The Neomarxist who is helping to influence Obama’s media policy

Mike Riggs Contributor
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“Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism.” Does that statement give you chills?

How about this one: “The news is not a commercial product. It is a public good, necessary for a self-governing society. Once we accept this, we can talk about the kind of media policies and subsidies we want.”

Or this one? “In the end, there is no real answer but to remove brick-by-brick the capitalist system itself, rebuilding the entire society on socialist principles.”

These are the sentiments of Robert McChesney, a self-professed neomarxist media scholar and the founder of the lobbying group and think tank Free Press. McChesney’s statements should worry you, perhaps even fill you with dread. Not because the rantings of a lefty professor are particularly scary in and of themselves, but because McChesney’s views are having a direct effect on the Obama administration’s policies on the media. Don’t believe it? Check out a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission entitled, “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.” Portions sounds like they were written by McChesney himself.

“I certainly think Free Press is making headway with the FTC,” said Adam Theirer, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation. “They’ve been filing extensive comments with the FTC and they’ve gotten face-time at the FTC workshops. And if you look at the 47-page discussion document that the FTC just released, many of those ideas were borrowed directly from McChesney or Free Press.”

Those ideas, many of them culled from McChesney’s book The Death and Life of American Journalism (co-written with the Nation’s John Nichols), include:

  • The establishment of a “‘journalism’ division of AmeriCorps” to “ensure that young people who love journalism will stay in the field”
  • Providing “a tax credit to news organizations for every journalist they employ”
  • “Establishing citizenship news vouchers”
  • “Increasing postal subsidies for newspapers and periodicals”
  • A tax on news aggregators, or even a policy to make news aggregation sites, like the Drudge Report, illegal
  • The allocation of roughly $35 billion in public news subsidies
  • A five percent tax on consumer electronics
  • A ISP cell phone tax
  • A revision of the tax code to allow for more nonprofit media

The group’s involvement in the FTC document might surprise people who thought Free Press was involved exclusively in pushing internet regulation known as net neutrality. But Free Press’s critics, and even some of its allies, say it has been working towards a much larger goal since its creation in 2002.

“Free Press hasn’t always been about net neutrality,” said a telecommunications expert with intimate knowledge of the group. “It’s just a diversion that’s been really lucrative for them. What they’re really about is having an order of magnitude more media under government control and implementing rules that disadvantage for-profit media.”

Theirer concurs. “Free Press started off not as the radical agitators on the broadband and net neutrality front, but by trying to regulate the press and trying to regulate the media,” Theirer said. “And really, that’s been their heart and soul, and the reason they got involved in the policy world. Of course, net neutrality plays into the battle–or as they call it, the ‘struggle’–for media. But the end game for Free Press has always been effecting media policy, if not utterly controlling it.”

Free Press isn’t exactly shy about its aims. “So who owns your media?” reads the copy on its site. “Is it someone from your community delivering your news? Or even someone who shares your issues and concerns? Probably not.” All such copy, say the group’s critics, comes from a watered-down, more politically palatable version of McChesney’s actual beliefs – beliefs that led McChesney to commend Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez in 2007 after he shut down his country’s private media companies, and to crow, “Free Press is…fighting at the FCC. They’re fighting in the court system. They’re basically fighting behind closed doors.”

Nor is the FTC report the first time Free Press has influenced the Obama administration. Several former Free Press employees now work for Obama. Former policy director Ben Scott left Free Press last month for a gig at the State Department, where he’s now acting as an innovation advisor for the agency’s overseas media efforts. Like a number of other Free Press employees, Scott learned the ins and outs of media advocacy directly from McChesney while a student of his at the University of Illinois.

Right around the time that Scott announced he was leaving for the State Department, National Journal revealed that a press release supposedly authored by Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee had actually been written by Scott. “As legislators committed to expanding access to open, affordable, world-class broadband networks,” reads the document, “we have a very strong interest in promoting policies that can support these goals.”

Theirer points to Scott’s hiring, as well as the recent FTC report, as evidence that Free Press is starting to develop “some real connections and impact.”

“Essentially we have someone from a neomarxist media outfit setting America’s global policy on information issues at the State Department,” Theirer added.

Scott isn’t the only Free Press employee to land a government job under Obama. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has Free Press alumna Jen Howard on his staff. Before flacking for Genachowski, Howard was the spokesperson for Free Press. Since joining the FCC, she’s worked tirelessly to make sure her boss’s messaging lines up with that of her former employer.

According to another source who works with net neutrality advocates, Free Press is considered fringe even by the standards of pro-media-regulation types. “Everybody likes to have a tiger on their side,” he said, “but Free Press makes people nervous.”