Jesse Walker Responds on Sinclair

Jesse Walker sent me a clarification and response to my post on Friday about his article, “First Amendment Hypocrites: The Democratic Party vs. the Sinclair Broadcast Group.”

Jesse gave me permission to post it here, which I appreciate, since I’m always glad to have dialogue with mediageek readers and other bloggers and writers.

This sort of open exchange is similar to the function that pre-20th century newspapers played, where much of the content of any given newspaper was made up of lively (thought not necessarily civil) letters going back-and-forth on the issues of the day. You still see this a little in the letters pages of local newspapers, although it is much more dilute, since space limitations and the tolerance of editors dictate what and how much gets published.

Here’s Jesse’s response:


Thanks for linking to my article on Sinclair’s Kerry show (which, after
all the hubbub, I forgot to watch last night). I’m not sure why you
said that I think “somehow our current system is fair,” since I didn’t
write that & don’t believe that, and in fact have elsewhere argued the
exact opposite. What I do believe is that going after Sinclair will do
nothing to make the system more fair, and a lot to make it worse.

My disagreement with you — my most important disagreement, anyway — is
whether the DNC’s action at the FEC & the threat to challenge Sinclair’s
licenses have anything to do with consolidation. Sure, there’s obviously
consolidation issues involved in the greater question of Sinclair and
its programming. But the DNC’s complaint doesn’t rest on Sinclair’s
size, and the efforts to challenge their licenses don’t either. Neither
does anything to change the basic regulatory structure when it comes to
ownership or spectrum. But both involve government regulation of
*speech*, and one could actually extend the state’s power.

I get a feeling of deja vu as I watch anti-consolidationists jump on this bandwagon, because I saw the same thing happen as the crusade against media consolidation melted into a crusade against “indecency.” Except this time the speech is more important, because it’s political opinions expressed at the height of a national election, not a bare breast at the Super Bowl. It’s the same spirit — not the same political faction, but the same spirit — that motivates Rep. Chris Cox’s charge in Congress to have an official government investigation of CBS.

Now, I don’t like Sinclair and I don’t like CBS, so I’m not really eager to defend them. But aside from general free speech principles, I just don’t expect such powers to *only* be used against places like CBS and Sinclair (just as other FEC regulations theoretically devised to restrain big corporate donors end up being used against low-budget grassroots groups that violated some technicality). To quote your blog post: live by the sword, die by the sword.


Click MORE for my follow-up…

After reading Jesse’s e-mail, I re-read his article and my response, and figured that the measure of difference between our opinions was smaller than I’d first surmised, though not insiginficant. Here’s part of my response to Jesse:

When you wrote,
“The strangest, most misguided response to McAuliffe’s censorship effort has come from those who support it because they believe this is somehow about media consolidation,”
I, prehaps misguidedly, interpreted that to mean that “this” referred to the whole Sinclair situation, but it’s clear from your response that you meant it to refer specifically to the Democrats’, especialy McAuliffe’s, beef with Sinclair. With that more specific reference in mind, I agree. The Dems are far too myopic and just as willing to seize political advantage, regardless of principle, as are the Republicans.

On the issue of fairness, my argument is that when one defends Sinclair (or CBS) against regulatory intervention on speech issues, there is the underlying presumption of fairness, that the same defense will trickle down, if you will, to the benefit of less powerful parties. While you are certainly correct to note that speech-related regulations have been consistently used against voices of dissent, I am not so sure that these same voices are all that protected when those regulations that are most onerous to powerful voices go away. If a given voice, like Pacifica, is in the crosshairs, some method will be found to hit them, using whatever legal or regulatory tool is available, taking advantage of their relative lack of political connections and financial power that would otherwise provide a sturdy defense for the likes of Viacom.

Indeed, the US legal and regulatory systems operate with a presumption of fairness, whether or not that fairness actually exists in individual laws, regulations or their enacting.

Still, I don’t strongly disagree with you on the point that I think hitting Sinclair with penalties based on content sets a bad precdent, opening a can of worms we don’t want to eat. I think if Sinclair had followed through on airing all of “Stolen Honor” that would set an even worse precedent that would be very difficult to reverse–except maybe through even more invasive regulatory or legal means.

As it is, it seems that negative publicity and threats were more effective than any regulatory response (which I don’t think we’ll see, unless Powell is dumber than I think he is).