Monday, March 14, 2005

I have grown increasingly disturbed at the the anti-freedom attitude being manifested not so much by the Left or the Right but by professional politician and elite policy pros in Washington acting in bipartisan self-interest to squelch criticism and stifle debate. Recently, a Federal judge ordered the FEC to consider - against the agency's judgement and inclinations - regulating blogs under McCain-Feingold. Succinctly, most of the commentary in the blogosphere that occurred last fall regarding the election between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry could easily be regarded as illegal in the future.

Bruce Kesler of the Augusta Free Press had an important Op-ed which I shall give to you in its entirety followed by my comments:

by Bruce Kesler

"Settled jurisprudence was fairly settled against prior restraints on free speech, except for "shouting fire in a crowded theater" immediate causes of grave harm. Then, along came the McCain-Feingold electoral reforms.

McCain-Feingold's supposedly greater interest of restricting the role of big money in campaigns allowed legal and donor restrictions on campaigning. The media is exempt from restrictions.

Critics of McCain-Feingold called it an incumbent protection act to reduce the resources of challengers. Realists said McCain-Feingold would result in contributions flowing some way anyway. Opponents of McCain-Feingold warned it restricted free speech, and this could increase. If free speech is surrendered to other political goals, as most liberal media supporters of McCain-Feingold have, a free media is undermined. The court challenge to McCain-Feingold failed.

Political contributors, large and small, as partisans will, avoided McCain-Feingold restrictions through 527 organizations.

There was little outcry by liberal media to the initial exploitation of loopholes in McCain-Feingold by George Soros and billionaire affiliates funding 527s with $100 million to attack President Bush last winter and spring. Then, the Swiftees in the summer and fall proved more effective, raising almost $30 million from more than 150,000 contributors that parleyed into well over $150 million of coverage that had greater electoral impact. Conservative bloggers chimed in to dissect John Kerry's self-imaging.

Before the Swiftees, the president called for restrictions on 527s. Post-Swiftees, liberals chimed in. Uncontrolled 527s meant that official or leading media party lines do not rule the campaign.

There is now growing bipartisan congressional support for restricting 527s to smaller contributors, and other limits in line with McCain-Feingold. Thus, does the defensive self-interest of incumbents enlarge the restrictions on free speech that was feared with McCain-Feingold.

The court decision allowing McCain-Feingold also ordered the Federal Election Commission, charged with rule-making and enforcement, to consider rules on blogs. The FEC did not appeal this court order.

When McCain-Feingold was passed, Internet blogs were not addressed. Yet, in the 2004 campaign, as the latest Pew Internet survey points out, "the Internet became an essential part of American politics. Fully 75 million Americans – 37 percent of the adult population and 61 percent of on-line Americans - used the Internet to get political news and information, discuss candidates and debate issues in e-mails, or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or giving contributions to candidates."

According to the Pew survey, one-third of political news consumers believe they don't get all the news and information desired from mainstream media. The director of the Pew study says, "Blogs are still the realm where very, very active and pretty elite, both technologically oriented people and politically oriented people go." More women, minorities, seniors and low-income Americans gravitated toward the mainstream media.

Interestingly, the Pew study found that the pro-Kerry and anti-Bush forces in the campaign made wider use of 527s and the Internet than the pro-Bush or anti-Kerry forces. But the liberal outcry at being outperformed has led some, along with some mainstream political and media defenders, to call for more restrictions on blogs. Among their objectives, not openly admitted, is to restrict the messages reaching Americans to those approved by the political parties and the mainstream media.

There is great uproar, mostly on the Internet, against this diminution of free speech and participation in the campaign. What has the mainstream media itself said about possible FEC restrictions on blogs? The New York Times, generally credited with leading mainstream media focus, reported the story with pretty straight quotation of the contending sides, but has not ventured one of its editorial opinions about the challenge to free blogging. The Times continues to advocate more 527 limitations.

Sen. Russ Feingold writes "the FEC should generally exempt independent, unpaid political activity by bloggers." One can drive a tank through those weak assurances. And they open a slippery slope to further restrictions upon free speech.

Under McCain-Feingold, complaints are brought by the public, to which the accused must respond. The complaints of partisans against potent bloggers, almost all being one or a few individuals, can only burden them to end blogging or to restrain their ability to freely blog. It is difficult, at best, to define and to delineate "paid." Is it being paid to accept political ads or to also work for the wide range of organizations considered political entities under McCain-Feingold and similar laws? Are the mainstream media's reporters and commentators to also be so measured, piercing the current media exemption?

Both Lord Acton and George Bernard Shaw hit the nail on the head. Acton opined that power corrupts. Shaw, delighting as always in turning aphorisms on their head, added that "power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power." Senators McCain and Feingold, and their law's supporters in positions of authority, need to be reminded of both the importance of free speech and of Acton and Shaw's insights.


Why do blogs matter to the political class ? It isn't the biting sarcasm or irreverence found in the blogosphere. The Nation, National Review, American Spectator, Z Magazine and the avowedly political dead tree journals are often harsher and more wickedly partisan than what most bloggers churn out. Nor is it the lack of reverence for our august representatives. It was the mainstream media who badgered Mike McCurry over whether President Clinton was going to provide photographs of his penis in the Paula Jones case. Nor did bloggers crawl into every garbage can to find scraps of evidence on every skirt Gary Condit might have chased in his heyday. None of those things animate the political class to fear the blogosphere, they have learned to live with the scandal game already.

The blogosphere is frightening to the elite because of its speed, connectivity and erosion of the the power of the official gatekeepers. To paraphrase John Boyd, when an issue catches fire in the blogosphere, it gets inside the decision-cycle of our political class.

A strata of really bright ( Dan Drezner pointed out that 40% of the top bloggers hold PhD's) people who once might have reacted to issues in passive isolation or ranted to their families and friends, not only reach a larger circle of people but more importantly, they connect with each other. This is a multiplier effect in terms of influence.

Moreover this multiplier effect occurs in real time thanks to the internet. It is a scary prospect to a Congressman who might see attitudes on a " sleeper" issue heat up in their district's hometown newspapers in a mere matter of hours. Why ? Because reporters and editors read blogs and blog themselves. A story that once might have taken months to reach critical mass - recall Woodward and Bernstein - now can form into a political tsunami in a few days and jump from the fringe to the 6:00 news.

Mr. Kesler pointed out that the gatekeepers are losing control. The old relationship between the political class and the major media hinged on certain understandings, a culture between journalist and source, subject and story that stretchedback to the days of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It was a Rule-Set well-understood and seldom violated that created a small group of clout-wielding insiders- politicians,pundits and publishers- and a vast group of passive outsiders for about a century. Henry Luce, Joseph Alsop, Walter Lippman, Arthur Sulzberger, Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee,Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather filled a kind of powerful niche that no longer exists. The oligopoly of information has become a decentralized marketplace of ideas and the elite, some of them anyway, can't stand it.

John McCain was a very brave man who sacrificed a great deal for his country a long time ago. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his service but the price he seems to be asking of us lately is our First Amendment liberties. Squelching our rights to speak and write and about our representatives just so Senator McCain and his colleagues won't be discomforted by having to deal with " unapproved" or " amateur" criticism from the public during the next election cycle.

I'm sorry Senator. When you and Russ Feingold began pushing campaign finance reform you moved from being a defender of the Constitution to an enemy of the Bill of Rights, all for the low, rent-seeking purpose of sheltering fellow incumbents from the prospect of unemployment. A seeker of job security for politicians as a discrete class.

Senator John McCain, Oligarch.
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