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Why Media Networks Cannot Serve the Public Interest

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By Walter Donway

May 18, 2017

 

We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him in the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence; his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creed refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond, and on these faces there are no smiles.

Hilaire Belloc

 

And so, we watch or read the next day about the comedian, Stephen Colbert, on one of America’s premier public television stations, unwinding a roll of toilet paper and joking that the President of the United States, Donald Trump, is good for nothing but oral sex with Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. That is as far as I am going with describing this. He used the most vulgar vocabulary of sex slang. But I recall a famous ambassador from Israel who said, in an entirely different context: “When you repeat an insult, you insult me all over again.”

Mr. Colbert chose as the worst insult imaginable his fantasy about homosexual relations involving Mr. Trump. Mr. Colbert remains a practicing Roman Catholic, a Sunday school teacher, and an ordained minister of something called the Universal Life Church Monastery.

The reaction of the public suggests that the “barbarian” (forgive the slur on barbarians, Mr. Colbert is much less innocent) dared to take a long step toward the complete “inversion” of standards that Americans identify as elemental decency. Mr. Colbert tried to go lower; he is the perfect type of self-righteous blowhard who in his rage justifies any means of attacking the object of his hatred. The public explosion of protest and calls for CBS to fire him and for viewers to boycott CBS and the sponsors of the show, suggest that this is a big step in the final eradication of civility: a declaration that nothing shall be beneath us.

Mr. Colbert as an individual, of course, is irrelevant. He has been a productive rising star from a conventional upper-middle-class background, a Roman Catholic born in Washington, D.C., educated in excellent schools, brilliant in climbing the highly competitive ladder in show business. It is not even clear why he became the one to so totally “pull out the stops” on public television, unwinding the toilet paper and uttering savage obscenities about President Trump.

More oddly, it has been pointed out that Mr. Colbert chose as the worst insult imaginable his fantasy about homosexual relations involving Mr. Trump. Mr. Colbert remains a practicing Roman Catholic, a Sunday school teacher, and an ordained minister of something called the Universal Life Church Monastery. Mr. Colbert in disguise took the stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention until he was dragged off stage.

But what can we do to draw a line beyond which the barbarian will not cross? It cannot be a limit imposed by government on freedom of speech, which is absolute and inviolable, written into the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And it is significant and hopeful that the firestorm of criticism of Mr. Colbert did not call for censorship; it called on CBS to fire Mr. Colbert from the Late Show and for a boycott of both CBS and the corporate sponsors of the Late Show. Both steps are remarkably civil, restrained protests of the grinning, smirking filth that Mr. Colbert flung at America. I certainly would endorse them.

You can read here how the media, abetted by Democrats, stirred up literal hysteria and hatred during the campaign. The media campaign eventually got hysterical thousands out into the streets for violent demonstrations and left a blanket of hate and fear over much of the country. Mr. Colbert is an example of one the dupes of the media who also happens to be self-righteous to the point of convincing himself ANY means are justified by his ends. The level of public discourse and civility plunged during the campaign, which the media tried to blame on Trump, but which they fanned and watched smiling as they thought the electorate had bought the story. To then discover that they had not succeeded, even after throwing away truth, ethics, and decency in the name of a higher cause, has led to their crusade to silence the alternative/social/popular media.

 

Whatever Happened to the FCC?

But I was surprised to see, on Facebook, that individuals were registering formal complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Yes, the FCC still exists. We don’t hear much about it for reasons I intend to explore. And you still can file complaints.

It is almost incredible, in retrospect, to see the intellectual level of this article. It discussed property rights and how they had been applied in American history (e.g., the Homestead Act of 1862), how the “airwaves” had been discovered and made into “public” property, the philosophy of the right to property in the airwaves, how the philosophy of “public ownership of the airwaves” had evolved since the time of Herbert Hoover; and how the doctrine of the “public ownership” of the airwaves led directly to government control of speech and press on the airwaves, and why this government censorship could not be limited to the airwaves.

In her first direct communication with readers in the Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand urged: “Choose Your Issues!” She identified two urgent public policy issues: The Federal Trade Commission (FCC, responsible, along with the Department of Justice, for enforcing the “antitrust laws”) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, responsible for regulating the airwaves in “the public interest.”) These two agencies, unfortunately as active today as when Ayn Rand wrote in 1964, more than half-a-century ago, still claim to regulate freedom in business and in the promulgation of ideas over the “public airwaves.”

