An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Freedom of Speech vs. the Public Airways

I highly recommend to anyone who can find a copy, that you watch the Bill Moyers' documentary Free Speech For Sale. He reviews three instances of the freedom to say whatever you like enjoyed only by those who can afford it. In particular, the Telecommunications reform act of 1996 (a monstrosity signed into law by President Clinton, for those who are keeping score of Republican v. Democratic misdeeds) consolidated a still growing monopoly of broadcast media in the hands of a few billionaires. You can say what you like, but in many cases, you can not even Pay to be heard.

The most notorious of the examples of an advertisement that could not get on the air was in 1993 when a group of non-profit healthcare advocacy organizations could not find a network to air a 15 second spot in which a grandmother sitting in a rocking chair asked simply how much more money we would have for health care if we did not have to pay for marketing, advertising and the high salaries of top management of HMOs and other insurance companies. The do-gooders had the cash to pay for the commercial to air, but no one would take it. At the time the Nation reported that the networks feared antagonizing the Health Insurance industry and lose much more advertising revenue (you know, all those commercials telling us how wonder Kaiser or some other HMO is) than just the few hundred thousand dollars it cost to show a 15-second spot only once. (Beltway bandits: Banned in Boston The Nation. New York: Jun 14, 1993.Vol.256, Iss. 23; pg. 824, 1 pgs)

What does this have to do with some asshole in a cowboy hat making racist comments about a women's college basketball team? I find most the discussion about free speech implications of this incident somewhat absurd. The loud-mouths like Imus or Howard Stern or others have little or nothing to say of any interest to anyone. But they prove entertaining in their pointless rants and pursuit of cheap laughs. They sell advertising. I read this morning that CBS has pulled the plug on Imus' radio show. Does this constitute censorship? No more than Me not having a radio show constitutes censorship. If Imus thinks he has something important and/or entertaining to say he can do his own podcast, just like the rest of us. Imus comes under the same sort of rules that govern the rest of us. We can have a radio or TV show if we can find advertisers to sponsor us. Both inflicting Imus on the airwaves as well as removing him from broadcast media resulted from business decisions.

The networks have a government enforced license to broadcast at a given power level on a given frequency in a given geographic area. Our tax money pays for the FCC and other law enforcement agencies to kick down doors (sometimes literally) to shut down pirate radio stations that "step" on the license holder's frequency. In order to keep the airwaves usable, and not a constant buzz of static as a mass of heterodynes cancel each other out, the FCC and some sort of orderly system for allowing a given party to use a given frequency in a given place must exist. But because the airwaves belong to the pubic, the license holders must provide some form of public service. In theory we should receive a variety of views and investigative reporting that actually reveals something important. Instead they gave us Imus. That the networks pulled the plug on Imus does not constitute censorship. That they inflicted him on us in the first place was the censorship. The empty place in the airwaves that should contain some better service to the public, the empty place in the airwaves where the commercials such as the one mentioned above should have run, the empty space in the airwaves where the public good demands investigative reporting -- they have to fill that empty space in the airwaves with something. If Imus had ever said anything worth listening to in the first place the networks would have pulled the plug on his show ages ago. No one would mention any content or comment as the cause, only "declining advertising revenues." The same reason they have pulled the plug on him now.

The excuse that the networks only give us what we "want" remains absurd on its face. GIGO: Garbage in, garbage out. If sponsors refuse to advertise on Air America or Hightower Radio then how can we know what we are missing? Does the world lack dynamic speakers who call attention to aspects of the day's news that others do not? Does the world lack people who can speak eloquently about issues of interest to most of us? How can we know if no one will sponsor a radio show for them? A media monopoly has effectively filtered out anyone who in any way challenges or does not support the corporations that control the airwaves. For the rest of us there are podcasts and blogs. Some asinine shock-jock got his racist ass kicked off the corporate media gravy-train. Imus is nothing more than a monkey who shit on one welcome mat too many. The real problem we have is with the organ grinder.

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