Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Protecting free speech in an age of megaphones

In a previous post I quoted Mary, a Jotman reader, who expressed a desire to "stop" Fox News from spreading hatred of Obama in her community of rural Arkansas.  Some readers commented that everyone has the right to free speech, and that it is necessary to defend Fox, even if we strongly disagree with it.   

Mary's wish that Fox could be "stopped" did not strike me as an especially risky position, but a reasonable one under the circumstances.

The situation Mary described with respect to Fox News is analogous to a guy in the town square screaming into a megaphone. He won't shut up even for an hour. Nobody who is not his buddy gets a chance to be heard.

Although the guy with the megaphone has the right to speak, just because someone can afford to buy a megaphone does not mean he should be able to use it continuously, or keep it set at such a high volume that others cannot be heard. Free speech doesn't mean that the guy holding the biggest megaphone should be able to dictate who gets to speak and be heard and who doesn't.   It is right that the townsfolk should assemble and make rules governing the use of megaphones.   

Free speech is a means to an end, a way to ensure any ideas can be discussed, and so make for the betterment of yourself and your society. It's about having the best conversations possible.  It's about creating  opportunities to make informed decisions.

If all the megaphones are under the control of just a few companies with strong ties to the government, too many people do not get heard.  Then there is no conversation, no lively discussion of issues anymore. There may be "free speech" in a technical sense, but it cannot be very effective.

That's why I thought it was sensible for Mary to point a finger at the guy hogging the loudest megaphone and say: "Let's stop him" (from dominating the whole conversation).  

Too few megaphones in too few hands presents a serious problem. Regulating the use of megaphones should not be equated with taking away anyone's right to free speech.  Rather, it's a means of defending this right.
Photo by Jotman shows leaders of a May Day rally in Jakarta.


  1. So where does it stop? You say this guy can't do what he's doing. What will you say and do when someone tells you to stop saying what you're saying? You're not going to like it are you? You're likely to keep doing what you're doing aren't you? I'll bet you'll get really angry when someone tells you to stop. Once the precedent is established its only a matter of time before they use those laws on YOU!

  2. I really don't mind a "popular uprising" against Fox news. Grassroots campaigns that so successfully brought Obama and many Democrats into office have the far-reaching influence to compete with or challenge even large news organizations. If people like you and Mary can get enough people to agree with you, then Fox news *should* listen or pay the consequences. You know I'm conservative, but even I dislike shrill alarmism; you would probably find some allies like me.

    I simply object to that job being given to the government, that's all. It's too hard to take power away from government once it is given. And, if you create a bureaucracy to govern who gets to say what, at what volume, you inevitably end up with a lack of accountability.

    For example, would you be comfortable if the government controlled the discussion of prosecuting Bush-era officials for perpetrating torture? That would bug me a lot; how would I know if the people who committed that torture were not now in a position of power over the networks?

  3. I understand your point about the 'slope moving'. Its the game they've been playing very successfully.

    You rightly pointed out the court decision that gave juristic persons, corporations, all the rights of natural persons and few of our responsibilities. Its essentially turned into a one dollar one vote system. You and I will never win that fight.

    Its not going to get better. Its only gotten worse during my lifetime and exponentially so in the last two decades. Soon it will become unbearable.

    Duhmerica is collapsing. Its really bad there. Living in Bangkok I get a steady stream of guests from Duhmerica year 'round. In previous years we'd have some pretty heated debates about Duhmerica's future. This past six months every one of my guests have admitted what I been telling them for years is true: Duhmerica is collapsing. They know it and tell me that almost all but the most fervent know it. The fear is palpable in their voices, manner and speech.

    While I understand that Duhmerican'ts are conditioned from birth to fight with each other about everything its time to quit fighting and get to figuring out how you'll survive the collapse.

    Worrying about shite you can't change is only going to divert your attention from solving your biggest problem: survival. This not meant to demean you in any way. Its meant to help you. Good luck!


  4. Bosunj,

    You're saying it's a slippery slope.

