The Free Speech Myth

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Like so many urban newspapers the Baltimore Sun is essentially the propaganda arm of the state Democratic Party. And since Maryland has its first Republican governor (former congressman Robert Ehrlich) in more than thirty years, the Sun makes no pretense at all of being a real newspaper; its editors’ mission in life is to destroy the Ehrlich administration.

In response to the Sun’s constant attacks, the governor recently sent an email around instructing his appointees to cease giving any information to the paper’s editorial page editors or columnist Michael Olesker. The latter are suing in federal court, claiming the governor has abridged their First Amendment rights.

Here in Maryland this cat fight has been very big news, but it really shouldn’t be. Governor Ehrlich has not done anything that politicians at all levels of government do on a routine, daily basis. That is, all governments punish reporters who are overly critical of them by withholding information. This can indeed have calamitous consequences for journalists who rely so heavily on governmental information, which is to say, most journalists.

Now that government is so massive, and interferes in virtually every aspect of our lives, being a journalist means acquiring a large portion of the information that is used in daily news reporting from the government. If you are a foreign affairs correspondent, then most of your daily information comes from the State Department. If you are an environmental reporter you rely crucially on information from EPA bureaucrats. Farm state reporters depend on the U.S. Department of Agriculture bureaucracy. If you report on state and local politics, the governor’s office is one of your main sources of information.

This is why there is no longer an independent press — or genuine freedom of speech — in America. Any reporter who reports truthfully about the scandals, illegal acts, and downright failures of government will be shut off from his information sources and his career ruined. Those who become mere lapdogs to the powers that be will thrive. Just look at the success of the Fox News Channel, whose logo should be "All GOP Propaganda, All the Time."

The supposedly "tough questioning" that goes on at press conferences is all just a game. Reporters understand that if the questioning gets too "tough," i.e., seeks the truth, then their careers will be in jeopardy. That’s why the nation’s preeminent investigative journalist, James Bovard, is a free lancer and not a part of the establishment. It is also why Americans need to read the European press to learn about what’s really going on in Iraq, among other things. European reporters are not the literary sock puppets of American bureaucrats and politicians. And it’s why the Internet is a much more reliable source of news than the heavily filtered reports by the television networks. When is the last time you heard anyone on network television questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq? On the rare occasion that such a person makes it on the air, he is usually shouted down in a very big hurry.

Nor is there any longer any genuine freedom of commercial speech in America, thanks to the mammoth scope of the state. American businesses are so heavily regulated by hundreds of federal, state and local agencies that open criticism of these agencies can ignite regulatory retribution that can cost millions of dollars in fines and legal fees, if not outright bankruptcy. When a conservative businessman threatened to broadcast on some of his television stations a documentary that was critical of John Kerry during the recent presidential election campaign a Kerry spokesman went on national television to say: "He’d better hope we don’t win." The message was clear: If "we" win, the Federal Communications Commission will find an excuse to at least impose hefty fines on the businessman’s stations, if not take away their broadcasting licenses altogether. This threat was apparently enough to cause the businessman to back down. The regulatory intimidation of businesses is rarely made so public, but it is nevertheless pervasive.

Even when businesses support certain "think tanks" who they think will oppose interventionism for them they are careful not to support institutions that argue for the outright abolition of wasteful, counterproductive, and corrupt governmental programs. "We have to do business with these people" [bureaucrats] they will say, and can hardly have their company’s name associated with an organization that advocates the forced unemployment of "these people." There are a few exceptions, of course, but only a few.

Freedom of speech is incompatible with Big Government. What we have in America today is a system whereby "the will of the people" is largely manufactured by our rulers, with the help of the permanent propaganda class known as "the media."

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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