Where Free Speech Goes to Die

The news industry isn’t a marketplace of ideas — it’s just a market. To ensure freedom of speech, we have to take on the rich.

Spencer Grant / Boston Public Library

A basic tenet of libertarianism is that less state power is always good because it reduces the potential for tyranny. All power corrupts, so the saying goes, and it would be easy for someone to abuse the levers of governmental authority for their own selfish ends.

Operating under this logic (and its correlate, that the private sector can do everything the state does better), politicians have spent the past thirty years shrinking the state’s role in everything from how much it can help the poor, to what it’s allowed to regulate — a process that’s been backed up and urged on by an army of right-wing intellectuals, writers, think-tanks, and activists. For instance, when Ronald Reagan’s FCC set about abolishing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 — facilitating both the rise of right-wing talk radio and the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s current hijinks — it argued that the rule, through its “ affirmative use of government power to expand broadcast debate,” presented a “striking paradox,” because “freedom of speech has traditionally implied an absence of governmental supervision or control.”

“Throughout most of our history, the principal function of the First Amendment has been to protect the free marketplace of ideas by precluding government intrusion,” its 1985 report stated.

The Obama-era FCC made a similar point in 2011, when it struck the rule off the books for good. “The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago,” its chairman at the time declared.

In other words, the oppressive tendencies of the state mean that any time it intervenes, even to secure greater freedom of speech by making sure all views are publicly aired, it is an unacceptable intrusion. Freedom of speech, is purely defined as freedom from government censorship. Better, instead, to leave it to the free market, where viewpoints and ideas live and die on their own merits.

A recent episode in Denver shows why this theory doesn’t work out in practice.

Rebellion at the Denver Post

The trouble with libertarian theory is that while it has a lot to say about concentration of power and repression when these concern the government, it has little to nothing to say about them when carried out by anyone else.

Take the case of the Denver Post’s ongoing rebellion against its hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Since buying the MediaNews Group Inc. newspaper empire in 2010 (and renaming it Digital First Media, or DFM), Alden has slowly dismantled the newspapers under its control, slashing staff numbers to to the bone, and has ridden the cuts to a massive profit that it has then re-routed to its other investments.

Naturally, the people who worked at those newspapers weren’t very happy about this. After seeing its staff slashed from a high of 250 to a mere sixty, the Denver Post revolted against its owner in April this year, publishing a series of op-eds criticizing Alden and outlining the paper’s plight, and attempting to convince other DFM-owned papers to do the same.

DFM executives reportedly considered firing the paper’s editorial page editor, Chuck Plunkett, and pulling the offending sections, before being talked out of it by the top editor. At least one other editor of a DFM-owned paper told the Columbia Journalism Review (anonymously) that he feared reprisal from the company and that he wouldn’t cover the issue.

Weeks later, the editor of the Kingston Daily-Freeman, another DFM-owned paper, ordered his staff to “NOT post to the web or publish in print any story touching on Digital First Media / Alden Global Capital without my prior approval,” and to “carefully scan” any story about the plight of modern journalism for references to the companies. “This directive comes from above,” he wrote.

Around the same time, Dave Krieger, editorial page editor for Boulder’s Daily Camera, submitted an op-ed to the paper’s editorial board critical of Alden. It was rejected by the publisher, who was nervous about crossing the company. So Krieger instead self-published the piece on the Boulder Free Press Blog, shortly after which he was fired for, as Krieger tells it, disparaging “the company” and supposedly publishing a piece written on company time on a different platform. (Krieger says he had written the piece at home around midnight).

When Plunkett tried to publish another op-ed in the Denver Post earlier this month calling attention to both this incident and to the massive windfall Alden has received from stripping its newspapers bare, its publication was blocked by a DFM executive. Plunkett resigned, and the Post newsroom signed an open letter decrying what they called “unconscionable censorship.”

Alden owns close to one hundred daily and weekly papers, including, according to the Washington Post, nearly every major newspaper around Los Angeles and the Bay area. That’s a wide net of influence in which it can engage in similar shenanigans.

There’s a lesson in here about the increasing presence of hedge funds and private equity firms in the media landscape, which has seen local newspapers get decimated through the same kind of “vulture capitalist” strategies as Alden’s. But it’s also a stark, real-world example of the way that private censorship by profit-seeking entities functions in exactly the same kind of Orwellian way that libertarians and conservatives fear exclusively about government.

Corporate Censorship

This isn’t even an isolated example. Just this week, the Pittsburgh City Paper suddenly fired its longtime editor, Charlie Deitch. According to Deitch, he had been asked by the general manager to stop writing about Republican state representative Daryl Metcalfe after running several op-eds criticizing him. He also received an email from the general manager of an affiliated company asking him to focus on other topics. Deitch charges that Metcalfe is “a client of the parent company” (a charge that hasn’t been substantiated), and that he had been told to retract a recent story on Metcalfe.

This kind of thing goes way back. Perhaps the most famous examples of such corporate censorship comes from the Bush era, when a combination of hysteria around terrorism and the Bush administration’s fostering of a climate of jingoistic servility among journalists led to numerous instances of censorship.

Iraq War critic Phil Donahue was first ordered to have two conservatives on for every liberal on his primetime show, before being fired partly because he would be “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” as an internal memo put it. The network likewise shunted Jesse Ventura when he found out he opposed the war, and reporter Ashleigh Banfield was, in her words, “banished” to NBC’s musty attic and eventually let go when she gave a speech warning against jingoistic coverage of the war.

It’s probably no coincidence that Microsoft and General Electric, the network’s two major stakeholders, were also defense contractors. NBC had protected its corporate owners years before, editing out, for example, mentions of the company in a report on the use of faulty materials in US industry that was produced by a local Chicago station that it owned.

But it wasn’t just NBC. During the height of Bush-era jingoism, Disney decided not to distribute Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, while Sinclair ordered its seven stations at the time not to air Nightline the week Ted Koppel planned to read out the names of all the US soldiers killed in the war. The show “appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq,” Sinclair explained at the time.

This is exactly how it’s supposed to work under free-market, “small-government” principles. A single entity can simply take control of an enormous share of national media, dictate what kind of coverage is and isn’t acceptable, and shape the public’s understanding of the world according to its own interests. That’s fine, because that entity isn’t the government.

The public could check this in all sorts of ways, from enacting strict rules around the acquisition of media outlets, to wielding anti-monopoly powers to prevent concentration of media ownership, to the creation of more publicly funded, editorially independent news outlets, and maybe even the reinstatement of rules like the Fairness Doctrine. Under free-market dogma, however, the public is only permitted to nod along as corporations “chill free speech and the free flow of ideas.”

One thing’s for sure: the market isn’t going to prevent it. The massive layoffs and censorship suffered by DFM-owned newspapers isn’t being offset by the springing up of new, scrappy local papers ready to defy corporate dictates. The news industry isn’t a marketplace of ideas; it’s just a literal marketplace, where economic power determines success, and profit drives choices.

A hundred years ago, one of the richest men in America, J.P. Morgan, bought a controlling stake in a host of muckraking outlets, which then suddenly stopped putting out exposés of corporate corruption and saw their editorial teams culled. Today, arguably the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, owns a small media empire that includes the Washington Post. Sure, Bezos reportedly takes a backseat when it comes to the running of the paper. But then, Morgan wasn’t a newspaper man until the free press suddenly threatened his bottom line.

To ensure freedom of speech and the press, we can’t just keep a wary eye the government —  we’ll have to take on the Alden Global Capitals and the Jeff Bezoses of the world.