Or read the transcript below:
(Transcription by J. C. Hendershot)
Interview with Adam Thierer, by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, Thursday, July 1, 2010
ROGER ARONOFF: Good morning, and welcome to Take AIM, Accuracy in Media’s weekly talk show on BlogTalkRadio. AIM is America’s original media watchdog, and every week we point out biased coverage and bring you the stories the mainstream media ignore. We encourage you to visit our website at aim.org, and sign up to receive our daily E-mail so you can keep track of what the media are up to. I am Roger Aronoff, a media analyst with AIM. There’s a lot of concern—mainly, it seems, by conservatives and libertarians—that there is a serious effort underway by the Obama administration, backed by certain groups such as the George Soros-funded Free Press, as it is ironically called, to vastly expand government control over the content of news and information that we receive, whether on the Internet, radio, TV, cable, and even print media. They’re fighting to accomplish this using various government agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and through Congressional legislation. This is what we want to explore today.
Our guest today is Adam Thierer, President of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and the Director of the organization’s Center for Digital Media Freedom. Prior to joining the organization in 2005, Thierer was the Director of Telecommunications Studies at the Cato Institute, and a Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation. His work on communications, high tech, and media policy has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, and many other publications. He also writes regularly for the Technology Liberation Front blog. Thierer is the author of seven books, including Who Rules the Net?: Internet Governance and Jurisdiction, and the co-author of two, including a book entitled A Manifesto for Media Freedom that was published in 2008—we’ve had his co-author of that book, Brian Anderson, on this show before—and as producer of the PBS show Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, I’ve had Adam as a guest to discuss some of these issues. Adam, welcome to Take AIM!
ARONOFF: Tell us, first, about the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and your role in it as president.
THIERER: Sure. Well, the Progress and Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit think tank that covers the digital economy and the implications of the Internet revolution that has taken America by storm. What we try to do is, take a market-oriented vision of issues pertaining to cyber-freedom: Internet issues, policy issues pertaining to intellectual property, communications and media policy, freedom of speech and First Amendment, so on and so forth. And we occupy a really unique place in this world, because we’re a small think tank, but really a boutique think tank that focuses in on those issues of media and technology freedom.
ARONOFF: Tell people how they can find it. What is the website? We’ll do that again
at the end.
THIERER: Progress and Freedom Foundation can be found online at www.pff.org.
ARONOFF: Okay. So how would you describe the political philosophy? You said “market-oriented,” the point of view of the Foundation. How would you describe it?
THIERER: Yeah. Market-oriented, or free market-oriented think tank that focuses on technology policy. Some have called us “cyber-libertarian,” but that doesn’t quite adequately describe who we are or what we believe in. It’s pro-free market, pro-property rights, pro-free speech. Basically, we exist to try to minimize the amount of government meddling over the high tech economy, the Internet, media, and communications in general.
ARONOFF: You had an article this week in City Journal, the online journal of the Manhattan Institute, and the article is titled “A Media Welfare State?” and the subtitle is “We need a WPA for the press, Robert McChesney and John Nichols insist.” And it begins, “Imagine a world of ‘post-coporate’ newsrooms, where the state serves as the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate. Billions flow from bureaucracies to media entities and individual journalists in the name of sustaining a ‘free press,’” quote, unquote. “And this new media welfare state is funded by steep taxes on our mobile phones, broadband connections, and digital gadgets.” Give us the overview. McChesney is someone familiar to many of our listeners, as our editor, Cliff Kincaid, has written a lot about him. But tell us, who are McChesney and Nichols, and what are they advocating in their book?
THIERER: Sure. Robert McChesney is a prolific neo-Marxist media scholar who’s written, I think, over fifteen books now on media policy and media history and media economics, all from the perspective of, as he describes himself—this is not me engaging in Red-baiting—of a “progressive, or even a Marxist media viewpoint.” John Nichols, his co-author on this new book, is an editor at The Nation magazine, which is a well-known far-Left magazine and journal, and he’s written a couple of books now with McChesney—again, all of which have been on media policy. The focus of McChesney and Nichols’ latest book, like all their work together, is really an effort to give the State an amazing amount of power over America’s media marketplace, and free speech and expression in general. What they believe the State should do is, essentially, act as a handmaiden, if not a high lord and protector, of the Fourth Estate—that it should subsidize it, that it should regulate it, that it should control certain types of outputs. They like to pretend that they’re doing all of this to, quote, unquote, “Save journalism,” or maintain a free and independent press.
