The Battle for Media Freedom, Part 1: What is Media Freedom?

by Adam Thierer on July 19, 2010

What do we mean by “media freedom” and why is this topic worthy of a dedicated blog?  After all, whether you ask  a Washington policy wonk or your average man in street, you’re not likely to find anyone who is against the idea of media freedom.

But the term “media freedom” — like the word “freedom” itself — means different things to different people. If we were to believe some regulatory activists, such as the shockingly misnamed advocacy group Free Press, “media freedom” means a media and communications world wrapped in regulatory red tape and shackled at every juncture with meddlesome mandates handed down from Beltway bureaucrats. Of course, such a contorted view of “media freedom” shouldn’t be shocking coming as it does from an organization founded by Robert W. McChesney, America’s leading neo-Marxist media scholar! [See my essays,"Free Press, Robert McChesney & the “Struggle” for Media," and "What the Media Reformistas Really Want."]

There is another — and much more accurate — view of what “media freedom” really is.  In our 2008 book, A Manifesto for Media Freedom, Brian C. Anderson and I defined “media freedom” as follows:

For media consumers, it’s the freedom to consume whatever information or entertainment we want from whatever sources we choose, without government restricting our choices. For media creators and distributors, it’s the freedom to structure their business affairs as they wish in seeking to offer the public an expanding array of media options, for both news and entertainment. And for both consumers and creators, media freedom is being able to speak one’s mind without restraint, and without the threat of FCC or FEC bureaucrats telling us what is “fair.”

This site exists to defend that vision of media freedom from attacks by groups like Free Press and the many other cyber-collectivists and regulatory micromanagers, who seek to bastardize the beauty of the word freedom by redefining it as state servitude.  In future essays, this site will explore their agenda and seek to counter it whenever it threatens to quash or speech and economic freedoms.

What would an agenda for real media freedom or media policy reform look like?  Again, Brian Anderson and I mapped one out in our Manifesto for Media Freedom:

  • Embrace the dazzling variety of modern media—a media cornucopia that gives people the freedom to choose among a rich and growing array of information and entertainment options. Never has it been easier to become an informed democratic citizen.
  • Reject any effort to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, either within Congress or at the FCC—it is anti-free speech, subject to political abuse, and would substantially reduce the variety of voices (especially on the right) contesting in the modern agora.
  • Liberate media operators from archaic restrictions and mandates that limit their flexibility to respond to the radical changes taking place in the media marketplace.
  • Say no to new “localism” or “public interest” mandates that would impose yet greater regulatory burdens on broadcast television and radio operators already struggling to remain competitive in the new media universe. These mandates should also be dismissed as sly attempts to re-impose Fairness Doctrine-esque content controls on the market.
  • Allow Broadband Internet providers to manage more actively the data pulsing through their cables, fiber optics, phone lines, and wireless connections and so create a twenty-first century telecommunications infrastructure. Net Neutrality is a bad idea — a form of infrastructure socialism that will stifle innovation and threaten a big Web slowdown.
  • Don’t fear new media!
  • Reject “a la carte” mandates on cable and satellite providers that would decimate the vibrant diversity of programming on pay TV today, and hit family-friendly and religious broadcasters particularly hard.
  • Reject federal, state or local efforts to regulate video game content, or get rid of the industry’s excellent voluntary rating system and impose a government ratings system in its place. Parents have all the tools they need to monitor their children’s video-game consumption without expanding the Nanny State.
  • Encourage parental empowerment and education-based strategies to address concerns about online child safety instead of banning social networking websites or other online content.
  • Take steps to roll back the most onerous elements of modern campaign finance law and, at a minimum, protect new media outlets and forms of political expression from speech-stifling restrictions.

Again, in coming months, we’ll be discussing this vision and contrasting it with the more statist view of groups like Free Press and various other media marketplace central planners.

In the meantime, here’s some additional background reading to give you a feel for what we are up against:

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