Freedom of Speech or of the Press – Whose Right Is It? Need for Another Eliott Spitzer?

 

We have been meaning to write on this topic for years, actually since we began our activism to highlight & criticize the deep seated religious apartheid in American media against Hindus & more generally Asian religions.But that really is a small part of what American media does. So we have kept our struggle focused on simply holding up a mirror to editors & media management to enable them to see the rot within their organizations. But we now see the potential of an activist approach against the biggest part of what American media does.

During the inequality debate and the 99% revolt against the 1%, very little attention has been paid to the one American sector that has seen unparalleled & uninterrupted rise to success & riches.Wall Street is certainly a candidate but that sector suffered two huge downturns in 2000-2002 & 2007-2009.

The only sector to enjoy uninterrupted explosive growth to influence & riches has been Cable Television. Since the onset of the tech bubble and especially since the attack on 9/11, Cable Television has been on a romp. Check out what Cable TV anchors were paid in 2000 and check out what they are paid now. Media is one sector where trickle-down has worked. Salaries for print reporters have also gone faster & higher as a byproduct of Cable TV. Today, every print reporter literally begs to be invited to media panels on Cable Networks. And reporters who look good & can talk well move from print media to become TV anchors & reporters.

This growth in salaries is a byproduct of the growth in power that Cable TV has amassed. A majority of Americans now get their news from Cable TV than from their local newspapers. So Cable TV became a kingmaker or a government-maker & business-maker in America. That was not lost on CEOs. Thus began a drive for large corporations to buy & control media organizations. 

Look around and you will see how “free” American Press has actually become an owned asset of Corporate America. ABC owned by Disney, NBC owned by Comcast and now CNN an acquisition target for AT&T. Businesses don’t succeed unless they are focused. And that is what we see in Television. You watch ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, you read print media and you see a total focus of opinion & coverage either for or against a topic and either for or against a political theme, movement or candidate.

We saw one peak of this singular focus in the Hillary vs. Trump general election, an election in which ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC all united as a single phalanx against the Trump candidacy. Fox was the only standout in being somewhat supportive of Trump. We say somewhat because even support from Fox was lukewarm, possibly due to the change in Fox’s management. This change at Fox actually supports our case that TV anchors & reporters are highly susceptible to signals from corporate management.

1.Telecom Bubble of 1990s

That brings us to the 1990s and to another sector. Research analysts on Wall Street were always supposed to issue Buy-Hold-Sell recommendations on stocks based on their own unbiased analysis. That became a casualty in the tech bubble. Investment Banking, the Wall Street department that caters to big corporations, was making humongous fees from servicing big corporations. But a big corporation would only hire a Wall Street firm whose research analyst had put a BUY recommendation on the corporation’s stock. Ergo, a huge pressure on the research analyst to put aside any negative concerns or opinions and publicly put out a Buy on the corporation’s stock. 

Remember the famous case of AT&T stock from that era! A superstar analyst in the telecommunications sector had a Hold rating on AT&T stock. But his CEO & his Investment Banking department wanted to get a huge piece of business from AT&T. Reportedly AT&T was unwilling to hire Citigroup Smith Barney whose star analyst didn’t have a Buy on the stock. Guess what happened? Allegedly the Citigroup CEO pushed the superstar analyst to upgrade AT&T to a Buy; AT&T, according to the SEC complaint, gave Smith Barney a big deal with a $63 million fee and everybody was happy. The only victims were gullible individual investors who went out and bought AT&T stock because of the Buy recommendation of the superstar analyst they trusted.

And such unsuspecting individual investors were the ones who got gored badly in the 2000-2002 bust of the telecom & technology bubble.The superstar analyst had his reputation & wall street career ruined. But very little happened to Smith Barney, at least as compared to its enormous size, and nothing, as we recall, happened to AT&T. 

And now AT&T is back in the news with a deal to buy Time Warner and with it the power, reach & influence of CNN. Will this AT&T-CNN deal become the spectacular testimonial to today’s corporate control of TV News & Opinion just as the AT&T-Smith Barney deal became the spectacular testimonial to Wall Street Research Opinions?

Is this history rhyming again if not actually repeating?