But their idea of a free press is a free press wrapped in chains. And it’s an utter betrayal of the original Constitutional vision, that our Founders put in place, of a press that was largely unfettered by taxes, and regulation, and so on and so forth—and yet, the most audacious of claims by McChesney and Nichols in their book is that, essentially, the Founders would welcome their agenda, and that they would endorse this idea that the State should play a significant role in subsidizing or protecting or regulating the press. And what do they base that all on? They base it on the fact that the Founders did, indeed, allow for a postal system to develop in the early Founding period, and funded it—and from that, they basically derive this notion that somehow the Founders would be wildly enthusiastic about a modern media welfare state. I think spinning in their graves would be their more likely response—because we fought a revolution—a revolution, for God’s sake!—against a foreign power to break free, and part of that revolution, if not a very significant part of it, was based upon speech freedom! Giving us the right to speak freely, and to communicate, and to publish what we wanted, and the very first—the very first—Amendment in our Constitution relates to freedom of speech, and it is the only Amendment, the only clause in the Constitution, where you find a specific industry, in fact, mentioned by name—“the press”—and it’s protected from the government! So all signs would point to the exact opposite conclusion from the one McChesney and Nichols draw, and yet here we have them saying, “This is something the Founders would endorse.” It’s absolutely preposterous.
ARONOFF: Many feel that, really, their aim is, is to muzzle conservative voices, whether on talk radio, TV, the Internet—and so how would they reconcile that? Yes, they may like this government control of the media during an Obama administration, but would they during, say, a Reagan administration? How do they reconcile that notion?
THIERER: Well, they claim that their approach, that their idea of having the State being the handmaiden, the press, the subsidizer and protector of it, would actually encourage more of all voices, and that they wouldn’t have any problem with subsidies flowing to conservative or libertarian voices, so on and so forth. But, you know, I’m sorry: The book is dedicated to Bill Moyers. That should be the first sign that something’s wrong when they claim they have no problem with voices on the Right: When they dedicate it to liberal darling Bill Moyers. And they repeatedly bash every type of free market-oriented media outlet you can name. There really isn’t anybody who isn’t the object of their derision on the Right, in terms of a media resource—and not just Fox News.
And so the notion that they think the government will be a straight shooter, and fair and balanced and everything, in terms of how they award subsidies, or how they regulate, is utter hogwash. In fact, they’ve made a career of bashing Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, but it goes well, well beyond that. So that’s problem number one. Problem number two is, even though they pretend that they wouldn’t be tilting the balance against corporate media, or conservative, or market-oriented viewpoints, what they do is really tricky: They have this basic approach of saying, “Look, we don’t put the thumb on the scales in one direction or another. However, they say, if you accept any subsidies, if you’re a failing media institution, or you’re just any other media institution, and you want State subsidies for your press, or your output, you have to agree to two conditions. And the two conditions are, that, essentially, you will not take any commercial advertising, and you will give up your copyrights—that everything you do or publish goes immediately into the public domain. So why would they want to do that? Well, of course, they’d want to do that because copyright and advertising have been the bread and butter that have made private media tick in this country. They have been the mother’s milk of a free and independent press. And it’s precisely because America relied on copyright, and on advertising, that we didn’t have to go down the path of many foreign nations, and have the State start subsidizing the press. We didn’t have to have a BBC. We didn’t have to have these highly centralized bureaucracies running our media state, or subsidizing it. And so here is a deliberate and indirect attempt by them to undermine a free press, and it would lead us right back to what their ultimate aim is—which they begin and conclude the book by saying what their aim is, is a, quote, unquote, “post-corporate newsroom.” And what they mean by “post-corporate newsroom” is, essentially, a non-capitalist newsroom. And this shouldn’t be surprising, because McChesney has written one book after another where he states that his clear aim is the destruction of “media capitalism”—and he uses that term repeatedly, that “We have to kill the media capitalists,” he says. So if that’s your aim, no better way to do it than remove copyright protection and take away advertising revenue as a stream of support.
