Free Speech for Sale....and why our media is for the most part ignoring our plight.

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Posted by S and G (e-mailed in to IWA) on June 09, 1999 at 14:56:11:

The show already ran but gave alot of insight as to this crisis in democracy. A video tape can be bought and it appears it will be playing on Satellite TV on the 12th.
Program Information
Bill Moyers: Free Speech For Sale

TV Listings -- Check Local Listings
06/08/1999 -- 9:00pm
06/08/1999 -- 9:00pm, 2:00am, 4:00am
06/12/1999 -- 4:00am

- Tuesday, June 8, 1999 -

Our democracy is drowning in "free" speech that's paid for by tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars by all these interests that have enough money to pay for the microphones and the airwaves to get their message out.

- Charles Lewis
The Center for Public Integrity

Under the Constitution, every American has the right of free speech, but does free speech matter if no one can hear it? Bill Moyers' investigation into money and politics reveals the painful truth that free speech, and the certainty that one will be heard, is guaranteed only to those who can afford it. And corporations can afford it. Whether through purchasing massive amounts of advertising for political purposes, or by owning the companies that bring people the news, powerful corporations are able to drown out the voices that disagree with them - and it's all perfectly legal. Moyers examines this dangerous tilt in American democracy in A BILL MOYERS SPECIAL: FREE SPEECH FOR SALE, a one-hour program premiering on PBS Tuesday, June 8, 1999, 9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Moyers and the producing team of Tom Casciato and Kathleen Hughes report on three industries with deep pockets that used their access to the media - or in some cases, their control of it - to attempt to influence public opinion. Last year, the tobacco industry plowed $40 million into an advertising campaign designed to defeat the McCain Tobacco Bill - "the highest amount ever spent in a sustained issue advocacy campaign in the United States," according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Jamieson, the ads distorted the facts and misled the public about this major piece of tobacco legislation. Not only that, says Jamieson, the ads went all but unanswered on the all-important battleground of television. The bill was derailed despite heavy majority support in Congress and public opinion.

A similar fate awaited a politician in North Carolina who crossed the powerful hog industry. The industry targeted freshman state legislator Cindy Watson, a conservative Republican who had helped to curb the rapid growth of the hog industry so that environmental concerns about hog-waste disposal could be addressed. When Watson was up for re-election, the hog industry, under the guise of a group called "Farmers for Fairness," launched a huge advertising campaign against her. She didn't have the money to answer. Though the ads were obviously political in nature and aimed directly at Watson, they were completely legal and unregulated by any campaign finance law because they carefully avoided directly asking the public to vote against her. Says Bob Hall, research director of Democracy South, who followed the Watson election campaign: "They [corporations] use all this legal trickery, [but] at its core, it's politics. It's companies who can't vote using their treasuries, their resources, to influence voting."

But what are the implications for "free" speech when huge corporations attempt to influence the debate not by simply buying media time, but by buying the media itself? The special looks at what happened when the big media companies set out to get Congress to enact the Telecommunications Act of 1996. One provision of the Act handed the networks and other television station owners free new channels - a.k.a. the "digital spectrum" - for the transition to all-digital broadcasting. The news organizations they own barely bothered to report on this pending legislation even as the corporate owners (NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox) were lobbying Congress hard for what amounted to a corporate giveaway estimated to be worth $70 billion. Arizona Senator John McCain, one of only five senators to vote against the Act, says, "The average American does not know what digital spectrum is. They just don't know. But here in Washington their assets that they own were being given away. [And] the coverage as compared with what any other story of this magnitude would have gotten was minuscule."

Besides leading to the "giveaway" of the digital spectrum, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed further conglomeration of media ownership in an industry already dominated by a few corporate giants. "This is a tremendous danger for our society," says Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Consumers Union in Washington, "because if it's the car business and there [are] mergers and consolidation, we fear higher prices, less choice and we try to monitor it. But if we make a mistake, we can break it up, challenge it. The facts are out there to the public. [But] if it's a media company merging with another major media company who is going to take it on?"

Bert Neuborne, former national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and current legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, is among those concerned about the First Amendment issues raised by dominant corporate speech. "The First Amendment is aspirational," he says. "It's romantic. It says that the purpose is to create a world in which people can speak freely and equally to one another. And therefore there's an obligation to step in at some point and even the playing field so that individuals can actually have real discussions and real debates. Because what we've now got is not a real democracy with real debate, but we've got a plutocracy in which money talks."

Are unregulated, unexamined, expensive campaigns like "Big Tobacco" a threat to free speech or an embodiment of the right to declare one's viewpoint? Is the campaign by the hog industry in North Carolina an aberration or a template for the future of political discourse? If big media corporations "own the store," will bottom-line priorities undermine the editorial integrity of their news operations? Among those heard addressing these questions are Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania; Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC; Bert Neuborne, legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law; Senator John McCain of Arizona; Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Consumers Union in Washington; Bob Hall, research director of Democracy South; and Dean Alger, author of Megamedia.

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