We’re All Media Marxists Now! Conservatives Move to Socialize the Soapbox

by on August 30, 2018 · 0 comments

Thirteen years ago I penned an essay entitled, “Your Soapbox is My Soapbox!” It was condensed from a 2005 book I had released at the same time called Media Myths. My research and writing during that period and for fifteen years prior to that was focused on the dangers associated with calls by radical Left-leaning media scholars and policy activists for a veritable regulatory revolution in the way information and communication technology (ICT) platforms were operated. They pushed this revolution using noble-sounding rhetoric like “fairness in coverage,” “right of reply,” “integrity of public debate,” “preserving the public square,” and so on. Their advocacy efforts were also accompanied by calls for a host of new regulatory controls including a “Bill of Media Rights” to grant the public a litany of new affirmative rights over media and communications providers and platforms.

But no matter how much the so-called “media access” movement sought to sugarcoat their prescriptions, in the end, what those Left-leaning scholars and advocates were calling for was sweeping state control of media and communications technologies and platforms. In essence, they wanted to socialize private soapboxes and turn them into handmaidens of the state.

Here’s the way I began my old “soapbox” essay:

Imagine you built a platform in your backyard for the purpose of informing or entertaining your friends of neighbors. Now further imagine that you are actually fairly good at what you do and manage to attract and retain a large audience. Then one day, a few hecklers come to hear you speak on your platform. They shout about how it’s unfair that you have attracted so many people to hear you speak on your soapbox and they demand access to your platform for a certain amount of time each day. They rationalize this by arguing that it is THEIR rights as listeners that are really important, not YOUR rights as a speaker or the owner of the soapbox.

That sort of scenario could never happen in America, right? Sadly, it’s been the way media law has operated for several decades in this country. This twisted “media access” philosophy has been employed by federal lawmakers and numerous special interest groups to justify extensive and massively unjust regime of media regulation and speech redistributionism. And it’s still at work today.

That was 2005. What’s amazing today is that this same twisted attitude is still on display, but it is conservatives who are now the ring-leaders of the push to socialize soapboxes!

Conservatives were squarely against such soapbox socialism when I penned my earlier essay and book. During that time, they feared that the media access movement would devolve into a political witch hunt aimed at singling them out and eliminating the many new popular personalities and platforms that offered the public Right-of-center voices and viewpoints.

But it’s a new day in America and conservatives have now flipped this script and are using the media access movement playbook to call for massive state control over private media and technology platforms in the name of eradicating supposed “bias” against them and their views.

Apparently everyone’s a Media Marxist these days, beginning with President Trump! Claiming that there is some sort of grand anti-conservative conspiracy afoot, President Trump and many of his defenders are pushing for greater government control of the media and tech companies. The White House is apparently “taking a look” at the idea of regulating Google because it is part of the “fake news media.” (Over at TechDirt, Zach Graves has a thorough debunking of such nonsense.) Of course, this follows Trump’s seemingly endless jihad against older media outlets, especially large newspapers and cable news enterprises that he disfavors.

Meanwhile, a new White House “We the People” petition to “Protect Free Speech in the Digital Public Square” already has almost 40,000 signatures. “The internet is the modern public square,” the manifesto begins. It continues on to claims that “the free and open internet has become a controlled, censored space, monopolized by a few unaccountable corporations” and that “[b]y banning users from their platforms, those corporations can effectively remove politically unwelcome Americans from the public square.” It concludes with the following call to action: “The President should request that Congress pass legislation prohibiting social media platforms from banning users for First Amendment-protected speech. The power to block lawful content should be in the hands of individual users – not [Facebook’s] Mark Zuckerberg or [Twitter’s] Jack Dorsey.”

Such rhetoric and proposals are indistinguishable from what the Left-leaning media access advocates were calling for in the past.

Is “media Marxism” too strong a term to use in this regard? Well, the textbook definition of Marxism involves state control of the means of production. In the case of information platforms, control of the means of production would involve the forcible surrender of some combination of the underlying editorial control that the owners have over their speech platforms as well as potential state control of the algorithms and other technical foundations of digital platforms.

And so let’s hear from former White House strategist Steve Bannon commenting to CNN on what he thinks needs to be done next:

>> Bannon said Big Tech’s data should be seized and put in a “public trust.” Specifically, Bannon said, “I think you take [the data] away from the companies. All that data they have is put in a public trust. They can use it. And people can opt in and opt out. That trust is run by an independent board of directors. It just can’t be that [Big Tech is] the sole proprietors of this data…I think this is a public good.” Bannon added that Big Tech companies “have to be broken up” just like Teddy Roosevelt broke up the trusts.”

