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Take the Money and Run With It


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My little girl plans to take her savings and buy a gong. That's because whenever guests come to dinner, the conversation among the adults at the table gets so lively the poor kid can't get a word in. When she wants to add her pipsqueak voice to the conversation, she figures, she'll just hit the gong and break in.

The money to buy the gong will buy her an equal footing in our conversation.

We all have the same First Amendment rights. Congress shall make no law abridging my daughter's freedom of speech or press. The government can't stop her from speaking. But to get anyone to pay attention to what she says? That takes money. These days, getting your voice projected beyond your dinner table could take a lot of money. And getting someone to act on your ideas? That takes a fortune.

My daughter squirrels away change she finds around the house. The rule is: If it ends up on the floor it is hers. She's got about $25 in her piggy bank, and about $55 in her savings account --Umpqua tellers come to the elementary school each Thursday and bank the kids' deposits. That's a fortune in little girl land, but it won't buy her much attention.

In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger kicked off his reelection campaign at the Samoa Cookhouse, and I think that choice of locale had more to do with local resident Robin Arkley's $44,600 contribution to Arnold's campaign coffers four months earlier than the all-you-can-eat breakfast. These days, that just-under-50 grand seems as quaint as the 10 cents my pop spent on a movie in his youth. Consider that last month $19 million --a quarter of all money contributed to the presidential contest that month-- came from just five individuals, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. When someone spends millions to make sure his voice is heard the speech becomes important.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 made sure that we keep that kind of speech unfettered. In Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission it told Congress that to limit the money an organization or even a corporation could spend on donations to committees not directly affiliated with a political candidate would abridge this power of speech. Eureka resident David Cobb is part of a movement trying to get a constitutional amendment to counter the Citizens United decision. (Good luck on that, Dave. I've been waiting since 1972 for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. While the courts may consider corporations people, 18 states consider women second-class ones.)

If you are one of those odd people I meet around town who read this column with religious fervor, you know that I am a free speech fanatic. I also believe in free trade. In theory. But theory rarely meshes with reality. Were we to trade economically with other countries on a level playing field, I'd be all for it. But that means that we all enforce basic fair labor laws and laws that protect our air and water. Otherwise the game is rigged.

I think our free speech rights are like that too. I consider the principle sacred. But the reality is different. Speech you buy is worth so much more than speech that comes without a price. Say my daughter wants to campaign on an important issue like more recess and less homework. I can drive her to the Access Humboldt Studio at Eureka High and she can use equipment for free to record a commercial. And she could air it on Channel 12 for nothing. A smattering of people in our community would see it. But if she had the money to pay for an ad on Fox during the Superbowl, it would reach more than 100 million people.

Speech gains power when you can distribute it to a mass audience. And only corporations and rich people have that power through money.

The Citizens United decision came out of the desire of an organization to air on TV a negative documentary about Hillary Clinton, who, when the case began, vied with Barak Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. To air the program cost a lot of money. No one ever said the documentary couldn't be made or uploaded to YouTube or that people couldn't view it. The question was this: How do you raise the ginormous amounts of money to buy airtime to reach a mass audience? The Supreme Court said that to prevent the donations to pay for something like that is to abridge free speech rights. But that isn't really the case. What it abridges is the ability to distribute big time. Now I totally understand that speech without distribution might as well be silence, and so the government should not be able to unreasonably restrict distribution of speech. But reasonable restrictions on political donations that fund distribution aren't the same thing. I think people and organizations with lots of money use the free speech principle these days to rig the game, much like the free trade game is rigged.

One way to address this problem might be to make the game more fair. Back in 1919 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the best counter to bad ideas is a free marketplace of ideas. Let speech fly, and beautiful truth will drown out ugly lies and nasty notions. But again, there is that concept of a free market and our market isn't free. So I think we need to bring back a policy the Federal Communications Commissions officially buried last August: The Fairness Doctrine. It held that broadcasters had to devote some time to controversial programs about important public issues and set aside air time for opposing views.

A TV network wants to take in millions of dollars for airing a slanted documentary? Set aside some low-cost or free airtime for an opposing view. It isn't as if the government doesn't already manipulate programming. This week former basketball great Magic Johnson announced the launch of his new TV channel called Aspire, which will target an African-American audience. It is the first of what will be 10 independently owned and operated channels that cable giant Comcast promised the federal government in exchange for its approval to merge with NBC -- Rap star Sean Combs and movie director Robert Rodriguez will also get channels under the deal.

Maybe my daughter should forget the gong and get on the line with a Comcast exec. The company still has six channels to announce and she represents a nice demographic. Either that or she should quit her whining. To all you disenfranchised 7-year-olds with notions of entitlement: Grow up.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She writes this column because at home and in her classes, no one seems to listen to a word she says.


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