Monday, August 12, 2013

Media acquisitions vindicate Citizens United

Note - links to my more recent comments on free speech - up to late 2015 - follow at the end of this post.

Recent media acquisitions (like the purchase by Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, of The Washington Post), are rendering ultimate vindication to the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision. 

It's now blindingly obvious that traditional distinctions between media vs corporate speech have all but evaporated. It's no longer plausible to argue that traditional media outlets deserve a specially protected status in the realm of free speech. 

Nevertheless, opponents of Citizens United continue to offer explicit and implicit endorsements for 'privileged' media speech. This is absurd. To defend privileged speech is to argue that advocacy groups/corporations outside of an (inherently subjective) media identity do not deserve free speech. It's the ultimate incarnation of Orwell's warning - ''all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'' Whether driven by seeming business interests (Bezos - Washington Post), or personal interests (see John Henry's acquisition of The Boston Globe), where corporate/political owner sympathies are perceptibly apparent, the flowing social implication is evident - media speech is not as 'pure' as some would suggest.

In this sense, it's astonishing that many commentators see no hypocrisy in the flagrantly biased approach that they take towards media assessment (see Pitts here, then here). Consider the dichotomy of reaction that characterized Henry's Globe acquisition, and suggestions that the Koch brothers might purchase The Los Angeles Times. While Henry attracted very little scrutiny, rumors over the LA Times garnered widespread outrage. Indeed, half the LA Times newsroom apparently threatened to quit if the Koch purchase went ahead. 
             Of course, when one considers the facts objectively, the distance between Henry and the Koch brothers isn't obvious. For a start, much as he might frame his purchase as a personal endeavor, Henry has spent over $1 million supporting Democratic candidates. Suddenly, the Koch brothers have company in the land of political activism. This speaks to a certain truth - overtly liberal media acquisitions are ever apparent. For one example, take Facebook billionaire (and avowed liberal), Chris Hughes's 2012 purchase of The New Republic.

So we need to be honest. Ultimately, if we want historic media outlets to survive, politically accentuated purchases will probably be unavoidable. But this doesn't mean that we should be delusional to the modern media industry. As much as the Citizens United decision was unpopular, it was also logically inevitable. Why? Because to argue otherwise - that traditional media outlets have a special status in society - represents the height of arrogance. It's the embrace of a profoundly un-American system of tiered speech - one in which the wealthy can buy speech dominions while other corporate/NGO entities are restrained in silence.

As Justice Kennedy explained in his Citizens United opinion:

''The law before us is an outright ban, backed by criminal sanctions. [The law] makes it a felony for all corporations—including nonprofit advocacy corporations—either to expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates or to broadcast electioneering communications within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election. Thus, the following acts would all be felonies under §441b: The Sierra Club runs an ad, within the crucial phase of 60 days before the general election, that exhorts the public to disapprove of a Congressman who favors logging in national forests; the National Rifle Association publishes a book urging the public to vote for the challenger because the incumbent U. S. Senator supports a handgun ban; and the American Civil Liberties Union creates a Web site telling the public to vote for a Presidential candidate in light of that candidate’s defense of free speech. These prohibitions are classic examples of censorship.'' 

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