I wrote the article below over a year ago, but it is first being published now. It's relevance to elections will be the subject of a subsequent piece.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF IRRESPONSIBLE MEDIA: Americans Have Lost the Ability to Hold Their Leaders AccountableThe functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe – Thomas JeffersonHaving fought a war to free themselves from an oppressive monarchy, the Founders were all too aware of the need to provide a means to guard against the return of one party rule. Madison and Jefferson in particular understood that the democratic experiment they struggled to create could only be protected if the power to choose their own government resided with the people.
Madison’s recognition that “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives” resulted in the inclusion of the protection of the Freedom of Press in the Bill of Rights. Hence knowledge delivered through a free press became the lynchpin of the carefully crafted system of checks and balances they designed.
The Founders also understood that an independent press would not endure without public policies supporting its growth. So essential to survival of democracy was a free press that in the 1790s Congress implemented a number of media initiatives: they adopted copyright laws, issued printing subsidies and gave postage discounts to newspapers and periodicals to facilitate their distribution to all.These policies of supplementing the media have continued. Media corporations still receive privileges -- such as monopoly rights to TV and radio frequencies as well as monopoly cable TV and satellite TV franchises –but the government’s commitment to democracy is no longer the basis for these privileges.
Instead the government gives away our airwaves in exchange for the cooperation of these beholden corporations, who then operate in their interests: the interests of the political and economic elite. Public interest is no longer part of the equation. Democracy’s been taken out of the plan.
Once upon a Time, Media Policy Was Made in the Public Interest: Now Only the Interest of the Political and Economic Elite Are Served
The airwaves on which we receive radio and television belong to the people. They are a communal resource like the air and water. They had been regarded and regulated as a public trust. They can be used for the good of the people, as was deemed essential to democracy, or they can be abused and used to manipulate public opinion – keeping us ignorant and apathetic. Even the U.S. government’s own web site, http:/usinfo.state.gov, recognizes:
“Democracy depends upon a literate, knowledgeable citizenry whose access to the broadest possible range of information enables them to participate as fully as possible in the public life of their society. Ignorance breeds apathy. Democracy thrives upon the energy of citizens who are sustained by the unimpeded flow of ideas, data, opinions, and speculation.” (emphasis supplied)
The government leased our airwaves to broadcasters. In return for the privilege the owners were to serve the public interest. It is in our interest to have regular access to vibrant, divergent, antagonistic opinions from all segments of society.
Imagine a media system which informed us with the same regularity with which we are currently bathed in celebrity trials, about the growing chasm wherein the richest 1% own more that the bottom 95% combined and how the United States has the greatest gap between rich and poor of any major nation; or that the United States is the only nation in the industrialized world which doesn’t provide national health care to its citizens. Imagine that in addition to a business section we’d have a labor section discussing the issues which affect over 100 million working people in this country. In such a democratic media system we’d be kept informed of critical issues essential to protecting our environment. In a media system as envisioned by the Founders, in which all segments of the society had equal access to communication, we’d receive the information essential to a nation which aspires to be a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”.
We used to have a Fairness Doctrine in which broadcast media was legally required to maintain an informed public by covering important policy issues and providing equal time to both sides of public questions.
“The clear intent was to prevent a monopoly of commercial values from overwhelming democratic values -- to assure that the official view of reality -- corporate or government -- was not the only view of reality that reached the people.”
– Bill Moyers
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Fairness Doctrine in the Red Lion case in 1969, confirming that it is "the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."
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