    I'm saying the slope itself is moving, there's a landslide already underway. It's too late to worry about slipping.

    How to prevent the erosion of democratic values that is already underway? I'm focused on the clear and present danger of allowing a few conglomerates to continue to dominate the news media landscape.


    ...if you create a bureaucracy to govern who gets to say what, at what volume, you inevitably end up with a lack of accountability.

    I'm not talking about creating any new agency to monitor content!

    Such an agency already exists -- the FCC. Anti-trust laws are already on the books. So there is plenty of precedent for acting along the lines of my simple proposal. That's to put some teeth into the spirit of existing US laws intended to regulate the ownership of news broadcasters. You don't want too few companies with too many many ties to government dominating the news business, do you?

    The problem with these companies is that too many are too dependent on the government. For example, a company like GE (owner of NBC) is dependent on defense contracts for a lot of its profits.

    I'm also concerned about too much government influence.

    That would bug me a lot; how would I know if the people who committed that torture were not now in a position of power over the networks?

    And what makes you so sure they aren't?

  5. A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party. - Henry A. Wallace

  6. That thing on the remote? That is a switch-on-off. Just use it, if you do not like the channel. The comparision to a megaphone is misleading. a telephone would be a more appropriate analogy.
    Personally, after watching ALL the other channels kissing the big O's ass for quite some time now, I am glad there is at least one other avenuue on the MSM. I initially voiced some concern to my wife prior to the elections, that I did not really know a thing about Obama. Oh, she said, by the end of this election you will. The media dig through everything. WRONG. Instead, he got the biggist wet kiss possible, with no digging at all..
    If you want to worry about something, try HIS (the ONE) efforts to track and record comments via email and blogs, HIS efforts to get legislation to be able shut off the internet, and HIS efforts to hire a contractor to monitor the internet. And maybe HIS 33 non elected czars, etc. This guy is building a police state in front of our eyes. Oh, did it it catch anybodys attention the Patriot act still stands? BAD for Bush to have the power, GOOD for Obama to have it.
    PS- this is not a shill for the republicans, I despise them too.

  7. Anonymous,

    I agree that on the whole, Fox News has been more critical of Obama than other networks. But I think we should ask ourselves this question: Have these critiques been all that substantial?

    I don't think so. In your list of things Obama is doing that you don't like, you include the fact that he has appointed lots of "unelected tsars." Since it was actually Ronald Reagan who started the "tsar" thing, I find this critique not terribly substantive, therefore typical of the Fox News strategy: sound-off about nonsense ("the tsars are coming!"), but whisper the real stories.

    For example, although the Economist agrees Obama may have appointed too many tsars, it labels the attention this story is getting "an accident of the news industry."


    The American news industry is all about causing such accidents.

    Watch Fox and you will think the really big scandal of 2009 was the fiscal stimulus bill. It was not. The great scandal was the second bailout of Goldman, AIG, and the big banks. In the former case at least some money got to Main Street, but the second instance concerned the robbery of Main Street to pay Wall Street.

    Fox News' attempts at "investigative journalism" only provide enough "loud noise" to drown out the substantive criticism of Obama. It's usually thinly-veiled racial, ethnic or religious innuendo. For example, recall the nonsense about "Obama's madrasah?" I debunked that Fox story back in 2008:

    On the other hand, the substantive criticisms that could be made of Obama were quite similar to the kinds of substantive criticisms that could just as easily have been made about McCain. (Both candidates supported the continuation of one or another of America's two wars, sticking it to Russia, the bailout of the banks, etc.) But its hard to hear these real stories, because those holding the megaphones are making so much noise about nonsense stories.

    Stories on the pro-Obama networks mainly amounted to debunking/uncovering bogus scandals that diverted people from discussing the big issues.

    Just owning a phone doesn't buy you a candidate. On the other hand, those who control the megaphones (several major networks) own the candidates, be they Republican or Democrat.

    In case you think I am unfairly singling out Fox, I focused on MSNBC here:



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