ARONOFF: Let’s take a look at what many of us consider to be these threats to our First Amendment rights, one at a time. First, the “Fairness Doctrine,” which I know you’ve addressed before, but not in this particular article. It existed in this country from 1949 to 1987, and I know earlier in this decade there were legislative efforts to bring it back that went nowhere, so the conventional wisdom on the Right has been that the Left still wants to do this, but disguised as other things, such as “localism” or “ownership diversity,” and that it will come, more likely, by FCC regulations, rather than legislation. Briefly tell us what the Fairness Doctrine was, and where it stands today.
THIERER: You did a fairly nice job providing an overview of, historically, where we’ve been in that fight, and it’s been an epic battle—and I’m really pleased to say that I think we’ve won that battle, in many ways. We’ve won it both from a political, strategic point of view, and also from a legal, Constitutional point of view. I think our arguments have prevailed, that, indeed, the Fairness Doctrine was the ultimate in unintended consequences for a regulation. It basically said, “We want to do something, as a government, to promote more diversity, and more viewpoints,” and the regulation had the exact opposite result: It resulted in a chilling effect, or a stifling of viewpoints, the courts said—and found repeatedly. And even the FCC was forced to admit that, and that’s why they took it off the books. So when you talk about the history of unintended consequences in regulation, Fairness Doctrine is Exhibit A. Well, we’ve sort of won that debate, and I understand a lot people on the Right, a lot of conservatives, have still been very, very worked up about this, and concerned that Nancy Pelosi and others have hinted they’d like to get it back on the books. The reality is this: It’s not coming back on the books. But what the Left has done, I think, quite creatively, is, they’ve used it as a diversionary tactic. It’s sort of like, “Look over here! Get all worried about the Fairness Doctrine being revived! We’ll say a few things here and there to work you up!”
But in reality, the far bigger threat is this one that McChesney and Nichols are providing a blueprint for, which is of wholesale, whole scale media marketplace takeover. It’s about having the State intervene and start subsidizing the press heavily, intervene and start regulating how it operates, who can be how big and sell what to whom in what markets. That’s a huge threat, a much bigger threat to the First Amendment and our speech freedoms, because we are talking about a level of government intervention in the media marketplace that has been unheard of throughout American history. So that’s what horrifies me about what’s happened is that, over the last four or five years, I think a lot of folks on the Right have been paying way too much attention to this—what, to me, is really a non-threat, a Fairness Doctrine revival. And I’m not saying that the Left wouldn’t maybe try to institute it again after they get these other things done, but we’ve not been paying enough attention to this question of them using the State as, sort of, this salvation, Hail Mary thing for struggling media. Because it’s true: Private media operators are struggling in this country. We are in the midst of a major media metamorphosis, and some of them are going to fail. Many of them already have. And I’m a former journalist. I started my life [with] a journalism degree in college, back in the mid ’80s, and I care about private media—and I don’t want to see them all fail, but I know some will. But what I don’t want to see is, everyone turn and expect the State to come in and fill that gap, and become the new broker of news and information for American culture and society. That would be, to me, really, really quite troubling. So that’s where we need to channel our energies and resources, and McChesney and Nichols’ books, they show us the blueprint of where the Left wants to go on this, and they give us the reason to keep fighting.
ARONOFF: I basically agree with you, in that the Fairness Doctrine is not coming back, at least for a while. If these other things happen, then maybe—but what about—just address those other issues that many are concerned that, by talking about “localism,” or “ownership diversity” through FCC regulations, that they’re going to create a Fairness Doctrine in fact, if not in name.
THIERER: Yeah. That’s a fair criticism, a fair concern, because these regulatory requirements that the Federal Communications Commission has had on the books for some time, or that they’d like to seek to strengthen, things like localism mandates and ownership requirements, really are an interesting backdoor way for the State to get a lot more power over the press—and, just for your listeners, so they understand what we’re talking about, these localism requirements and media ownership rules, they sound good in theory. It’s like, “Okay, well, we need to have the FCC do a better job of monitoring what’s being said in local communities to make sure that viewpoints are being satisfied and adequately served, communities are being adequately served,” and ownership is not—we don’t have too many media titans, and this is how they play it up.