2. Need for another Eliot Spitzer, a media Spitzer

Eliot Spitzer, then the NY Attorney General, launched a determined crusade to clean up the Research Departments of Wall Street that had virtually become controlled entities of Wall Street CEOs and their investment banking departments. Mr. Spitzer won a large & far reaching settlement from Wall Street that required research analysts to certify in writing that the opinions they issue were their own and given without any pressure or influence from their investment banking departments or CEOs.

What we see today on Cable & Broadcast TV networks is far worse than what we saw on Wall Street in 1999-2000. Virtually every single TV network has chosen a side in the Anti-Trump vs. Trump fight. You can’t find even a semblance of honesty or individual opinion on ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC. In a sense, the media head honchos at their parent corporations (Disney, Comcast, Time Warner) have no choice. Ratings are important uber alles and whatever posture the network has to adopt to get ratings is to be adopted.

Given the dominance of Fox in the pro-republican space, what remains is the Anti-Trump space. And no network has changed so much or gone so virulent in pursuit of the Anti-Trump space as CNN. Their evening shows used to be somewhat fair during the Republican primaries; these shows swung to an explicitly pure pro-Hillary and anti-Trump stance during the general election. But now they have morphed into a jihadi hatred of Trump at least in their TV programs.

We highlight CNN because that network has changed the most in the past few months and also because, having watched some of CNN’s prime time anchors for years, we can recognize when they are acting on instructions from their bosses rather than expressing their own opinions.

And that is where the similarity between the 1990s research analyst scam & today’s TV anchors is most obvious and real. And that brings in the intent & spirit of the “Freedom of Speech, or of the Press” clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

There is no question that the intent of the First Amendment was to protect Freedom of Speech and as a corollary Freedom of the Press. Any one who watches today’s Cable TV can see that TV anchors do NOT HAVE the constitutionally protected “freedom of speech” in the TV shows they anchor. They have to OBEY the dictates of their management & demonstrate the correct opinion posture their media bosses have imposed.

Does this provide a prima facie case for investigations into corporate-demanded violations of freedom of speech of anchors? We think so. But can US Government Attorneys can ask Courts for discovery? The evidence lies in internal email communications between TV anchors, Executive Producers of TV shows & Media heads at TV networks and the work product of the shows.

The first interesting question that would come up is the CONFLICT between Freedom of Speech & Freedom of Press. These were almost synonymous when the First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. The “press” at that time consisted of editors & reporter-commentators. The reality today is starkly different. For example, Comcast is a Cable Company and NBC-Universal is only a unit of Comcast. Further NBC news is only a unit of NBC-Universal which has other units like NBC Entertainment shows, Sports & Films. Similarly, ABC News is only a small unit of Disney.

In this case, who is the Press? The corporate owner, the management of the news units or the individual anchors/reporters? If it is the last group, then Freedom of Speech would still be synonymous with Freedom of Press. But if the corporate entity or management of News units are deemed to be the Press then you have a very big conflict between Freedom of Speech of anchors/reporters and Freedom of Press meaning news managements.

So what would be protected under Freedom of Press at Comcast or Disney? Surely not the revenues or profits of Comcast & Disney corporations! What about Bob Iger, CEO of Disney or Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast? Surely they, their activities, their directions would not be protected under Freedom of Press! What about presidents of NBC News & ABC News? Are they corporate executives first and foremost? Going lower into the management & decision-making chain, what about Executive Producers of TV shows? Are they executives first & foremost? Are their decisions, their instructions to TV anchors protected under Freedom of Press if they are executives first & foremost?

Now you see why US Attorneys or Class Action Lawyers would need discovery to determine who at these behemoth corporations with a diverse set of businesses do exercise freedom of press or violate it.

The word “exercise” is key, we think. Because the “Freedom of Speech, or of the Press” is a right conferred by the American People and actually a right owned by the American People. The Freedom of Press is explicitly a right bestowed on American society, the American People by the Constitution. And annulment or abrogation of this Freedom of Speech, or of the Press inflicts grave damage on the American People.

In other words, a Free Press with the Freedom of Speech is a fundamental right of the American People and not of any corporate entity. A Press enterprise that operates under effective “Freedom of Speech, or of the Press” can do so in freedom. But any corporate entity that annuls, abrogates by corporate dictat, or makes ineffective the Freedom of Press right of the American People can be held accountable by the American people and their agents.