>> Bannon attacked the executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google. “These are run by sociopaths,” he said. “These people are complete narcissists. These people ought to be controlled, they ought to be regulated.” At one point during the phone call, Bannon said, “These people are evil. There is no doubt about that.”

>> Bannon said he thinks “this is going to be a massive issue” in future elections. He said he thinks it will probably take until 2020 to fully blossom as a campaign issue, explaining, “I think by the time 2020 comes along, this will be a burning issue. I think this will be one of the biggest domestic issues.” Bannon said the “#MeToo movement has brought the issue of consent front and center” and argued that “this is going to bring the issue of digital consent front and center.”

On one hand, Bannon no longer works in Trump’s White House, so perhaps it isn’t fair to say that his views and prescriptions are tantamount to the President’s views. But Bannon was saying similar things while he was in the White House with Trump and the President’s surrogates have been continuously upping their rhetoric to suggest that they are serious about moving against the ICT sector in some fashion.

So, apparently we now inhabit a Bizaro World where the Hard Right has replaced the Hard Left in the U.S. in the never-ending drama of speech control. In past decades, some conservatives favored media regulation, of course. In fact, in the heyday of the Fairness Doctrine, many leading conservative voices insisted that regulation was needed to counter supposed “liberal bias” in broadcasting. It was only when Rush Limbaugh and many other conservatives came along in the late 1980s / early 1990s and gained a significant audience on talk radio that conservative sympathy for the Fairness Doctrine completely disappeared. In fact, conservatives then became vociferous critics of the Doctrine and demanded a stake be driven through its heart. Eventually, they did just that.  But even during the time when some conservative pundits supported the Fairness Doctrine, that support was fairly limited and tepid. And you almost never heard conservatives supporting radical state control of the press as a solution to perceived bias.

Yet, here we are now with Trump and many of his allies floating proposals to treat information platforms as the equivalent of essential facilities or “public squares” which would have some sort of amorphous fiduciary obligations or “public interest” responsibilities to serve the public however politicians and bureaucrats in Washington see fit. That could entail anything from “search neutrality” to a new Fairness doctrine / right of reply mandate to a full-blown antirust breakup.

Like the Hard Left before them, the Hard Right has apparently come to view ICT platforms as just another part of the socio-political superstructure to be controlled from above to achieve their own ends. Trump and his allies have repeatedly referred to the press as the “enemy of the American people.” (His latest tweet using that phrase has already racked up almost 84,000 likes.) That’s totalitarian talk, and it softens the ground for the sort of takeover that Bannon and others desire. The “Fake News” that President Trump and his surrogates decry includes not just traditional journalism outlets but all forms of information production and dissemination. Trump wants them all to bend the knee before him. Because they won’t, apparently they are to be punished.

If Trump and his allies get their way, America would join the ranks of repressive states around the globe who seek to control speech platforms for their own ends. That sort of totalitarian impulse is repugnant to the values of a democratic republic that values open inquiry, freedom of speech and expression, press freedom, and the freedom to know about and report on the world around us.

As I concluded my earlier “soapbox” essay back in 2005:

This arrogant, elitist, anti-property, anti-freedom ethic is what drives the media access movement and makes it so morally repugnant. Freedom doesn’t begin by fettering the press with more chains, it begins by removing those that already exist and then erecting a firm wall between State and Press. The media access crowd has succeeded in breaching that wall with seven decades of misguided and unjust regulation of the press. The movement back toward a truly free press begins by understanding the error in their thinking, rejecting that reasoning, and then embracing, once again, the original vision of the First Amendment as a bulwark against government control of speech and the press.

In closing, this is a good moment for those on the moderate Left to reflect upon what they have enabled by sketching out and defending this intellectual blueprint for media control. The Left helped make the bed that Donald Trump is now getting cozy in. Many Hard Left scholars repeatedly told us that it was with the very best of intentions that they advocated more state control of the ICT sectors. There’s no bringing those radicals around to seeing the mistake they made. They will just double down on their proposals and claim that once “their team” gets back in power, all will be fine. It is utter poppycock, but they won’t care one bit.

The moderate Left, however, should be more sensible than that because they have been the great defenders of the First Amendment and freedom of speech in modern American history. And they understand that the danger of the slippery slope is very real when it comes to speech controls and how they might undermine our First Amendment heritage. When the moderate Left allows radical media theorists and regulatory advocacy groups to push extreme media control measures, however, they are creating speech control mechanisms that are very susceptible to being overtaken by their enemies and then used against them later on. And now we have a President who is doing exactly that.

It is a truly horrifying moment in the history of the American Republic. Hopefully we get through it and learn something from it.

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