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Let Markets, Not Government, Dictate News Coverage

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Economics of the Internet
Legal Fellow, Center for the Economics of the Internet

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother government held monopolies on truth and morality. Bureaucrats at a literal Ministry of Truth systematically altered and destroyed historical documents in order to make them comport with the government’s current agenda. Disapproved ideas—particularly ideas that posed a threat to government orthodoxy—were incinerated in “memory holes.” All that remained were accounts of history pre-approved by the government.

Recently, the threat of a new Ministry of Truth emerged. But this time, the threat to free expression and journalistic independence didn’t emerge in Russia, or North Korea, or Venezuela, or some third world tinpot autocracy. It emerged right here in the U.S.

To be clear, the rise of this threat in the U.S. has been percolating for quite a while. For years, progressives have floated the idea of state-funded, and consequently state-controlled, local media outlets. If one political hopeful were to have his way, at least one billion dollars from the federal coffers would be dedicated to assist local media’s “transition to sustainability in a new era.” When this transition would end is anyone’s guess.

Others yearn longingly for the supposed good old days of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, when broadcasters were required to expose the public to “both sides” of controversial issues. For what it’s worth, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, and its constitutionality, if it were to be applied beyond broadcast outlets, is extremely dubious.

But earlier this year marked a turning point, when sitting members of Congress got involved in a big way. They did this by sending letters to cable operators like Comcast and Spectrum, as well as tech companies like Apple, Google, and Roku, asking them to justify why they carry certain conservative news outlets on their cable packages and app platforms.

The purported rationale for the letter is that conservative news outlets helped spread “disinformation” about COVID-19 and sparked the flame of the January 6 Capitol riots. But progressive voices have long had an axe to grind against other media voices they don’t like. The solution proposed by these progressive voices, other than economic boycott, is often for the government to interfere with or undermine these disapproved voices in one way or another.

Following their letter, Congress held a hearing further opining on these ideas. One witness decried newer media outlets, particularly those online and on TV, for contributing to “truth decay.” While saying “there is no role for Congress” in fixing this problem, it’s hard to imagine what other than government intervention would satisfy critics’ demands.

To be sure, television, print, and other media have a responsibility to the public to report fairly and honestly. An informed republic is the bedrock of any functional democracy. Actual disinformation has no place in honest or serious journalism. But it is a task for the people, not the government, to decide what information is fair, honest, and truthful.

In true democracies, citizens debate ideas openly. In the marketplace of ideas, most all manner of speech is heard, and the best ideas win out. Speakers are not free from criticism, consequence, rebuttal, or even ridicule for their ideas—fair or otherwise. But they are free to speak. And it is for the people to decide to whom they listen.

If speakers—especially journalists and political commentators—can no longer truly speak freely, but are instead intimidated into silence via less than subtle threats from their own government, a country cannot be considered a full, legitimate democracy.

For much of its history, America has not had to worry about this problem. But that has clearly begun to change. Forget the “cancelling” of plastic potatoes and kids’ books. If mere political differences are routinely framed as battles between good and evil, and those with disfavored opinions are routinely cast as enemies of the republic espousing dangerous ideas that must be reined in, the damage this portends for our country is boundless. This madness must end.

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