One such agent is the US Congress. They can via legislation clarify and/or explicitly detail where the Freedom of Speech is allowed for anchors/reporters within or where the protection under Freedom of Press stops within a huge multi-tiered corporation like Comcast & Disney. This Republican-majority Congress with a Republican President has the power & freedom to do so. Hopefully they will.

Another such agent could be the US Attorney General, a US Attorney of a major state or a determined State Attorney General. Is there a Rudi Giuliani or Eliot Spitzer out there today?

What about class action lawyers acting on behalf of the American people? What a great legal battle would that be? Big Class Action Lawyers acting for the American People against Disney, Comcast, Time Warner et al for their annulment, abrogation & diminution of Freedom of Speech & Freedom of Press. What would be the scope of damages if the People won? Compensation to 310 million Americans for abrogation of their fundamental right? What would happen to stocks of Disney, Comcast, Time Warner, Fox, CBS et al as soon as such a lawsuit is filed?

3. We the People

Frankly this fight might be too big for class action lawyers and there is no visible appetite in the Congress to legislate on any such abrogation of Freedom of Press by today’s corporate self-proclaimed guardians of Freedom of Press. That leaves the American People.

A few weeks ago, a viewer asked Bill O’Reilly what they, the viewers, can do to stop the abuse by the Press. Surprisingly, Bill O’Reilly said “nothing”. O’Reilly was wrong. There is a lot the people can do.

What we all need to understand that attacking individual anchors & reporters is fine but of little value. Because the individual anchors are either bigoted themselves or they are mere lackeys of their management. To succeed in changing the bigotry of media, the people have to get to the owners. 

The easiest to get is Comcast. The wealth of Brian Roberts & the rest of Comcast executives mainly rests in their holdings of Comcast stock. They would do everything they can to protect the value of their stock holdings. In fact, they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to do everything they can to protect the interest of shareholders, meaning the value of Comcast stock. 

It’s simple, folks. Those who are angry at what they perceive as bigotry and fake news dished out by NBC news, MSNBC, CNBC should move from Comcast to Verizon or any local cable/broadband company in their area. When they call Comcast to cancel their service, they should explicitly tell the Comcast rep why they are cancelling. If a large number of Trump supporters do this simple thing, Comcast stock would crash and panic would reign at Comcast headquarters. How long would it then take for NBC/MSNBC/CNBS to change their posture?  Heck, you would see a transformation at Comcast even if a mere 1% of Trump supporters do this. 

CNN & Time Warner may be next easiest target. Time Warner desperately wants to get bought out by AT&T. What would happen if even 1% of Trump supporters called AT&T and threatened to cancel their AT&T wireless/TV account and move to Verizon/Sprint/T-Mobile if AT&T buys CNN. AT&T would wake up in a heartbeat and either force Time Warner to force CNN to change its programming or threaten to pull out of the Time Warner purchase. What would happen then to Time Warner stock?

Disney is the next easiest. If even 1% of Trump supporters cancel their plans to visit Disney parks, refuse to watch the next big Disney movie & stop buying Disney products for their kids, what would happen to Disney stock? Would Bob Iger tolerate a tiny unit named ABC News blowing up the entire Disney behemoth? We don’t think so.

Of course, all this rests on the people and on political activists who are livid at the bigotry and fake news that is being dished out by TV Networks.  

Finally which is the group that is most at risk in this fight? TV anchors & reporters. Remember it is their freedom of speech that is being abrogated or diminished by their executive producers, media executives & corporate bigwigs. If they accept this, then they would suffer the brunt of the consequences. They should remember that research analysts were the once who got blown up in the bust of the tech bubble because the analysts were the ones who failed in their duty. The Wall Street bosses got away with a slap on the wrist and the corporate clients got away free & clear.  

Same thing would happen to TV anchors & reporters. Their reputations & careers would be torched; the executive producers could lose their jobs but not their reputations and the corporate execs would at worst get a slap on the wrist.

Back in 1999, TV anchors made a fraction of the compensation they make now while the superstar analyst in that AT&T buy recommendation saga reportedly made $20 million a year at that time. Perhaps in 15 years, today’s hotshot anchors with multi-million dollar salaries would be reduced to what those 1999 superstar analysts are today.

That would be some change in the cycle, right?

 

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