Well, the reality is, at the end of the day, it all adds up to a whole heck of a lot more FCC control over the superstructure of the press, because when the government can control the size and the shape of the soap box, it means they can control the speech delivered on top of the soap box. And this is what’s always been forgotten throughout the history of media regulation in America: We’ve tried to artificially separate these two questions of economic and speech freedom, when the two really go hand-in-hand. And so, what’s so dangerous about this is, if the FCC had all these new layers of red tape on media providers at the local level, and they gave—this is even more horrifying, the idea of giving certain local councils some greater power over those local media institutions—holy cow! Yeah, that’s a great idea. Give every local city council, or local media board, some sort of authority over the press. That is horrific! To give elected leaders, or even community watchdog groups, some sort of power over the press. Because they will use it to stifle things that they don’t want to hear—including things about themselves. So that is what’s so dangerous, and cuts to the core, about this issue of “licensing” of the press. So much of this is tied up with the fact that—where did the Fairness Doctrine apply? It did not apply to newspapers. It applied to licensed broadcast television and radio operators. This is what’s so dangerous. People forget, we shouldn’t be licensing the press at all, and even if they get some spectrum, through an auction or otherwise, from the government, it doesn’t mean that the State should control speech on those airwaves, or whatever else. And yet that’s exactly what happened.
THIERER: There is some good news here, though, which is—I usually don’t say it this way, to my friends on the Left, but in a funny sense, I almost want to say, like, “You want to have this fight? Bring it on—because I don’t want to see you try to apply all this nonsense to the Internet!” I mean, please! How are you going to do that? What corner—you’re going to have a cyber-SWAT team on every digital corner, looking to police speech? How about our little talk right here, Roger? How are they going to police that? [Laughs.]
ARONOFF: Right . . .
THIERER: There’s so much outlet now, there’s so much speech! We live in a world of information abundance, and yet these people are wringing their hands, saying, “Oh, we need to micromanage it to make sure it’s fair, that the different viewpoints are—” Hey, we’ve got different viewpoints out the kazoo! We don’t need to have the government even doing this any more, and frankly, I don’t know how they would! If they’re just going to do this to old broadcast radio and television guys—what’s the use in that? It’s silly!
ARONOFF: Yeah. There is something that raises—today there’s a story in the Washington Post about a new jihadi website that’s going to be in English, and basically available to anybody who wants to go on it here, and there’s a question and a debate: In that case, is the government justified in doing like what China and Iran does, and block it? Or would you be in favor of even letting a jihadi website that’s trying to recruit people to—
THIERER: Oh, that’s an easy call for me, Roger! I absolutely believe we should allow that to exist, not just for free speech purposes, ’cause I want to see who goes on it, so we can find and track those creeps! You know, when I hear about these sites popping up like that, I’m like, “Hey! We’ve got, now, digital footprints to follow the bad guys!” And so we don’t want to necessarily stifle that, not just for free speech’s sake, but because it gives a lot of us an eye into who the real bad guys are, and if they’re so foolish as to populate that site, and put their viewpoints out, we’re going to expose them. I think that’s a blessing, not a curse, that we live in an age of information abundance. And, yeah, I know a lot of knuckleheads will have a soap box now. They’ll say stupid things, they’ll say even dangerous things at times. But I’m actually willing to let a lot more of that go than others, because we can trace and track it, and figure out who these people out there are, call them out, shame them, or even investigate them if they are a serious threat to our society, like that site, maybe.
ARONOFF: In your article, you also talk about this new FTC, Federal Trade Commission, study on the issue of public subsidizing of the news industry, taxing electronics—so, this kind of mirrors McChesney, and this shows how, in the Obama administration, there are people with the same mindset of McChesney—
ARONOFF: So what about this? What is this—if news organizations and reporters are dependent on, and beholden to, the government for their income, won’t that obviously affect how and what they report, and, at the same time, kill privately held media?
