Free Speech for Sale

Under the constitution, every American has the right of free speech, but does free speech matter if no one can hear it? “Free Speech for sale” reveals the painful truth that free speech, and the certainty that one will be heard, is guaranteed only to those who can afford it. And corporations can afford it. Whether through purchasing massive amounts of advertising for political purposes, or by owning the companies that bring people the news, powerful corporations are able to drown out the voices that disagree with them – and it’s all perfectly legal.

To me, this situation calls into question how true our democracy really is. Are we as the voters receiving the thorough information we need to make decisions? Or are we being fed censored or biased news, and just eating it up without asking any questions? The movie starts with the story of a politician in North Carolina who crossed the powerful hog industry. The industry targeted freshman state legislator Cindy Watson, a conservative Republican who had helped to curb the rapid growth of the hog industry so that environmental concerns about hog-waste disposal could be addressed.When Watson was up for re-election, the hog industry, under the guise of a group called “Farmers for Fairness,” launched a huge advertising campaign against her. She didn’t have the money to answer. Though the ads were obviously political in nature and aimed directly at Watson, they were completely legal and unregulated by any campaign finance law because they carefully avoided directly asking the public to vote against her. This is a prime example of how corporations use legal trickery to get what they want.

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However, at the core, it really is politics. But what are the implications for “free” speech when huge corporations attempt to influence the debate not by simply buying media time, but by buying the media itself? The movie looks at what happened when the big media companies set out to get Congress to enact the Telecommunications Act of 1996. One provision of the Act handed the networks and other television station owners free new channels for the transition to all-digital broadcasting.The news organizations they own barely bothered to report on this pending legislation even as the corporate owners (NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox) were lobbying Congress hard for what amounted to a corporate giveaway estimated to be worth $70 billion. This definitely deals with special interests, and what a corporation, or in this case corporations, will do to protect them. The act was passed because of the corporations giving money to members of Congress. Sure it may seem a bit manipulative, but it is totally legal under the constitution.

Media corporations have been merging into fewer (and larger) entities which are better able to control the flow of information to the public. Because of their size and power, they can prevent unfavorable coverage of their activities in the media outlets they own. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U. S. In 1992, fewer than two dozen of these corporations owned and operated 90% of the mass media; controlling almost all of America’s newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies.

Now only 5 huge corporations – Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) – now control most of the media industry in the U. S. General Electric’s NBC is a close sixth. Democracy can’t exist without an informed public. We rely on unbiased news from independent sources to stay informed and to hold our government accountable. But media consolidation means fewer sources of news, opinion and information.Instead of hard-hitting critical journalism, Big Media give us a junk diet of celebrity gossip and sensationalism. Practical limitations to media neutrality include the inability of journalists to report all available stories and facts, and the requirement that selected facts be linked into a coherent narrative.

Since it is impossible to report everything, selectivity is inevitable. Government influence, including overt and covert censorship, biases the media in some countries.Market forces that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers. There are a number of national and international watchdog groups that report on bias in the media. However, these groups can only warn people about biased media, because it is not illegal to run a biased news show, talk show, or anything else in the media. If we want better media, we need better media policies.

It’s time to promote local ownership, amplify minority voices, support quality journalism, and bring local artists, voices and viewpoints to the airwaves. The only way to stop Big Media is by getting organized in our communities and demanding our leaders in Washington start listening to the public instead of the industry lobbyists. There are some internet sites and news channels that bring unbiased news, but they are rare to come across.

This gives hope to stopping big media, or at least slowing it down by giving a small amount of the public unbiased news.However, I do not believe we will be able to fully receive this fair media we do deserve. When it comes to the final decision, money talks, and corporations have most of it. With media conglomerates being steadily engorged through mergers and consolidations, the prospect of news departments’ taking on their own industries becomes ever dimmer.

The message of ”Free Speech for Sale” is that speech has become an expensive commodity that only the very wealthy can afford and can be counted on to use to drown out less powerful voices



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