Two years later, she continued her criticism of the FCC in “The Property Status of the Airwaves” (April 1964). It is almost incredible, in retrospect, to see the intellectual level of this article. It discussed property rights and how they had been applied in American history (e.g., the Homestead Act of 1862), how the “airwaves” had been discovered and made into “public” property, the philosophy of the right to property in the airwaves, how the philosophy of “public ownership of the airwaves” had evolved since the time of Herbert Hoover; and how the doctrine of the “public ownership” of the airwaves led directly to government control of speech and press on the airwaves, and why this government censorship could not be limited to the airwaves.

There was, she demonstrated, no objective definition of the “public interest” in broadcasting or anywhere else. What could it mean? Consensus? Suppression of disagreement? Instead, she advocated against government licensing of parts of the airwaves spectrum, such as the major TV networks. To make such licenses to an invaluable monopoly dependent upon “serving the public interest” was an invitation to censorship. Or to government “pressure” to broadcast “in the public interest.”

The political-philosophical issue identified by Ayn Rand as a priority half-a-century ago has become less visible on today’s political scene. We owe this, in part, to a factor identified in her essay: the emergence of new technology has to some extent made the nature and limits of property in the “airwaves” obsolete. Cable, satellite, Internet: all have made the urgent issue a half-century ago of the “limited” spectrum of the airwaves, and government regulation of airwaves “scarcity,” almost a non-issue.

And then, this week, Ayn Rand’s emphasis on the impossibility of government’s determination of the “public interest” suddenly became urgent when Mr. Colbert said the president of the United States is good for nothing but a homosexual plaything for Russian Premier Vladimir Putin.

CBS is one of the world’s foremost television networks, licensed by the United States government. The license, which is “free,” is worth tens of billions of dollars, today. In a fascinating Op-Ed for the New York Times, Michael J. Copps, one of the five appointed FCC commissioners made matters abundantly clear. 1. Yes, “… America lets radio and TV broadcasters use public airwaves worth more than half a trillion dollars for free. 2. Yes, “… we require that the broadcasters serve the public interest …” 3. “Using the public airwaves is a privilege—a lucrative one—not a right …”

He then elaborates on the point of his statement, one that has a certain appeal at this point, but would lead to disaster: that the FCC has plenty of leverage, if it wants to exert it, to clean up programming by the broadcast networks. The FCC still renews broadcasters’ licenses periodically and is mandated to ensure broadcasters are “serving the public interest.” The FCC could act on behalf of Americans to reduce sex and violence in programming, require more educational programming, more coverage of “local civic affairs,” support arts and culture, and do better news programming. In other words, as Ayn Rand and other critics of the FCC warned, use the licensing power to enable government to censor and dictate the content of programming.

Mr. Copps laments that this does not happen and explains: The FCC “used to” renew broadcast license holders every three years and to scrutinize their “public interest” record. In theory, a broadcasting company could have its license revoked and given to someone pledged to do a better job. Under political pressure from the business conglomerates that now “own” broadcasting companies, the renewal was shifted to every eight years and “Now, we have what big broadcasters lovingly call ‘post-card renewal’… Denials on public interest grounds are extraordinarily rare.”

 

In Search of “Decency”

The FCC does still have the mandate to protect standards of “decency” on the airwaves, but that is like defining “obscenity,” an issue that has tangled up the Supreme Court for decades. The FCC statement on decency is precisely the convoluted, carefully hedged political document you would expect:

The FCC does still have the mandate to protect standards of “decency” on the airwaves, but that is like defining “obscenity,” an issue that has tangled up the Supreme Court for decades. The FCC statement on decency is precisely the convoluted, carefully hedged political document you would expect.

It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to broadcast indecent or profane programming during certain hours…. the FCC has authority to issue civil monetary penalties, revoke a license, and deny a renewal application. In addition, a federal district court may impose fines and/or imprisonment…

The FCC vigorously enforces this law where we find violations, consistent with constitutional and statutory protections of broadcasters’ freedom of speech. Beginning in 2006, due to ongoing litigation raising questions about the Commission’s indecency standard, the FCC temporarily deferred enforcement action on most indecency cases…

During this period, we have continued to receive and process indecency complaints. In addition, the Enforcement Bureau (“Bureau”) has taken steps to reduce the backlog of indecency complaints that resulted from past pauses in enforcement…

The Commission has historically interpreted this [decency] restriction to apply to radio and television broadcasters, and has never extended it to cover cable operators…. viewers of these services have greater control over the programming content that comes into their homes…

Congress and the courts have instructed the Commission only to enforce the indecency standard between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., local time, when children are more likely to be in the audience…. the Commission does not take action on indecent material aired between 10 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. In this way, constitutionally-protected free speech rights of adults are balanced with the need to protect children…

So, what in hell is “indecency”? “[U]nder court and agency precedent, the Commission’s indecency enforcement is limited to complaints alleging the broadcast of material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory material ….”

