Civil Obeisance

The First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The clear intent of these first words of the Bill of Rights is to limit the power of the government. The Bill of Rights does not grant rights to citizens, it constrains the government from abridging them. It puts ordinary citizens on the same plane as the press.

Nonetheless, John McCain, resolve unburdened by any excess of fact, idea or reflection, has become the leading proponent for controlling citizens’ speech. This is about McCain’s ability to sustain the state of personal outrage he developed when his campaign to become President was damaged by negative ads in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary.

McCain’s extended snit powered the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform act, a serious assault on free speech that continues unabated. However, you wouldn’t know that if you were informed by either right or left wing blogs.

An internet site named Fired Up!, (WARNING: exposure to second-hand statism) is claiming “a major victory for Internet free speech advocates.” because the Federal Election Committee condescended to grant them a “press exception” to the Byzantine rules of McCain and Feingold’s debacle. From the right, joins in the premature congratulation.

What the hell is an “internet free speech” advocate? Someone who thinks bloggers should have free speech, but the rest of us are on our own? When did free speech begin to come in categories?

Sadly, those who should be at the forefront of the resistance to this travesty are this week celebrating a victory which does not even rise to the level of Pyrrhic, and the fawning acceptance of this crumb from the FEC table is disgusting.

The appropriate response to federal threats to “internet free speech” is not to beg for an exemption, but to refuse to acknowledge that free speech is divisible into categories. The appropriate response would have been for ten thousand bloggers to violate the law in every conceivable and most obvious way and dare the FEC to sue them. This concept has been called “civil disobedience.” It has had some success in the past.

A related point of interest begins with the question; why is there an exemption for the “press”; because they can afford a major printing press or a broadcast transmission tower? What is the difference between ink on paper and phosphors on a computer monitor?

The “press exemption” is surely not because of the credentials of the likes of Jason Blair, Dan Rather, Judith Miller, or Paul Krugman; nor can it be because of the exquisite fact checking of the organizations which employ(ed) them.

Ironically, the exempt media, which have generally supported CFR, still don’t recognize the danger to their own privilege. Let’s examine the dots they can’t seem to connect.

Their exemption is based on the same arbitrary dictatorial decrees as is the bloggers’ “victory”. This should be of concern because the ‘Net is a medium which looms large in the exempt media’s future if they are to regain relevance and readership.

In 1995-2003, says the World Association of Newspapers, circulation fell by 5% in America, 3% in Europe and 2% in Japan. In the 1960s, four out of five Americans read a paper every day; today only half do so. Philip Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age” (University of Missouri Press), says that if the trend continues, the last newspaper reader will recycle his final paper copy in April 2040.

The decline of newspapers predates the internet. But the second—broadband—generation of the internet is not only accelerating it but is also changing the business in a way that the previous rivals to newspapers—radio and TV—never did. Older people, whom Mr Murdoch calls “digital immigrants”, may not have noticed, but young “digital natives” increasingly get their news from web portals such as Yahoo! or Google, and from newer web media such as blogs. Short for “web logs”, these are online journal entries of thoughts and web links that anybody can post. Whereas 56% of Americans haven’t heard of blogs, and only 3% read them daily, among the young they are standard fare, with 44% of online Americans aged 18-29 reading them often, according to a poll by CNN/USA Today/Gallup.

Rupert Murdoch expands on this:

…as the study [Carnegie Corporation] illustrates, consumers between the ages of 18-34 are increasingly using the web as their medium of choice for news consumption. While local TV news remains the most accessed source of news, the internet, and more specifically, internet portals, are quickly becoming the favored destination for news among young consumers.

44 percent of the study’s respondents said they use a portal at least once a day for news, as compared to just 19 percent who use a printed newspaper on a daily basis. More ominously, looking out three years, the study found that 39 percent expected to use the internet more to learn about the news, versus only 8 percent who expected to use traditional newspapers more.

And their attitudes towards newspapers are especially alarming. Only 9 percent describe us as trustworthy, a scant 8 percent find us useful, and only 4 percent of respondents think we’re entertaining. Among major news sources, our beloved newspaper is the least likely to be the preferred choice for local, national or international news going forward.

Watching newspapers deal with this, especially in their general editorial support of McCain-Feingold and their willingness to let bloggers carry the load of protest, brings to mind Tsar Nicholas II dealing with the Duma after the Russian revolution of 1905, fending off revolt with piecemeal civil-liberties concessions later arbitrarily suspended or withdrawn. The Tsar and the Duma did not survive the 1917 revolution. Neither did civil liberties.

The “Tsar” has just included “internet speech” in the definition of “legitimate press.” In the future it may well be newspapers, magazines and broadcast media begging for the “blogger exemption”, because they did nothing about the fundamental issue that anyone has to plead with the feds to preserve an unsullied First Amendment.