Why even have the First Amendment?

Let's start with this screen capture of an instructive Twitter exchange.

Full disclosure: I find JeffersonObama to be one of the best political minds on Twitter. His tweets are to the point and devastating. For a good part of the day he's been savaging Talking Points Memo for pushing a battleground state poll from Purple Strategies. That poll still has President Obama leading Mitt Romney by 4 points, but flies in the face of the commanding leads he's enjoyed from other pollsters. Follow the Tweets:





So, Purple Strategies, who conducted the poll, is actually our old friend Strategic Vision, one of the most notorious GOP push pollsters from 2008. From the NY Times story:
But news organizations are rethinking their use of Strategic Vision’s numbers after the company was reprimanded last week by a professional association of pollsters for failing to disclose “essential facts” about its methods.
Even Rasmussen discloses its methodology. Strategic Vision didn't, and was reprimanded by others in its field. There were even accusations that it was faking polls.

And now they're back. And a blog on the "left" side of the spectrum highlighted this company's poll in a headline for quite a while. 

Then there's this:
Between 2007 and 2011, use of the phrase “job-killing regulations” in U.S. newspapers increased by 17,550%. ...

Claims that regulations have a significant impact on American employment call for careful scrutiny. Because they are repeated so often, the idea that regulations “kill jobs” can start to sound true, or at least “truthy.” But when you scratch the surface of these claims, too often they are based more on ideology than sound methodology.
So, in one day, we have a poll pushed by the reincarnation of a discredited pollster spelling DOOM for Obama, and a report that shows that one of the GOP's favorite memes has had a geometric increase in use since 2007.

The immediate reason for these narratives is obvious: the media need a conflict based on superficialities. It's much easier for the media to craft a story of personal conflict between Obama and Romney. That sells, that's understood by the low-information voter, and it doesn't require much work. Diligence is called for if a news organization is going to do in-depth reporting on issues and political ideology.

The deeper reason is that it's a fact that 90% of all US broadcast media are owned by 5 international conglomerates, and that their economic interests jibe most often with those of the GOP and their funders. These conglomerates are not just news purveyors, but entertainment entities, and have, over the past three decades, brought the exigencies of entertainment into the dissemination of news. US newspaper ownership declined from 2,153 in 1900 to 436 in 2001; the top four chains at the time—Gannet, Knight-Ridder, Newhouse, and Times-Mirror—owned 25% of all US dailies. (Knight-Ridder no longer exists, its properties bought by MediaNews and McClatchy; Times-Mirror was bought by Tribune Co.) There's a homogenization of content in both print and broadcast news media, with a very narrow band of acceptable conventional wisdom given voice.

So we come to the question that began this essay: Why do we have the First Amendment?

The Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment. There was no such thing as "freedom of speech" in Europe—or anywhere else. England was the freest of the European powers as far as the press went, but even there there were limits. Censorship was the rule, not the exception. The Enlightenment view on freedom of speech is highlighted by Voltaire's famous quote: "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

A free press was seen as a necessary pillar of a free society by the drafters of the Constitution. If the rulers could not have their actions checked by an outside source, then citizens could not make informed decisions about matters of national importance.

But do we have the First Amendment so that Rush Limbaugh can spew his bile? Or so that Fox News can turn its viewers into the least-informed members of the electorate? Or so that all the cable news channels rush to cover the latest disappearance of a white, blonde, pretty woman, but black out any mention of President Obama's foreign trips? (Unless, of course, he has a scandal like the one with the Secret Service.) The media is failing miserably in the one function it has—and that function isn't to maximize shareholder profits. The First Amendment, at its best, exists so that the media can be fair but vigorous tribunes for citizens, explaining the workings of government, and providing objective analysis when required. This is no longer the 19th century, when newspapers were, by and large, nothing but organs of political parties. As a country we've grown to expect that the media plays a fair role in delineating our national discourse. Instead, it's either sunk back into the type of yellow journalism practiced at the start of the previous century, or into a state in which it peddles false equivalency, offering no context or analysis in order to avoid offending some part of its demographic. It's no wonder that media approval ranks down with that of Congress.

I've always been a proponent of the idea that the answer to bad speech is more good speech. But with the consolidation of media outlets into the hands of a few corporations, that's becoming more difficult. If the First Amendment is to be saved and returned to its true function, all of these media conglomerates have to be uprooted. If five multinationals own 90% of all US broadcast media outlets, then it should be no surprise that these news organizations adhere to the corporate line.

There is no such thing as a "free press". As the saying goes, the press is only free if you own one. The uprooting of the press conglomerates, and putting media back into more hands, is the only thing that will save free speech in this country. Otherwise, the First Amendment will be just a formality, without any substance.