The Media vs. The First Amendment
by L. Brent Bozell III
June 10, 1999
Gun rights defenders often wonder how the media can be so hostile to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, while they so hallow the First Amendment. But do they really revere freedom of expression? Liberal media stars are starting to think it's time to "modernize" our classical understanding of free speech. Democracy, they say, can't function when wealthy corporations and individuals can buy more speech than the average American.
Just as liberals have always wished to redistribute the wealth to achieve a rigidly enforceable equality, so too would speech be redistributed to address the economic inequities of our awful capitalist system. Of course, they won't say a word about their own privileged position, sitting on massively funded television networks with the power to change the world. But they're not the problem, see. It's those rich people touting a free-market agenda.
So on ABC's "Good Morning America," Diane Sawyer attacked Steve Forbes: "A political science professor at the University of California-San Diego says, 'If he didn't have any money, he'd be considered a crackpot.' The money being spent on these ads, because you can afford it and other candidates can't, is that democracy?" It's a question never posed to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, or any Kennedy, for that matter.
Perhaps Sawyer would tax Forbes and other "crackpots" for the privilege of buying campaign ads, as former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel proposed in 1997: "a 100 percent surcharge on every political TV and radio commercial to pay for an opponent's immediate response in the same market for the same audience." In Frankel's socialist utopia, Forbes would have to pay for an equal response by every Republican primary opponent, and maybe Al Gore and Bill Bradley, to boot.
CBS "60 Minutes" boss Don Hewitt was even more blunt in this year's Frank Gannett Lecture at the Media Studies Center. Not only does Hewitt oppose the networks granting free time to candidates, he thinks the Forbes ads should be banned altogether. "Give them news space when they do something newsworthy and not sell them advertisement space to toot their own horn."
Isn't that a teensy violation of the First Amendment? Claimed Hewitt: "The First Amendment has never stopped anyone from refusing to broadcast or print obscenities, and I contend that political commercials are just that -- obscenities -- and could be banned for that reason alone."
Former PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers has just returned to the taxpayer-funded airwaves for what must be his 100th special plugging "campaign finance reform," otherwise known as "How to Shut Up Conservatives with Money." Titled "Free Speech for Sale," Moyers began by lauding the First Amendment as "a great idea. It means government can't keep you from getting your two cents worth into the public debate. But what the Framers of our government didn't reckon with is that two cents doesn't buy much free speech these days. You can say anything you want today, but if you really want to be heard today, we're talking big money."
Notice that Moyers acknowledges each of us has the right to speak. But he's trying to create a new right: the right "to be heard." Now this sounds especially absurd coming from Moyers, whose own "private empire" has given us another 60-minute special without a word from conservatives who oppose his lobby-gagging lust. Moyers preaches the First Amendment means "government can't keep you from getting your two cents worth" in the public debate, but I guess it's okay if the government just takes your two cents to skip the debate and promote his personal agenda on more than 300 PBS stations across America.
Rather than lambast the politicians, Moyers and Hewitt and Sawyer should focus their attention on the media's own tremendous irresponsibility in ducking coverage of politics. When PBS avoided live coverage of the Thompson hearings on campaign corruption because the kiddie shows were too important to be interrupted, when ABC and CBS had no time for live coverage of an unprecedented impeachment trial, they lost all credibility in their comments about the public interest and dysfunctional democracy.
In the coming election year, one thing all Americans should not tolerate is the arrogant liberal media assumption that they are the indisputable champions of the First Amendment. By these programs and proposals, these journalists are declaring war on the right of private individuals and groups to speak to the public. That's not the proper definition of democracy or free speech.
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