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Will: There is no government cure for media pollution

Will: There is no government cure for media pollution

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WASHINGTON — As the progressive campaign to regulate unprogressive speech seeps out of campuses and into mainstream politics, the party whose base includes academia is behaving predictably.

Last week, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, convened a hearing for the undisguisable purpose of intimidating streaming services that distribute conservative content, or what nowadays passes for that.

On Feb. 22, two California Democrats, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Rep. Jerry McNerney, sent to AT&T and other entities letters declaring that “the right-wing media ecosystem” — they named Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network — has produced “our current polluted information environment.” The pollution is undeniable. So are progressives’ contributions to it, e.g., their obsession with 2016 “Russian collusion,” their ludicrously solemn and extensive interviewing of Stormy Daniels’ felonious lawyer, Michael Avenatti, and their beatification of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during the pandemic.

Eshoo and McNerney, however, economize their indignation by focusing on the right. In their letters they demanded to know, among other things, how many of the cable and streaming services’ subscribers watched the three disapproved channels in the weeks prior to the Nov. 3 election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and “Are you planning to continue carrying” the three channels, and “If so, why?” There being no conceivable legislative remedy, compatible with the First Amendment, for what displeases Eshoo and McNerney, the bullying purpose of their letters was patent.

Eleven months ago, after the Trump reelection campaign sent letters to certain broadcasters threatening that their licenses could be “in jeopardy” if they continued airing a particular anti-Trump advertisement, Pallone and Doyle urged the Federal Communications Commission to reassure broadcasters that the FCC would not interfere “with broadcasters’ discretion to air legally protected content.” The FCC, they said, “cannot second guess the judgment of broadcasters” and should make clear that FCC decisions will not be influenced by “threats by politicians.”

Last week’s hearing, orchestrated by Pallone and Doyle in the context created by the Eshoo-McNerney letters, constituted Trump-like pressure on the streaming services. It did, however, elicit two contributions to the public’s understanding of more than Pallone’s and Doyle’s status as virtuosos of situational ethics.

Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School said the Eshoo-McNerney letter encourages, in their words, “adverse actions” against — in plain words, the shutting down of — the preferred news sources for tens of millions of Americans. “This,” Turley said, “is the essence of a state media model. . . . You must not only control the narrative but also eliminate alternatives to it.”

Emily Bell of the Columbia Journalism School testified that new platforms have “democratized the distribution, circulation and monetization of media,” thereby demolishing the “gatekeeper” function formerly performed by print and broadcast media. Today “the vast majority” of Americans get news through “online aggregators” (e.g., Facebook, YouTube). The “low barriers to entry” into the “attention economy” mean that minority voices, formally dependent on “the intermediary powers of the old gatekeepers,” can cheaply create and distribute content. The downside of this is that bad actors can exploit the capabilities of digital media faster than better actors can correct the torrent of misinformation, or worse. Furthermore, the pandemic has, Bell says, accelerated malign developments by keeping people home and focused on nationally distributed news. There have been more than 100 closures or mergers of local news outlets during the pandemic’s first 13 months, and now, Bell says, more than 1,800 communities “do not have their own source of local news.” Since 2004, 25% of local news providers and 50% of local journalists’ jobs have vanished, and since COVID-19 arrived, advertising revenues “across newspaper groups” are down 42%.

Explaining one consequence of this, Bell cites “Ghosting the News,” a book by The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan: The decline of local news, and the increased reliance on national sources such as politically inflaming cable channels, correlate with a decline in ticket-splitting (dividing support among candidates from different parties) and a “retreat into tribal corners.”

There is, however, no government cure for what is, fundamentally, a problem with today’s consumers of journalism — too few readers and viewers insistent on quality and resistant to irresponsibility. The same might be said of the voters of California’s 18th and 9th, and New Jersey’s 6th and Pennsylvania’s 18th, congressional districts.

Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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