THIERER: Yeah, you’ve got it, right, Roger. Basically, what the FTC and the FCC have both done—that’s the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission—what they’ve both done is, they’ve opened up new investigations into the future of media and journalism, and what they say is—this all could be filed under the old motto of We’re from the government, and we’re here to help. [Laughs.] And my answer to that, of course, is always, like Ronald Reagan’s was, is Don’t you believe it. Because, basically, what the FTC draft, in particular, does, is, it reads like the Cliff’s Notes for the McChesney and Nichols book. It has all sorts of cites back to their book, and to their work, and the work of the groups that they’ve funded and founded, like the radical group “Free Press,” here in Washington, which is their activist group—which is a hideous, hideously misnamed group, “Free Press.” Basically, the FTC has said, “Look! There are all these recommendations that are being put out there by these guys for how to save journalism or the press!” And the FTC claims they’re just creating a laundry list, a compendium of ideas. They say, “We don’t endorse any of this!” And yet, all—the document is full of all of these bad ideas from these lunatic fringe groups, and they say, “Well, if you’ve got a better idea, put it forward!” And the point is that, on our side, we say, “No, no, no! You don’t get it! We don’t want the government to have these ideas! We don’t want the government to be doing, necessarily, anything here!” And when we do say, “Okay, here are a few steps you can take. Like, maybe, getting out of the way, not doing “localism,” not imposing these media ownership rules,” they say, “Well, that’s not a solution,” we say, “Yes, it is! It’s cleaning up the mess you’ve created as a government!” But, see, for them, it’s all about “Progressive Activism,” and finding new ways to intervene, to Help. And when we reject that, they just don’t retreat.
ARONOFF: Let me switch to another thing. Some of the people that Obama has appointed, like Anita Dunn, who attacks Fox News, and says it’s “not a real news organization,” and one of her heroes is Mao Tse-tung; and then Mark Lloyd, one of his heroes is Hugo Chavez—or not his hero, but he admires him and what he’s done with the media. What is going on, and why are the media so silent about these things that would seem to be restricting, jeopardizing their very industry? But we hear nothing about this in the news.
THIERER: Yeah, it is disturbing, and, you know, the fact of the matter is, is that I think there are clearly some people in the Obama administration who believe in these dangerous ideas. Now, I don’t want to indict the entire administration, and, to be fair, the FCC and FTC have not formally announced any plans yet, or proposals on this front, that would directly track the McChesney-Nichols or Free Press kind of radical agenda. However, the very fact that those groups, and those radical neo-Marxist voices are getting so much attention from certain people in the administration, or are being summarized in these reports—it raises my blood pressure. It’s certainly something that I think should make us nervous, and that we should call out, and it’s not just because there’s a handful of people who’ve said the silly things that you’ve just noted in the Obama administration. It’s the fact that these groups are getting visibility. We are talking about people who are avowed Marxists, and I don’t throw around the M or the S word, Marxism or socialism, lightly—I don’t want to be guilty of Red-baiting—but when people say that’s what they are, when they espouse these points of view, I don’t know what else to say, except to point it out to people and say, “Are you all right with this? Are you all right with the idea of, quote, unquote, ‘ending media capitalism,’ as Robert McChesney calls for? Or a quote, unquote, ‘post-corporate newsroom’ where everything is public media?” I would hope average folk would look at that and say, “That’s crazy talk!” And I’m hoping that at the end of the day, that’s how we’ll win this debate: Just take the information they’ve given us and use it against them.
ARONOFF: Let me get some real quick answers from you on a couple things; we’re almost out of time. “Net Neutrality.” Once again, like “Fairness,” who can oppose “Neutrality?” But many believe that this is the way the federal government gets its nose under the tent to have some say on what goes on the Internet, and, from there, anything goes. Are you concerned about this push for Net Neutrality?
THIERER: Yes, I am, and I’ve written extensively about it, and tried to link it to this battle over media freedom, because, at the end of the day, what you’re talking about with Net Neutrality is, essentially, Internet infrastructure regulation, and control of the channels of speech and the platforms of communications by the State. This is part of this broader debate, this broader war of ideas that we’re in, because if the State has control over the, if you will, the “information means of production,” to use a sort of neo-Marxist jargon—if the State has control over those things, through Net Neutrality regulation, then it makes it easier for them to do the kind of crazy stuff McChesney and Nichols want to do with the press. You’re talking about a world of media and communications that is utterly subservient to the State, both for support, and for direction. And that, to me, is an American horror story unfolding.
ARONOFF: So any final thoughts—and quickly, once again, how they can find you and your articles—and then we’re going to have to let it go.
THIERER: Sure. I appreciate you having me today, and, again, if people want more information, they can find it on our website, Progress and Freedom Foundation’s website, pff.org, and I encourage people to read up on what’s happening here, and to even read the McChesney and Nichols book, because, believe me, it’ll give you a lot of heartburn, a lot of grief, but it’ll also remind you what we’re fighting for here, in terms of our fundamental First Amendment freedoms.
ARONOFF: Our guest has been Adam Thierer, with the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Adam, thank you so much for being with us today.
THIERER: Thanks for having me.