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.

Fracking: A Metaphor of Decline

“We’re in decline.”

It was a dramatic statement by an American political leader, one unvarnished by politically correct posturing or knee-jerk optimism. And it was verbalized by one of the most respected public figures in the United States.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered the comment during an interview in which he also opined that Republican icon Ronald Reagan (as well as his own father, President George H.W. Bush) would struggle to find a role within today’s Republican party. Although the political pundits focused on his opinion regarding Reagan, others were struck by his prognosis of the nation’s fiscal health.

Meanwhile, television viewers who were searching for tales of America’s economic prowess discovered the resurrection of a classic show about the world of American business. New episodes of Dallas, the oil industry saga that was broadcast on the CBS television network from 1978 to 1991, suddenly reappeared on TNT cable television with actors Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray reprising their original roles as JR, Bobby, and Sue Ellen Ewing.

34 Years Later

Fans of the original television show engaged in extended online discussions about how the three original characters have changed during the 34 years that have elapsed since the program’s initial premiere. Likewise, we can discuss the evolution of the show’s underlying assumptions about the American economy to observe how our society has evolved as well.

For instance, the original Ewing Oil of 1978 was a family owned firm that focused primarily on developing land-based energy projects in the United States. Ewing family funds were also invested in Texas based ranching, farming, and media operations, thereby maintaining a domestic focus and avoiding any foreign entanglements.

Were there any exceptions to this unified American perspective? During the third season, JR Ewing did briefly invest $200 million in an Asian oil operation. But the diversion did not last long because local government regulators nationalized the energy fields, though only after the crafty JR obtained insider information about the impending nationalization and unloaded Ewing’s ownership interest on his unsuspecting business rivals!

In the contemporary version of the series, however, there is no such emphasis on domestic American business strategies. Christopher Ewing’s primary focus, in fact, is a methane gas operation off the coast of China. And John Ross Ewing’s efforts to develop fracking operations on the land under the family’s Southfork ranch is considered an environmental degradation by his extended family.

From Southfork to the Southern Tier

This very fracking controversy, of course, is currently playing out across the United States. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, for example, recently restricted the controversial production activity to the economically depressed Southern Tier of the Empire State after deciding initially to permit the technique on a statewide basis.

His recent restrictive decision satisfied no one. Critics of fracking predicted that the technique would pollute the state’s water supply, while proponents retorted that a geographically narrow production region would deter energy companies from making economically profitable investments.

Was Cuomo’s decision reflective of a state in decline? Some might opine that a state in a position of ascendancy would legalize fracking and then search energetically for technological solutions to its complications; others might opine that an ascendant society would prohibit the practice and then search energetically for replacement sources of energy. Cuomo’s compromise solution, regrettably, does not appear to match either profile.

The Metaphor of Fractures

Interestingly, John Ross Ewing’s focus on fracking activities may well serve as a metaphor for the challenges that face American society. Fracking itself is a process whereby pressurized fluids are blasted into deep underground rock formations, fracturing the earth and thus freeing the energy deposits from the soil.

In a sense, the Ewing family of Dallas has been fractured throughout its 34 year history in the world of television. And the television audience itself has grown increasingly fractured during the past three or four decades as well. Although it was possible for the iconic “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger episode of the third season of the original show to attract an estimated 41.5 million households, the subsequent splintering of the American public among hundreds of cable and web based television shows makes such a unified television audience impossible today.

In a sense, the fragmentation of the contemporary American television audience reflects the type of social fracturing that Jeb Bush had in mind when he described the United States as a nation in decline. The same centrifugal social forces that are pulling American television viewers into segregated networks and shows are likewise isolating them into disparate political cliques, making compromise unlikely and political agreements impossible.

The result? Most critics have expressed doubt that the contemporary version of Dallas will be able to find its legs and ascend to the top of the television world. Likewise, there are many skeptics who are expressing doubt that American society will be able to reach consensus on its most pressing challenges and reverse its trajectory of decline.