What the Media Reformistas Really Want

by on August 10, 2008 · 33 comments

Over at Reason’s “Hit and Run” blog, Matt Welch has penned a piece pointing out how it is impossible to make the anti-media activists happy. Welch notes that radical activist groups like Free Press go around demonizing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch because he supposedly symbolizes the fact that will live in an age of media monopolists who puppeteer all our news and entertainment from on high. It’s all 100% B.S., of course, as we have shown here again and again.

But even when confronted by the rise of alternative owners and ownership models, the Free Press fanatics show their true colors by saying that won’t work for them either. Walsh notes, for example, that the skake-up of the old Tribune empire and the emergence of Sam Zell as an independent owner of the Trib — and an owner hellbent on downsizing the old empire, no less — should be exactly what Free Press wants:

So along comes a decidedly unfaceless individualist who buys a newspaper company anchored in his two hometowns ? Chicago and Los Angeles ? and promptly takes it off the stock exchange, even making employees his partners. Instead of expanding his new company’s empire, he sells various pieces off, thus diluting whatever “opoly” we’re on now. All the while mandating more local coverage.

Shall we try to guess how the StopBigMedia coalition has reacted to Sam Zell? The Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner talks to various media grumpuses, including Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver, and discovers that Zell is the new, woefully inappropriate poster boy for anti-media consolidation.

Here’s what Silver has to say about Zell:

“He insults journalists and journalism at virtually every whistle stop on his tour,” Silver replied, referring to Zell’s visits to Tribune Company properties. “He says it’s not about democracy ? it’s about profits. The American public and policy makers have to decide whether journalism is produced purely for the reaping of profit or if it’s a central component to a functioning participatory democracy.

“And based on the answer to that question,” Silver went on, “you make policy accordingly. There is no such thing as a deregulated media policy system. The only question is, will the media be regulated for the largest media corporations or regulated on behalf of the American public. That’s what all of our anticonsolidation efforts are about.”

Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader points out why this is so silly:

If Zell would shut up, critics like Silver and [Bill] Moyers might notice that he makes a lousy poster boy for big media. He took the Tribune Company private and made its employees nominal co-owners. He’s not acquiring properties — he’s selling them off. America has always had it both ways about that choice Silver thinks the nation needs to make: journalism for profit or journalism for democracy. Zell has loudly and rudely told his staffs that from where he sits the second is predicated on the first, and turning a profit is something he knows a little more about than they do.

So if the Free Press folks don’t want Murdoch on the one hand, or Zell on the other, what do they want? As Ben Compaine notes, “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, as I argued in my Media Myths book, the media reformistas want to impose this control by borrowing the fantasy that “the public owns the [broadcast] airwaves” and extending it to ALL media platforms and outlets. In other words, Free Press wants 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.

Don’t take my word for it? Well, then, listen to Robert McChesney. He is the godfather of the media reformista movement, the founder of Free Press, and an avowed socialist. And he has made his intentions in this regard abundantly clear throughout his prolific career. In his book Rich Media, Poor Media, he says that “Media reform cannot win without widespread support and such support needs to be organized as part of a broad anti-corporate, pro-democracy movement.” He casts everything in “social justice” terms and speaks of the need “to rip the veil off [corporate] power, and to work so that social decision making and power may be made as enlightened and as egalitarian as possible.”

What exactly does all that mean in practice for media and media operators? In his book Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle against Corporate Media with John Nichols of The Nation, McChesney argues that media reform efforts must begin with “the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media.” They go on to state that, “Our claim is simply that the media system produces vastly less of quality than it would if corporate and commercial pressures were lessened.”

Sure, whatever you say, guys. If we just put you and your UnFree Press buddies in control, the media world would be perfect. We’d have plenty of choice and abundant viewpoints represented. Oh, wait a minute, we already have that today!! It’s just that they don’t like the fact that THEIR particular socialist viewpoints are not more widely accepted throughout the media marketplace. Well, tough luck. Hey, I don’t like that fact that not everyone on the nightly news or talking head shows isn’t spreading my libertarian gospel to the world, but I would never be so arrogant as to force them to do so as the UnFree Press reformistas would like to do using the coercive power of Big Government to bend media to their will.

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