Why a Government Commission to Oversee the Press is So Alarming
It isn’t what Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on her Instagram page about reining in the press that is so alarming. AOC is known for being controversial and outspoken and most of us expect it.
The alarming thing is that a global media giant like Forbes would take the idea seriously.
The AOC Instagram post came after Twitter banned Trump and others for inciting an attack on the U.S. Capitol through inflammatory remarks.
Trump was also subsequently banned from Reddit, Facebook, Shopify, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch and YouTube.
Then Amazon, Google and Apple went a step further and booted Parler, a Twitter competitor used by conservatives and Trump supporters, for posting content that encouraged and incited violence.
These big tech giants are all private businesses, and some have argued that because they are private, they can do whatever they want with their platforms.
But what AOC suggested during a live stream on her Instagram page would go a lot further than monitoring inciteful speech on social media. She stated that she and some of her colleagues have been exploring initiatives to help rein in the press.
“It’s one thing to have differentiating opinions, but it’s another thing entirely to just say things are false, so that’s something that we’re looking into,” she added.
Calling Out The Extremes
Her idea sounds reasonable on the surface. Who doesn’t want to rein in media excesses? But as a college journalism major and newspaper reporter schooled in the importance of a free press, I was alarmed.
Then a Forbes op ed piece magnified my alarm.
This is some of what Forbes columnist Andy Meeks says in his article: The Democratic New York congresswoman has “once again spun up the right-wing rage machine, this time over her willingness to call out the extremes, the insanity, and the misinformation that permeates the US media ecosystem.”
Maybe you’re nodding your heads and thinking, “Yes, the media has gotten out of control. We’ve seen a lot of misinformation lately.”
The problem is, Meeks doesn’t seem to be talking about the US media ecosystem in its entirety. He doesn’t mention mainstream media outlets that have spread misinformation and written pieces based on dubious information from unnamed sources. He doesn’t talk about how many of those articles were later retracted.
He only points to conservative news outlets.
He cites Newsmax, Fox, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh, all part of the conservative media, but he doesn’t mention CNN, MSNBC, or any part of the rest of the media establishment when he discusses false media narratives.
Do we really believe conservative media outlets are the only ones who spread misinformation?
Meeks specifically points to Limbaugh’s monologue titled: “If Democrats can erase us from social media, can they erase our votes?” Apparently, if you pay attention to the article, too many people might believe this misinformation.
The Forbes piece also mentions a new NPR/Ipsos poll that found a number of Americans are increasingly susceptible to fake news and misinformation, to the point that 40% of respondents think the coronavirus was bioengineered in a lab in China.
But if you consider how little we know of the origins of this virus, why is the speculation that it was bioengineered any more likely to be fake news than early reports that it originated in a Chinese wet market? At this point, we simply don’t know everything there is to know about the novel coronavirus.
“Early reports blamed a market where live animals were sold, but evidence now shows they were wrong,” according to LiveScience writer Rafi Letzer.
Initial reports about the origins of Covid-19 were wrong, and they might be wrong again. So how do we know which “misinformation” to clamp down on and which to allow?
It doesn’t matter which side of the political aisle you fall on. Government commissions to decide which news is appropriate should be alarming to the left, the right, and the middle.
Think about what a government clampdown on media would do to investigative journalism that ends up being contrary to accepted government narratives or propaganda.
Think about a Ministry of Truth commission being appointed when your party of choice is not in control of government.
Who Would Be in Charge of Deciding?
Any plan for media oversight would have to meet someone’s idea of reality.
Who would be in charge of deciding what was real and what was fake news? A media oversight committee would, by it’s nature, be a political organization.
Meeks has already proven his bias in citing examples of medias bias. No person on a media oversight committee would be without bias. Somebody has to decide what is false and what isn’t. Who would wield that power?
Do We Want to Be Like China?
China has a tightly-controlled media. It’s constitution affords its citizens freedom of speech and press, but with regulations. News stories that government officials decide can endanger the country or anything they deem harmful to political or economic interests are banned.
Cuba’s constitution permits only state-controlled media outlets, and jailing of journalists is a common occurrence.
Do we want a slow slide toward this sort of suppression?
Countries that have experienced censorship in the past are concerned about the potential for future censorship.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denounced Big Tech censorship following the ban of Trump and others from social media. After experiencing 50 years under communism, he said, “Big Brother told us how we were meant to live and what we were meant to feel.”
Our freedoms start with freedom of the press.
The First Amendment says: 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.”
Justice Potter Stewart argued “That the First Amendment speaks separately of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is no constitutional accident, but an acknowledgment of the critical role played by the press in American society.”
Our founding fathers recognized the integral part freedom of the press plays in retaining our other freedoms.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Thomas Jefferson
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”Thomas Jefferson
“For if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.” George Washington
They also recognized the dangers of a media that misuses those freedoms, because this has always been a problem.
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Thomas Jefferson
Ideally, a free press would operate with integrity, without bias, seeking to inform and educate the public while providing a forum for open discussion of ideas and opinions.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen the lofty idea of a free press diluted by hate speech, misinformation and sometimes outright lies.
But would government oversight of what constituted legitimate news make the press better? Not hardly. So what’s the solution?
Maybe we need to work toward making media more subject to lawsuits when they print untruths based on anonymous or dubious sources.
A well-educated populace, with students taught by teachers and parents to think critically, would go a long way toward teaching people to question narratives and seek truth.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” A virtuous press, one that operates from a basis of integrity, won’t spring from government oversight. A Ministry of Truth Commission can’t be relied on to oversee the media without succumbing to its own political biases.
It’s up to us, the people, to think critically, exercise discernment, and act wisely. Are we up to it? I hope so. Because a government-sanctioned media oversight commission would be a disaster for the country.