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Not Free Speech


Albert

In

todays other commentary, Ed Herman has laid waste the pretensions of pundits

bleating over the plight of poor abused David Horowitz that they are sincerely

concerned about free speech. But there is more to the situation…so let’s address

another aspect.

 

Setting aside mainstream

media hypocrisy, what is our best response to Horowitz’s ad entreaties? Should a

periodical run his ad or not? And what else ought to occur?

 

First, advertisements are not

speech. They are a commercial service wherein an audience is sold to a client.

Debates about ads are therefore miscast as a free speech issue.

Beyond free speech,

however,

 

media access is also very important. But media access should not be a function

of the money that one has, and thus there should be no right to buy media

access. That is, in any desirable society

human

audiences should not be sold to anyone, in any manner. There

should be no paid ads at all.  Nor should media have to prioritize

attracting audiences that advertisers will pay to “buy.” Nor should media have

to worry about including only content that paves the way for successful

advertising. But putting aside my preferences for the future of media, in the

current world what norms should apply to taking and rejecting ads?

 

Imagine the New York Times

rejecting an ad about ending a U.S. War on the grounds that the Times didn’t

like the ad’s content. Anti-war activists would be outraged. But why? I think it

is because the NY Times and other mainstream newspapers purport to

provide their audience with objective and neutrally assessed news and analysis.

They say they have no ideological norms guiding their choices. In not taking the

anti-war ad, however, they would be violating that claim (as they do daily on

every page, though that’s another matter, of course). An intensifying factor in

our anger at the Times in such a case would be that even if 75% of the

country was interested in the anti-war ad’s content and even if the ad was

demonstrably accurate, its critical viewpoint would likely only be able to get

into the Times, or into public visibility at all, by being a paid ad.

Thus, to cut off this option of media access would be to close the last door to

visibility.

 

Now suppose instead that we

are talking about the same ad being submitted to The Nation (I can’t use

Z as an example, because we don’t take paid ads, only free ones). The Nation

would run such an ad, of course. But suppose the ad submitted to The Nation

favored the war. Would it be incumbent on The Nation to run that ad too?

It seems to me the answer is no. And the reason is because The Nation has

made no claim to its readership to be a neutral delivery system. Rather, The

Nation claims to have a point of view, and since the ad isn’t within the

editorial scope of their stated point of view, it would be a disservice to their

readers to provide it. In other words, the same norms should apply regarding ads

as apply regarding content.

 

The point is there is no

freedom of speech at stake in accepting or rejecting paid ads. It is not

incumbent on a periodical to take paid ads that it editorially doesn’t like on

free speech grounds. On the other hand, there are journalistic norms having to

do with access which may make it proper to take an ad despite not liking it,

whether we are talking about our hypothetical anti-war ad or about the ad from

Horowitz. The Times should take such ads, period, and clean up their

editorial pages and news to be broad and encompassing of diverse orientations,

too. The Nation should make both its editorial and its advertising

choices in accord with its stated priorities and agenda, accepting the anti-war

ad and rejecting the Horowitz ad. The New Republic might reasonably opt

to do the reverse. But how do these principles apply to a university newspaper?

 

Campus papers in most

instances probably do claim to provide a neutral and encompassing look at news

and events, being more like the Times in that respect, than like The

Nation. If they instead have a clearly stated editorial priority, that would

be very relevant. But campus papers also have limited space, skimpy resources,

and are meant to serve the campus community, and so have to make choices among

competing submissions. Solely at the level of journalistic principle, I wouldn’t

get too upset at a campus paper for rejecting Horowitz’s ad, or for running it.

 

However, Horowitz is of

course despicable and there is nothing that says that if one runs his ad one

can’t also run an editorial, or an article, or articles that address the same

topic. My own take is that the campus papers should have run the ad, mostly to

avoid the obvious trap that Horowitz had set, but also because it is marginally

the more principled act if they describe themselves as disinterested news

vehicles, and then they should also have run an editorial and a sidebar and

related articles not only on the specific topic of the ad, with many viewpoints

and including a piece like Herman’s, but also articles about Horowitz himself,

properly critical and caustic. This would have been an infinitely more

instructive response to his shenanigans, in my view.

