Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Electronic Renaissance or Digital Dark Ages?

by Stuart Noble

There’s been a bit of discussion going around about Rep. Hinchey’s proposed legislation. The headline from the Raw Story piece is quite telling, “Rep. believes Democratic media reform bill may prevent possible 'fascist' takeover of US media”. One of Hinchey’s staffers is quoted, “Whether or not there is a purpose that includes fascism, we could wind up in a fascist situation if corporations end up controlling information without the government providing some balancing mechanism, such as the Fairness Doctrine,”

I applaud the congressman for using the F word. It’s long overdue. However, if we’re being honest and objective (objectivity is quite subjective I realize), don’t we ALREADY HAVE a fascist situation in which a handful of corporations ALREADY control the information without government providing some balancing mechanism?

Ian Welsh at the Agonist has a recent post witch addresses another side to the same problem, ever shrinking diversity in the media as a result of the monopolization of said media. His most basic solution is spot on, break up the monopolies. Rep. Hinchey’s legislation merely addresses media monopolization but I think misses the very simple crux of the problem. While it would be preferable to see more “fairness” and “balance”, who decides just what that is? This could take us down a slippery slope indeed. We don’t need yet another army of bureaucrats determining what is fair, what is balanced, running statistical analysis to determine conservative vs. liberal percentages. We don’t want to go from corporate control of the media organizations to government control of media information. Government has a critical function to the solution but it’s not replacing deregulation of commerce with over-regulation of free political speech. We’ve already got an undemocratic institutionalized “two-party” political system. Should we now institutionalize “two-party” political speech? Some of the comments from Ian’s post were a bit dismissive of the whole idea of a “fairness” doctrine but not for the reason I’ve stated. The demise of the MSM (if it ultimately happens) should be welcomed if we truly are to experience a renaissance created by a free, open, egalitarian and democratic online communication community(s). The growth of the internet and those participating both as consumers and creators of information and ideas should give us all great hope. There are however no guarantees that the internet will remain free and open, just as predicting the demise of the MSM is premature.

The signing of the Communications Act of 1996 was probably the most destructive legislation signed by former president Clinton. It’s highly doubtful that Clinton saw a fascist media future when signing this un-democratic legislation; however, repealing it would be the simplest first step in reversing the 10 year slide. It is that simple, repeal the Communications Act of 1996 and bust up all the monopolies. We could go even a bit further than the pre Communications Act era. Apart from limiting the number of media outlets controlled by any one company, non media corporations should be required to divest their ownership of all media holdings. Under such an environment, a fairness doctrine would organically thrive amid the plethora of competing independent organizations at a myriad of local, regional and national levels. We must embrace the true American spirit which guarantees and protects the freedom of markets to all people and communities not the selling off of public space (including our airwaves) to a handful of 21st century information robber barons.

In short, we are encouraged by the current rise in online networked communication. Never before have so many individuals and communities had the ability to communicate and share ideas so openly and freely. However, this alone does not guarantee a more democratic future.

We want to believe the progressive seers’ predictions of the demise of the MSM at their own hands. The struggle for Network Neutrality should give the optimistic hopefuls great pause. It may well be the ultimate factor in determining whether we slip into permanent tyranny or continue our electronic renaissance. I should not think we would “put all our hopeful eggs in one basket”. The traditional media may not decay and die off at the vine as some assume, but evolve into something we wouldn’t even recognize today. We should demand and struggle for freedom and democracy everywhere, at all times, in all our institutions. Do not be swayed by the high-sounding “ideals” of this legislation, for it is a fool’s gold. Unfortunately, many on the Left have already been enticed by its glimmer and shine. The true libertarians (those who believe in the fundamental principals of inalienable rights and universal liberty) will come down hard against this. We would be wise to listen to their arguments. The “Left” can be every bit as despotic as the “Right”, just ask the Venezuelans. We should be ever diligent that we don’t replace King George with an Emperor Chavez. Those of us who consider ourselves Progressives should embrace what Stirling Newberry has called, “New Liberalism”, a cosmopolitan [r]epublicanism reflecting Jefferson’s universal egalitarian democratic principals. The MORA bill is undemocratic, potentially repressive, and could ultimately replace one “fascist situation” with another.

This article is cross-posted at The Agonist