Trends troubling for free speech


Recently, two events have surfaced in the news that should be deeply troubling to all of us. First, former drug czar and current conservative commentator William Bennett announced that, with the support of some of his hard-line neo-conservative benefactors, he would be creating the “Americans for Victory Over Terrorism” (AVOT), an organization whose goal is to “sustain and strengthen American public opinion as the war on terrorism moves forward.” How they hope to accomplish this is not entirely clear, but at least part of the equation involves naming and attacking those with the temerity to criticize the president and his administration. As a start, Bennett, in a McCarthy-esque play, denounced the “professional and amateur critics of America,” naming, among others, Maxine Waters, Jimmy Carter and the editor of Harper’s Magazine as essentially enemies of the State.

This is really a continuation of the policies of the current administration and its allies, begun well before 9/11, in being actively hostile to its critics. From the early days of Bush’s campaign through his ascension to the White House, the Bush advisors have clearly taken a hard line on excising and marginalizing reporters who have been overly critical. And in the wake of 9/11 and our subsequent military actions in Afghanistan, it seems pretty obvious that that there has been a concerted effort by certain elements of the Right to clamp down on dissent. For example, recall the acerbic and despicable attacks on Tom Daschle when he stated, “Clearly, we’ve got to find … Osama bin Laden, and we’ve got to find other key leaders of the Al Qaeda network, or we will have failed. I think that it’s critical that we keep the pressure on … But we’re not safe until we have broken the back of Al Qaeda. And we haven’t done that yet … I think there is expansion without at least a clear direction today, but we will continue to ask the questions required to better understand that direction.”

Among the cacophony of responses to these mild-mannered and relatively uncontroversial statements were those of Trent Lott (“How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism — especially when we have troops in the field?”), Tom Davis (“[Daschle] is giving aid and comfort to our enemies”) and the unusually reticent Tom DeLay (“disgusting”). Perhaps it should be noted that all of the aforementioned patriots, along with Mr. Bennett, managed to avoid serving in Vietnam (e.g.,, where Tom DeLay once stated that he and Dan Quayle were effectively prevented from serving because of the phenomenon of young minorities enlisting en masse so as to escape the ghettos).

The second event of note is the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in late February to vacate FCC rules on media ownership diversity. Most analysts expect this to lead to a further consolidation of the television media industry, in line with the trend of consolidation in other media outlets, such as radio and print. It was no secret that current FCC Chair Michael Powell, appointed by President Bush, was a heavy critic of these rules, and a strong proponent of deregulation in broadcasting.

Without getting into the economic and consumer implications of media consolidation, one might doubt the wisdom of allowing such intense media consolidation, from the perspective of preserving our democratic institutions (e.g., 10 companies account for 51 percent of the nation’s newspaper circulation, this concentration has been accelerating over the last decade). When the media is controlled by a few institutions, the potential for manipulation, censorship and propagandizing is obviously much higher than when media ownership is decentralized. To be sure, there is a contentious debate between the right and the left as to the general desirability of heavy deregulation, but we might legitimately ask whether this economic debate ought to translate whole-cloth into the realm of the media, which has traditionally been viewed, by both “conservatives” and “liberals” as a necessary political institution.

Certainly, when we measure other countries’ commitment to democracy, one of the key indices we use is freedom of press and dissent. And yet today, in our country, we have two intertwined factions promoting two agendas that may have an extraordinarily negative effect on free press and dissent: the “neo-con” hawks who are seeking to, by their own admission, bully all those who disagree with them into submission and silence, and the deregulation cheerleaders who are methodically breaking down all the barriers to monopolistic or oligarchic control of the Fourth Estate.

This is dangerous to our democracy. We might do well to remember that the Fascists and Communists recognized that control of the media and silence of dissent were prerequisites to control of the State, and sought to achieve these before imposing their agendas on an unwilling populace. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, a presentation to President Bush was made by one of his security advisors, which presented a chart with “Security” on the Y-Axis, and “Freedom” on the X-Axis, with a line drawn indicating an inverse relationship. We would be wise to contemplate why it is that we love and cherish our country and society, and to what extent we are willing to sacrifice these characteristics for increased security.

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