authority to jail journalists, media executives, and bloggers who report on anything that the government considers to be harmful to state interests.” According to Freedom House, which ranks press freedom internationally, Venezuela is the only country besides Cuba listed as “Not Free” in the entire Western Hemisphere. The organization notes that Chavez expelled Human Rights Watch officials from the country after it released a critical report entitled A Decade Under Chavez, which found that “The Venezuelan government under President Chavez has undermined freedom of expression through a variety of measures aimed at reshaping media content and control.” The National Journalists’ Guild has also accused Chavez of violating the rights of the press. The latest Freedom House report on the state of press freedom in the country also notes that:
“Free-to-air broadcast media are largely owned by the government, which operates seven channels with nationwide coverage. However, Venezuela’s leading newspapers are privately owned, and most identify with the opposition. As a result, they are subject to threats and violence by the government and its supporters, sometimes leading to self-censorship. Local and regional media are particularly dependent on government advertising revenue, leaving them vulnerable to economic retaliation for criticism.”
So, what’s Robert McChesney’s response to Chavez’s crackdown on dissent and opposition journalism? They had it comin’! “If RCTV were broadcasting in the United States, its license would have been revoked years ago,” McChesney has argued. “In fact its owners would likely have been tried for criminal offenses, including treason.”
Perhaps I’ve missed something but I study the history of journalism for a living and I can’t remember the last time any media outlet had their license yanked or that any journalist was tried for treason in the U.S. for opposing a president’s policies! But such are the tactics of shameless media Marxist.
While such sympathy for the devil may seem shocking to most of us, McChesney has no choice but to defend a socialist strongman like Chavez. After all, this is basically the McChesney-Free Press blueprint for media reform! But one would hope and think that McChesney and his merry band of media reformistas at Free Press wouldn’t be gaining much traction here in the U.S. with their self-described “radical” agenda for media takeover. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
For starters, some Free Press reformistas are now having real, direct influence on the Obama Administration’s media and communications agenda. Jen Howard, former press director for Free Press, now serves as press secretary for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. And Ben Scott, former Policy Director for Free Press, was recently appointed as a “policy advisor for innovation” to the State Department. Lord help us if it’s the Free Press’s brand of “innovation” that our government will now be promoting worldwide! Meanwhile, as Seton Motley has noted here before, Free Press has a regular audience in FCC, FTC, and congressional hearing and meeting rooms. McChesney was even recently invited to deliver a major address at an FTC workshop on “saving journalism.” Meanwhile, Susan DeSanti, the FTC’s Director of Policy Planning, who spearheads the agency’s “media reinvention” effort, has publicly praised McChesney and Nichols’ “excellent book,” referring to their latest manifesto for media statism, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again.
The fingerprints of McChesney and Free Press can also be seen on many of the documents and projects the Obama Administration is currently producing on media policy issues. As part of the FTC’s workshop series asking “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” the agency released a 47-page discussion draft entitled “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.” The document reads like the Cliff’s Notes for the latest McChesney-Nichols book and Free Press’s “National Journalism Strategy.” The FTC draft cites the authors over a dozen times and reproduces their proposals almost verbatim. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is simultaneously conducting a proceeding of its own on the “Future of Media.” So far, its workshops have featured plenty of talk of expanded public media and “public-interest” programs — as well as multiple Free Press witnesses and submissions.
Amazingly, Obama Administration agency officials and congressional lawmakers on the Left often seem to turn a blind eye to some of Free Press’s more infantile attacks and tactics. For example, this week the group is wall-papering Chicago with “wanted” posters featuring Chairman Genachowski’s picture. The Chairman’s crime? He’s not attending a show trial hearing set up to demonize the pending merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal. And Free Press has repeatedly eaten their own young during Net Neutrality debates by viciously blasting any Democrat who has had the temerity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, an FCC takeover of the Internet isn’t such a grand idea.
Let’s be clear about the stakes in this battle. As media historian Ben Compaine has argued, “What the hard core reformistas really want, it seems, is not diversity or an open debate but a media that promotes their own vision of society and the world.” That’s exactly right and, more specifically, the media reformistas want to impose this control by borrowing the old fantasy that “the public owns the [broadcast] airwaves” and extending that misguided notion to all media platforms and outlets. In other words, McChesney and Free Press want an UnFree Press. To cast things in neo-Marxists terms that they could appreciate, they want to take control of the information means of production.
The fight for real media freedom and a truly “free press” begins with a better understanding and documentation of the radical intentions of the opposition as the struggle over the future course of America’s media marketplace continues. True freedom doesn’t begin by fettering media and communications systems with more chains, as McChesney and Free Press advocate; it begins by removing the chains that already exist and then erecting a firm wall between State and Press.