If Money is Speech, Then Speech Isn’t Free

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The sudden departure of Keith Olbermann from MSNBC on Friday (so sudden that the network was still running promos for his show after his final sign off) requires, I think, that we consider the notion of speech in society.

Olbermann was obviously quite a raucous voice, and there was that little “violation” of his with the political donations (the same “violation” Joe Scarborough seemed to get away with—twice). Some say he wasn’t easy to work with; that may be. But he and his show were smart and provocative. They were also the top-rated show on MSNBC, a fact that remains unchanged even if his viewership had “peaked.” Regardless of who made what decision or why, we can conclude that someone thought that MSNBC (or Comcast/NBC/Universal) was better off without his top-rated show than with it.

It’s no secret that liberal perspectives are usually not in the best interest of people with lots of money, like heads of corporations. So, our best guess about Olbermann’s departure must be that what Olbermann says is not worth as much as Olbermann’s show made.

Speech isn’t free.

It’s amazing to me the way the United States has embraced a new royalty: capitalism. And the way we’ve decided speech ought to be limited or conditioned doesn’t even violate the 1st Amendment, at least not at face-value. Congress hasn’t directly abridged the freedom of speech; we’ve done it to ourselves.

When our old white forefathers were writing the Bill of Rights back in 1789, I wonder what they were thinking. Did they imagine a society with a “media” controlled and distributed by huge corporations? Or an Internet? Or were they thinking about a society where a pamphleteer like Thomas Paine can cause as much trouble as anybody else?

Sure, a modern day Paine could find some readers. If this little ol’ blog of mine reached a proportional audience in 1790, I’d have 10 weekly readers. But the difference today is trust. Who does the average citizen trust for information? In general, the answer is the organization with the most power to distribute it.

Mix in the Citizens United decision from last year, and it’s actually quite alarming how oligarchical we’ve become. We are right now living through the flashback scenes from the science fiction dystopias in which the people trusted the companies just a little too much. (Have you seen Visioneers with Zach Galifanakis? Watch it on hulu.) If the company says there’s a voice that should be heard, we hear it, and if there’s a voice we shouldn’t hear anymore? Well, gosh, I guess it’s their decision; it’s their company.

Our ability to have our ideas heard in the mainstream should not be conditioned on our ability to make other people money. It’s no secret that much of journalism has been reduced to this. If all the “breaking news” updates for the most mundane things (remember Balloon Boy?) weren’t enough, all you had to do was watch AC360 Friday night. Just one hour after Keith Olbermann signed off, Anderson Cooper devoted a whole third of his show to talking about Keith Olbermann! CNN decided they had more to gain by bringing attention to a competing network by having on a bunch of random people to gossip about it than to actually report on other news!

The situation is spiraling, primarily because the mainstream doesn’t see a problem. The only rays of light seem to be The Daily Show and Colbert Report, and despite their biting media commentary four nights a week, they don’t want to take much responsibility, because hey, they’re just comedy shows.

Until we demand greater regulatory control over big business, corporations are going to continue amassing power over our communications. Why are conservatives always trying to shrink the federal government? To give more power to the corporations. Think it’s just a coincidence Republicans want to privatize social security or cut funding for public radio? I don’t. I think any obstacle (including federal regulation) to corporations doing whatever they want to do to make as much money as they can is one Republicans want to eliminate.

And if we keep buying into the fear-mongering and propagandist lies of FOX News, they just might.

We need more Keith Olbermanns, and we need more platforms for them. Let’s keep asking the questions until the truth comes out.

(AMERICAblog is hosting an “I stand with Keith” petition. Sign it to show Olbermann your support.)

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