The Battle for Media Freedom, Part 2: Understanding the Cyber-Collectivist Threat

by Adam Thierer on July 22, 2010

[See Part 1 in this series here.]

There are many battle fronts in the war for human freedom, but perhaps the least-appreciated of these is the battle over America’s communications and media marketplace and whether free markets or government mandates will ultimately rule them.  This battle takes on added importance since all other public policy debates depend upon an unfettered press and robust, independent channels of communication.

What many on the far Left have long understood, and many defenders of freedom have failed to appreciate, is that the battle for control of media and communications policy is fundamentally tied up with the broader war for control of our economy and society. “Instead of waiting for the revolution to happen, we learned that unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution,” argues the prolific Marxist media theorist Robert W. McChesney. “While the media is not the single most important issue in the world, it is one of the core issues that any successful Left project needs to integrate into its strategic program.”

Normally we wouldn’t need to pay attention to what unrepentant ‘60’s radicals or neo-Marxist university professors think about media and communications policy. In this case, however, it is essential we pay attention. First, McChesney is right in one sense: history reveals that almost every successful effort to impose sweeping controls over an economy / society was accompanied by government efforts to control press and communication systems. If the State is going to have any luck gaining widespread and far-reaching control of an economy, gaining more control over “the Press” — which means all of us these days — becomes an essential part of the “strategic program” for control. Second, we need to pay attention to these radicals because McChesney and the group he co-founded — the insultingly misnamed Free Press — have given this fight new immediacy with their relentless agitation for media and communications policy “reform.”  And they are not the only ones. As future essays in this series will document, the cyber-collectivist army is growing in size and strength.

Worse yet, these reformistas now have an audience with the Obama Administration.  They are regularly invited to testify before the FCC, FTC, and in Congress or have a private audience with policymakers and regulators.  Meanwhile, as I pointed out in this recent essay for, some of the central figures from this movement (and Free Press in particular) now hold key positions within the government and have the ear of key tech policymakers at the highest levels of power.

It is time, therefore, for us to better identify and understand the growing “cyber-collectivist” threat to our liberties, for this threat is real and imminent.  We see this threat manifest itself in policy battles over “Net neutrality” regulation of communications networks; efforts to “save journalism” through a massive infusion of State subsidies; proposals to impose a variety of “localism” or “diversity” requirements on local media outlets; efforts to abolish virtually any sort of copyright / IP protection; and in a renewed war on commercial advertising and marketing, which have traditionally sustained a free, independent press in America. These are just a few of the fault lines in a battle that puts our core First Amendment values and capitalistic freedoms at stake.  We have to understand the enemy before we can repeal its advances and make the case for real media freedom.

In the next installment in this series, I’ll offer an analytical framework that better explains the major difference between the antagonists in the battle over media freedom.

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