the death of independent thought

Soundtrack in my head:  Portishead, “Sour Times”
Tv Man Watching Room Office independent thought
mohamed_hassan / Pixabay

When I look at the state of mass media today, sometimes I think about the fictional language of Newspeak in George Orwell’s novel 1984. In the book, the goal of the language was to increase the state’s power over the population by eliminating shades of meaning in spoken English. Each edition of the Newspeak dictionary would have fewer and fewer words. The idea was that by diminishing the number of words in a language, the state could diminish its citizens’ capacity for independent thought and therefore strengthen its ability to control the masses.  I don’t necessarily believe that the mass media is involved in some sinister plot to control our minds. Nevertheless they seem to be trying to kill independent thought. It is not giving us the range of information that it could give us if it was truly acting as a responsible steward of its power, or at least a disinerested neutral party interested only in truth and accuracy.

Mass media is, as far as human history goes, a relatively recent phenomenon., Its power and influence accelerated in the early 1800’s when technological progress with the printing press enabled thousands of copies of a newspaper to be printed quickly. Since then, people have increasingly relied on media to learn about the world around them, whether via newspapers, or, within the last century, via radio, television, and other electronic media.

We have to realize that the nature of mass media is very different from normal human communication. With normal communication, there is usually one sender of a message, and at most one or a few receivers of a message. However, with mass media, there is one sender of a message, and thousands or millions of receivers. This gives the sender of the message enormous power, This power usually only available to people who have enough capital to start a newspaper, magazine or TV station, and who invariably have their own interests. And at an accelerated pace, media giants have been buying one another, which limits the number of players controlling what we watch, read and listen to.  Sometimes they might still do positive things with that power.  Other times, well…

When even a media mogul like Ted Turner worries about media consolidation, as he does in this Washington Monthly article from 2004,  you know it’s time to be concerned, He asserts the current regulatory climate does not permit innovation as ground-breaking as the twenty-four hour cable news channel he founded twenty-five years ago.

His description of how vertical consolidation has stifled the industry is particularly striking. “Today, the only way for media companies to survive is to own everything up and down the media chain–from broadcast and cable networks to the sitcoms, movies, and news broadcasts you see on those stations; to the production studios that make them; to the cable, satellite, and broadcast systems that bring the programs to your television set; to the Web sites you visit to read about those programs; to the way you log on to the Internet to view those pages. Big media today wants to own the faucet, pipeline, water, and the reservoir. The rain clouds come next.”

Even more chilling is when he describes media consolidation’s impact on the dissemination of information. “When media companies dominate their markets, it undercuts our democracy. Justice Hugo Black, in a landmark media-ownership case in 1945, wrote: ‘The First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.’ These big companies are not antagonistic; they do billions of dollars in business with each other. They don’t compete; they cooperate to inhibit competition. You and I have both felt the impact.” He then goes on to give examples of how it has affected the quality of news, information, and programming available to the viewer.

The Internet has offered the potential for leveling the playing field to some extent, by allowing people who previously did not have the means of sending a message to a wide audience to do so. Just in publishing this little website, I am able to reach people that I have not reached before. People have a whole choice of sources for information and entertainment—some good, some bad, some ugly, but in any case new voices have a chance to compete with established ones.

Sometimes, the mass media has bemoaned this development, suggesting that this freedom to choose the source of one’s information is causing greater polarization in our society. It certainly carries with it a responsibility to be discerning, to “let the buyer beware” about the information we get. But that responsibility has always been necessary, and that responsibility does not change whether there’s five or five thousand sources of information. Hopefully, people might see more clearly than before that we can’t believe everything we read.

But this diversity of information sources on the World Wide Web has been possible only through the principle of Net Neutrality, which gives the person searching online the ultimate right in deciding what s/he will see, and it prevents the providers of the Internet service from interfering with that right. But AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner and others are reportedly spending about $1 million per week in a media campaign and lobbying effort for the right to turn the Internet into their own private tollway—even though they never invented the Internet or the Web browser..

And now it has been revealed that at least three of these companies– AT&T, Verizon and Bellsouth–have been complicit participants in the NSA electronic eavesdropping efforts. According to USA Today, the NSA has contracted with the three telecommunications companies to secretly collect detailed call records of tens of millions of Americans. Apparently, under the old Ma Bell system, the policy was to never turn over calling records of their customers without a warrant. This is no longer the case. According to USA Today it is unclear as to whether the data mined has been used for purposes other than direct terrorist threats. But that doesn’t matter—the point is that no one ever asked us if we wanted that information shared. The fact the newly reconstituted Ma Bell could help out Big Brother is chilling enough.

The fight to preserve Net Neutrality has gathered some steam recently. Just yesterday the House Judiciary Committee passed the “Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006”(H.R. 5417) sponsored by Reps Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) John Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA). It now goes to the full house for consideration. A pro-Net Neutrality bill introduced by Sens. Olympia Snow (R-ME) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and the Senate Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing on Net Neutrality.

Another interesting development is that the Christian Coalition has joined the fight to preserve Net Neutrality, and is cooperating with the liberal Moveon.org in raising money for a New York Times ad jointly sponsored by the two organizations. The very notion that a conservative activist group and a liberal activist group could join forces and collaborate on this issue is remarkable, and says a lot about the importance of this issue, no matter where you stand on the issue.

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