Independent Voices and Mass Media

Is free speech possible in media that are dominated by a few mega-sized organizations? Is objective expression feasible in outlets that are owned and controlled by corporate conglomerates?

Last week, political commentator Andrew Sullivan became the latest entrepreneur to answer these questions with a resounding “no.” Citing the need for financial independence as a necessary predecessor condition for editorial independence, Sullivan announced his plan to withdraw his blog from IAC’s The Daily Beast and establish an independent media voice.

Like Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel, Sullivan is a self-described political conservator who practices the Catholic faith. Yet unlike Mr. O’Reilly, he is an openly HIV positive gay citizen who has forcefully advocated for same sex marriage.

But concerns about free speech are not unique to individuals, like Mr. Sullivan, who fail to fit easily into the conventional categories of our contemporary media industry. Indeed, such concerns predate today’s social media era, and even predate the classic newspaper era.

Lincoln’s “New Oratorical Style”

During the mid 1800s, for instance, the public lecture was a popular form of education and entertainment. Instead of relying on the fledgling newspaper industry to convey their messages to the public, politicians and other commentators would appear in churches and concert halls and deliver speeches directly to their audiences.

In 1860, a second tier Presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln propelled himself towards the White House with a (now legendary) speaking performance at Cooper Union in New York City. The address was considered to be remarkable for its “… new oratorical style: informed by history, suffused with moral certainty, and marked by lawyerly precision.”

Social gatherings and public lectures? They may have represented the very earliest examples of social media platforms that influenced public discourse. And they served the needs of commentators to express their opinions directly to public crowds; likewise, they served the desires of the crowds for unfettered access to the speakers.

Mad as Hell!

The twentieth century, however, was marked by the corporatizing of various media outlets and the merging of independent outlets into mass market entities. In the newspaper industry, for instance, The Tribune Company evolved from its roots as an eponymous Chicago newspaper to become the conglomerate owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Baltimore Sun, and other publications.

Likewise, in the radio industry, Clear Channel Communications evolved from a single San Antonio FM station in 1972 to a national behemoth with more than 830 local stations. And in the television industry, national network control over local independent stations became such a concern that the Federal Communications Commission limited network control over local content with the implementation of the Prime Time Access Rule in 1970.

Controversies about the stifling of free speech and independent expression were epitomized by the 1976 film Network. Inspired by a true incident involving a local reporter who committed suicide on a live local news broadcast after losing an argument with her editors, the film became known for its portrayal of a deranged news man who screams “”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” about his corporate bosses.

As we entered the 21st century, many social commentators had hoped that the development of the internet would spark a “creative commons” for authors, artists, and educators to distribute their content without corporate editorial filters. But the internet medium itself has followed the industry life cycles of newspapers, radio, and television by coalescing into a small number of dominant organizations.

From Glenn Beck To Al Jazeera

Last year, for instance, the web sites that attracted the most traffic in the United States were Google / YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon. And during the past two weeks, a pair of provocative news “voices” from opposing sides of the ideological spectrum announced plans to abandon their fledgling web based platforms in favor of more traditional corporate models of distribution.

First, libertarian commentator Glenn Beck revealed that he would reposition GBTV as a libertarian themed media network called The Blaze. Then the Arab news organization Al Jazeera announced that it would purchase the liberal cable television news network Current TV, shut down its web streaming service Al Jazeera English, and relaunch its American news operations on the Current platform as a cable network named Al Jazeera America.

Beck is considered one of the founding members of the political Tea Party movement in the United States. Current TV was co-founded by former Vice President and Nobel Prize recipient Al Gore. And Al Jazeera is owned by the government of the nation of Qatar. These diverse individuals and organizations have applied impressive arrays of resources to the challenges of launching innovative independent media entities.

And now Andrew Sullivan has decided to confront the same challenges. Apparently, the quest for editorial independence and objectivity has survived into the internet media era.