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Friday, June 4, 2010

Chill Speech, Serve Cold
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I recently stumbled across a Future of Media filing with the FCC that has aroused the attention of many on the Right. It was filed by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), and has numerous "usual suspects" as co-signers (such as the Free Press, Benton Foundation, Common Cause, Rainbow Push Coalition, etc.). The bent of the filing is - there's a lot of "hate" speech out there, and the FCC should study it, exploring "non-regulatory ways to counteract its negative impacts."

According to the NHMC:

...[T]he current media landscape is a safe-haven for hate and extremism. Many communities and individuals do not have the information they want and need to intelligently engage in our democracy. This shortage of information is exacerbated by the vast media consolidation that has unfolded over the past two decades.

One statement in particular stood out:
...[H]ate, extremism and misinformation have been on the rise, and even more so in the past week as the media has focused on Arizona's passage of one of the harshest pieces of anti-Latino legislation in this country's history, SB 1070.

Without getting into all the conspiratorial stuff we see on the Internet - i.e., that groups like those represented within the filing seek mainly to shut down conservative talk radio - a couple things struck me when reading what NHMC had to say.

First. Bringing in Arizona's immigration law in such a manner seems to me to exhibit poor form. With only a single wing nut quote in the filing to back up the specious connection, the assertion that the law is "one of the harshest pieces of anti-Latino legislation" ever seems purposefully inflammatory and inserted primarily to prey on the very misinformation the group decries.

No doubt, there's certainly a lot of misinformation out there. But on this very issue, we're told by the mainstream press, there's no room for debate (where have we heard that before?). The law is racist. The people of Arizona are racist. 70% of Americans who support this law are racist. And public officials - like, Eric Holder to Janet Napolitano - won't stand for it. They just know it's, er, a "bad law," a "slippery slope to racial profiling" and likely unconstitutional.

How did they arrive at their conclusions? From mainstream media reports, of course; neither had read the bill before making their condemning assertions before TV audiences and Congressional panels.

But take a look at the legislation - SB-1070. Basically, it compels Arizona officials to help enforce current federal immigration policies. To this end, Arizona officials may not consider race, color or national origin when implementing the law. Only upon a lawful stop, detention or arrest, and then only after reasonable suspicion (all terms well understood and "defined" in the courts), can a law enforcement officer seek to determine the immigration status of the detainee.

The law is similar in many regards to California Proposition 187, passed in 1994, but which numerous aspects of it were found unconstitutional. Unconstitutional how? Not because it could lead to the "slippery slope of profiling." But rather, because it infringed the federal government's jurisdiction over matters relating to immigration.

You wouldn't have known that if you listened to Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano. Or, the mainstream press.

Apparently innocent on the surface, groups like NHMC ask only that the FCC study the extent and effects of hate speech in the media, purportedly to mitigate the perceived harm rendered unto NHMC's constituency by "non-diverse" media outlets. Of course, this examination wouldn't fly - or would certainly have less effect - in the unlicensed world of the Internet.

But, where licensees have renewals upcoming, and the FCC's vague "public interest" standard hangs like the Sword of Damocles in the balance (even as a threat), these studies invariably get used against those seeking renewals to create policy deltas that could not otherwise be achieved through rule or statute. In this instance, they'd likely be used to chill "undesirable" speech. Even more than what we've seen already playing out in the Arizona debate, with the mainstream media "censoring" truly diverse, deliberative debate on the important national issue of immigration reform.

How does that help communities? The answer is - it doesn't. It only helps feral legislators and bureaucrats, seeking any scrap of leverage they can get to help traffic their sub rosa agendas. Americans get less useful information as a result.

To a related point, the filing reminds me of Professor Ellen Goodman's lament in her seminal Media Policy Out of the Box: Content Abundance, Attention Scarcity, and the Failures of Digital Markets by Ellen Goodman. Prof. Goodman - who is leading the FCC's Future of Media team - states: "Even if the market could give consumers exactly what they wanted, the media would not necessarily deliver what a strong democracy and civil society needs in terms of exposure to diversity..." Thus, in her view "[p]olicy aspirations require, and policy has sometimes taken, a more proactive approach to the provision and consumption of media products that transcends consumer sovereignty," policy which seeks to manipulate our attentions and media consumption "in the service of democratic values..."

In other words, she believes chosen, government elites should more actively decide what's in our best interest instead of us doing it for ourselves.

The NHMC parrots some of this talk in their filing, noting that "the traditional media have largely failed to provide the accurate information needed for an informed democracy." But who's failed whom? And what's the cure?

The public officials who hastily condemned the law jumped the gun in order to frame the debate. There was no deficit of information if they really wanted to find it (especially outside of the mainstream media). But they chose not to. It didn't fit with their narrative or the party talking points.

But, heck, if our own public officials can't seem to get the information they need to make informed conclusions about important policy matters, what scenario - other than to Clockwork Orange Americans into submission - would "properly" lead people to the table of democracy so they could sup of the "right" information?

Says the NHMC filing, "hate has developed as a profit-model for syndicated radio and cable television programs masquerading as 'news'." Not accidentally, those markets are dominated by conservative voices and media outlets. So, a fair question must be asked: Were the NHMC and Ellen Goodman in charge, would we have a debate about the Arizona bill; could we question - as we have heard loudly in mainly the conservative media, but absent in mainstream media - the official line? Or would that be subverted in "better service" of our democratic values?

I hate hate speech. But what I dislike more is how groups like NHMC feed feral legislators and bureaucrats scat, which then gets used against Americans to shut down ideas and voices that, though uncomfortable and against party line, serve democracy, too.

posted by Mike Wendy @ 10:19 AM | Communications , Free Speech , Mass Media , Media Regulation , State Policy , The FCC

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I think I was looking for a different type of parrot thankyou

Posted by: clive edwards at May 11, 2011 10:17 PM

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