Sunday, August 30, 2009

Obama won. Why isn't this Fox hunting season?

In a previous post I quoted Cathy, a Jotman reader in Arkansas, who wrote: "I'm rather afraid right now and wish somehow Fox News could be halted from inciting such hatred in people."  In response, reader Bosunji wrote:
While I agree that FOX News is stirring the uglier baser aspects of their constituents I must point out that popular speech doesn't need protection. Only unpopular speech needs the protection of the 1st Amendment. When someone begins to suggest that anyone or anything must be prevented from freely expressing themselves I begin to worry. [my bold]
Recall that when the First Amendment (photo right) was passed in 1791,  the right of free speech had not yet been extended to "anyone or anything."

The "anything" in question today is a corporation, Fox News, owned by News Corp.  

By the late 1800s courts had come to view corporations as "legal persons," and subsequent high court decisions over the years have come to accord corporations many of the Constitutional rights of persons -- including free speech. 

I believe that the courts made a mistake.  Public corporations such as News Corp. should never have been extended any Constitutional rights  -- such as free speech -- in the first place. 

As with every other universal right,  free speech was originally predicated on the assumption that free citizens will find it in their own self-interest to exercise this right responsibly.  In the case of a public corporation -- which has no purpose other than to maximize its shareholders' return on investment -- such an assumption does not apply.  As constituted, public corporations are simply not capable of -- and ought not be expected to bear -- the responsibilities of person-hood and citizenship. 

Therefore, it was illogical for American courts ever to have decided that the peculiar legal entity that is the modern public corporation ought to have been accorded any of our human rights.   Look at it this way:  Under the law, human individuals are routinely held fully liable for their actions.   But the owners of a public corporation have only "limited liability."   That is, if I buy News Corp. stock, I cannot lose more than than my  investment should News Corp. get fined heavily for a crime.  Suppose its crime was to have cut down all the trees in a national park for newsprint.  The courts can go after a public corporation's owners can be held liable for no more than the amount they invested in the stock, no matter how much loss to society their investment caused.   On the other hand, suppose I bought a chainsaw and cut down all the trees in a local park to sell for firewood.  If convicted, I would stand to lose more than my investment in a chainsaw.  Human individuals can be held accountable for their actions to a greater extent than the owners of a publicaly-traded corporation; meaning that people have more incentive to behave responsibly than do corporations.  

The First Amendment of the Constitution establishes the right of the people to a "free press."  When the country's news media is controlled by a handful multinational corporations it is no longer has a free press.   Accordingly, the large multinationals ought to be divested of their news media holdings. 

This ought to be Fox-hunting season.

Background: In connection with this post, I recommend the book/documentary entitled The Corporation by Joel Bakan.  Incidentally, Bill Moyers, in recent HBO interview, explained that corporate funding of US political parties is considered "free speech" and protected by the Constitution.
Follow-up post: "Protecting free speech in an age of megaphones"


  1. Using the government to stifle or shut down corporations because you disagree with their message is a dangerous road to start on. Who gets to decide what's acceptable, and who watches these watchers?

    Venezuela is having serious problems with their press freedoms right now because Hugo Chavez has decided that networks who disagree with him are "dangerous" to the social revolution. If he gets his way, who will have the power to expose him should he cross the line?

    I'd rather have news networks saying crazy things and trust the discretion of my fellow citizens to ignore them, than to let government dictate who gets what kind of access to the public. It might not always work out the way I like, but that's life in a democracy.

  2. Great observation. I'm saving this one to my hard drive to always have on hand.

  3. Actually, both of these scenarios scare me. You're right about big business controlling the media - after all, who will hold them to task if not the press?

    But it is this very reason that I don't trust the government to do it either. The people who make the laws should not be allowed to also make the news.

    And I'll be honest that I don't know how to avoid both of these scenarios at the same time. But I think I'm more scared of government-censored news than business-influenced news.

  4. J-P,

    I'm more scared of government-censored news than business-influenced news.

    Me too. And I am afraid the US has come to more closely resembles the former situation than the latter.

    What's a logical first step? How about preventing the government-industry alliance that runs the country from maintaining its stranglehold over most of the news media.

  5. I'm very happy that you recognized the 'anything' in my post. I share your concerns about juristic persons.

    That said once one establishes a precedent unintended consequences can often occur. Say that FOX is shut down for any number of its actions. Many will be very happy and the world will be a better place. Wonderful. Several years or decades later you or another blogger posts material that a large group finds offensive and injurious. You find your site taken down and the host unreachable for resolution. You are furious. Where does it stop?

    I despise farang writers who slag Bangkok and Thailand while living here and having the benefit of not being back in whatever failing country they come from. Really dislike. I often take them to task for their harmful positions. However, I believe they have the absolute right to express their screwed up opinion no matter how offensive it is. Period.

    Perhaps its because I grew up before the advent and subsequent popularity of so-called 'political correctness'. Censorship writ large! Even more insidious because its proponents wish to censor one's very thoughts.

    Living in a free world has costs. One cost is occasionally having to hear things you don't want to hear.

  6. “Those who profess to favour freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground,” Frederick Douglass wrote. “They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.


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