21 October 2015
Diversity of opinion in authoritarian and capitalist media
Reading Leslie Savan's cry of alarm in The Nation over reports that MSNBC will get rid of a lot of its progressive TV hosts in an effort to steer itself back toward objective news reporting, I was reminded a little of Russia. Part of the case against Vladimir Putin as an "authoritarian" leader is that he has gradually driven dissenting opinion off television, whether by intimidation, selective prosecutions, denial of licenses, buyouts by friendly oligarchs, etc. Reportedly Putin isn't as concerned about other media, but wants to make sure the most popular medium avoids an adversarial stance toward him. You hear the same stories about alleged authoritarians everywhere. Apparently it's crucial to their consolidation of power to control television. Conversely, the existence of adversarial or plainly partisan TV channels or networks is considered minimal proof that a nation has a free civil society. People who may have no use for Fox News at home more or less argue that no nation is free unless it has an equivalent of Fox -- or of MSNBC if the regime is at all "conservative." Implicit in all this is a belief that the state has an obligation to guarantee opposition parties, if not all political points of view, access to mass media. But there seems to be no real guarantee of MSNBC's status as a "progressive" channel. Decisions to change its content, while retaining its most popular prime-time progressive personalities, are motivated by displeasure with low ratings and a desire on the part of new management to make MSNBC look more like NBC, at least for part of the day. No act of authoritarian repression has taken place, yet should a Republican win the Presidency next year there's no guarantee that cable subscribers will find a rallying point against the new regime. As Savan points out, there are alternative progressive cable news outlets, but they're all small compared to MSNBC and far fewer people have access to them. Ironically, Russia's English-language news channel RTN was probably the furthest left of all news channels, at least in its coverage of the U.S., on my cable system until the system dropped it in favor of Al Jazeera America, most likely having decided that the former was more "anti-American" than the latter. It would seem, then, that capitalist countries can no more guarantee significant TV exposure to truly dissident opinion than authoritarian countries. If Russia is an authoritarian country because you can't find anyone on TV saying Putin is a bum, what is the U.S.? You can point to Fox News now that a Democrat is President, but if there's no voice of opposition equal to Fox both in vehemence and availability when we have a Republican president, what will that say about us? Why wait to judge? What does it say about us if a channel that advocates somewhat strongly for not-even radical change, the nearest thing we have (and probably not so near) to an anti-establishment news network, and hence presumably an essential element of civil society, is subject to the whims and winds of market forces? If the standard for a free society is that dissent is guaranteed a place in the mass media, and MSNBC, or more accurately its progressive opinionators, are not guaranteed a place -- for such a guarantee would grant them immunity from the market forces currently threatening them -- then by that standard we aren't as free a society as we think.