Well, at least it sounds as though Mr. Colbert and CBS might have a problem. Well, no, because Mr. Colbert made his remarks on The Late Show, after the 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. “safe harbor” period for children. Still enough complaints were made about CBS to the FCC that reporters put the question to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

He replied: “It’s a free country, and people are willing and able to say anything these days.”  He added that the Supreme Court had limited the FCC’s role in sanctioning broadcasters for their content. And, oddly, he said: “… outside of our decency rules we don’t get into the business of regulating content”—a reference apparently to the FCC’s only “line in the sand” for “decency” or “the public interest”: no explicit sex before 10 p.m. and no “excrement” whatever.

Is it clear by now that to enforce “decency” and “the public interest” is either completely subjective (the FCC today) or dangerous (acting on Mr. Copp’s recommendation to get tough about policing content)? In other words, the FCC is giving away licenses to the “public airwaves,” for free, to ensure that broadcasters “serve the public interest” but neither setting nor enforcing any standard of “public interest” except daytime sex and excrement.


There Is No “Public Interest”

Because to do so is impossible. Networks simply cannot serve the public interest, because, as Ayn Rand pointed out in 1967, there is no “public interest.” Only individuals have “interests”—choices, values, and rights. To seek to enforce a “public interest” is to override the interests of some individuals to serve the interests of others. When government undertakes this task, it does not serve the public interest; it violates individual rights.

Also, the concept of “serving the public interest” in broadcasting rests, in part, on the concept of “the public airwaves,” an idea put forth during the administration of Herbert Hoover in the early days of radio and TV broadcasting. Either government authorities could not grasp the nature and requirements of new “property” represented by broadcast frequencies or they approached the issue from a collectivist perspective. Probably both.

The solution, as Ayn Rand explained, was to apply the concept of [private] property to the airwaves. Those whose inventions and investments made broadcasting frequencies economically valuable had literally “made” them property. The perceived “limits” on frequencies were irrelevant; all economic goods are limited. And, as time has shown, the limitation was a matter of the level of technology. Cable and satellite have removed virtually all such limits.

The FCC may have a role, along with the patent office and courts, in objectively defining private property in new communications technology and systems. It may have a role in reviewing interstate systems of communication and standards of connectivity. May. Industry groups and associations also could do the job.

But the chief and defining mission that gave birth to the FCC is obsolete—in fact, never was it relevant. The airwaves should be redefined as private property; the broadcast licenses sold to the highest bidder; and government’s role in protecting “the public interest” abandoned as it has been in all but name.

The private companies that then own the broadcast frequencies will offer viewers whatever they believe viewers will buy. All relevant home technology, in any case, can be programmed to block programs from which parents want to protect their children.

Those who enjoy Mr. Colbert’s humor—and look forward to worse, for that is coming, too—or enjoy sex orgies or over-the-top violence or sadism will watch it. Without the convenient myth that government is upholding standards on broadcast television perhaps the public can be made more conscious that they must take much more seriously what they tolerate on television, in the movies, in the theater, and in their schools and universities. Because the barbarians who hate middle-class American values and standards of behavior are now pouring through the gates into the citadels of culture where they are shaping new generations of Americans with their Postmodernist rejection of reality, reason, individualism, objective values, and capitalism. I have written about this elsewhere; if you don’t understand postmodernist philosophy, you cannot grasp the mindset, motivations, and vision of the America of a Stephen Colbert.

The barbarians who hate middle-class American values and standards of behavior are now pouring through the gates into the citadels of culture where they are shaping new generations of Americans with their Postmodernist rejection of reality, reason, individualism, objective values, and capitalism.

But others do understand it, and cheer him on, waiting for what comes next. Notice that the rage stirred up by the media, especially by targeting their often exaggerated or untrue stories to groups such as women, blacks, Latinos, and students, provided cover for leftist thugs to declare all their opponents “fascists” and “racists” and so justify violence during the Washington march and other protests and on university campuses to block any speaker they oppose. At the University of California, Berkeley, a notably left-liberal campus and home of the so-called “free speech movement,” the shock troops of “anti-fascism” now use violence to exercise veto power over any campus speaker whose views they oppose.

As we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond and on these faces there are no smiles.

 

 

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