 

What about students on the

campuses? I think pretty much the same thing goes. A good protest is to demand

of the papers that they run an analysis thoroughly debunking Horowitz’s

pernicious arguments, not just run the ad itself. Of course all this takes more

work, but it is worthwhile work.

 

So, I am a somewhat critical

of the editors who refused the ad, thereby falling into Horowitz’s trap and

arguably minimally violating a reasonable journalistic standard regarding ad

access, and I would be quite critical of any editor who accepted the ad but then

didn’t give space to the broader issues so as to debunk Horowitz and explore

important matters in constructive ways. All in all, though, I don’t think this

imbroglio was very significant compared to the infinite list of violations of

journalistic integrity, responsibility, and just plain old honesty that are

ubiquitous in mainstream journalism all over the country.

 

There is, regrettably,

however, one more thing to discuss. In the (online version of) Progressive

Magazine of March 18th, its editor, Matthew Rothschild prominently writes

that ads are indeed covered by free speech norms. More, he tells us that

periodicals shouldn’t editorially judge ad content and that, referring to the

editors who rejected Horowitz’s ad and to the students who demonstrated against

the papers who accepted it, “to resort to intimidation, to engage in gang

suppression of speech, is an old and discredited tactic of Brownshirts

everywhere.” Even supposing that one thought that to reject Horowitz’s ad or to

demonstrate against a paper accepting it was wrong, this is pretty amazing

rhetoric. “Brownshirts?” That’s the kind of nasty provocation and slander you’d

expect from the likes of Horowitz himself, surely not from Rothschild.

 

In any event, the reality is

that in this country we very much need massive and militant demonstrations

designed precisely to compel new mainstream media policies at the New York

Times, the Washington Post, all dailies, the TV networks, and so on

and so forth. And these demonstrations should precisely try to raise pressures

and costs to the people who run these institutions that not only intimidate

them, but that literally coerce them to alter their coverage of all manner of

events and issues. This doesn’t mean we bomb the news outlets or assassinate the

reporters who we disagree with; but it does mean using popular pressure to

influence coverage. What is Rothschild talking about when he tars demonstrating

against the choices of a media institution as being intrinsically tantamount to

Nazi rejection of free press or free speech? I hope he didn’t really intend to

communicate that because the reality is that to pressure media in our society is

not inherently anti-free speech, but can instead propel free speech, especially

regarding mainstream media writ large.

 

Rothschild also says that a

periodical should not see itself as making choices on behalf of its readers. He

says of the editors: “It’s not up to them to shield their readers from ideas

that may be `inflammatory` or to set up shop as censors who are empowered to

make decisions on which ads are `appropriate` and which are `inappropriate’.”

“They should not discriminate against advertisers on the basis of their

political beliefs. This is fundamental.”

I am

inclined to say

how

about rejecting crap?, and leaving it at that.

But

I think I ought to clarify as well that a publisher is precisely an institution

which gathers or generates from among all possible material a subset that it

deems worthy of its readership. How does it decide what subset is worthy and

what subset isn’t? There will be various norms involved, depending on the type

of periodical and on its editorial criteria. But shouldn’t the same norms apply

inside each periodical for both its articles and its ads? Why should money (the

fee for ads) somehow trump other norms? And so, would Rothschild publish the

Horowitz ad, or one against abortion, or one for the elimination of child labor

laws …and even do so without comment…yet reject articles with the same agenda?

Or would Rothschild say, we have readers who expect from us a progressive slant

and approach to presenting news and analysis. They are entitled to that same

level of attention to their desires regarding who we sell them too. But

regardless of what Rothschild would himself say or decide, to opt for the latter

orientation is hardly to put on a Brown shirt.

 

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