Michael B. Keegan
President, People For the American Way
Posted: October 19, 2010
Earlier this month, Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller announced that he would
no longer be answering questions from the press about his "background" and
"personal issues" -- issues including his possible past use of government
computers to do campaign work. Yesterday, Miller took the law into his own hands
to enforce that rule when he had his personal security guards handcuff and
detain a journalist who was trying to ask him about those ethics charges at an
event on public property, in an Anchorage middle school. Miller's campaign
dismissed the journalist as an "irrational blogger" and tried to act the victim
of an overly aggressive press corps.
The incident is appalling, but maybe we shouldn't be surprised by it. Led by the
notoriously "Lame Stream Media"-averse Sarah Palin, Tea Party candidates like
Miller, Nevada's Sharron Angle, and Delaware's Christine O'Donnell have been
shunning both progressive and ideologically neutral news outlets in favor of
conservative media mouthpieces who will tell only their side of the story, and
ask only the questions they want asked.
The ability of citizens to ask questions of those in power is the centerpiece of
a functioning democracy -- and any candidate hoping to serve in such a democracy
should be ready to deal with tough questions. Miller, who prides himself on his
knowledge of the Constitution, should know that when the founders chose to
guarantee the freedom of the press, they recognized that a robust press corps is
key to citizens holding those in power accountable. At a minimum, one can
imagine they sought to limit the handcuffing of reporters.
But with the rise of the Tea Party and in the wake of the Supreme Court's
decision in Citizens United, right-wing candidates have been promoting a curious
inversion of the right of free speech in a democracy. While they refuse to be
held accountable by an independent press corps, they enthusiastically defend the
newly declared right of corporate special interests to spend extraordinary sums
of money from vast treasuries to help them get elected -- all while avoiding
accountability from the public.
We're living in a world where candidates don't speak, but corporations do.
When Palin advised O'Donnell to "speak through Fox News," she was talking about
that network's function as a mouthpiece for right-wing candidates. But she could
have just as easily been referring to Fox News' other form of campaign speech --
the millions of dollars its parent company, News Corp, has poured into campaigns
to elect Republican candidates. It's no longer convenient for right-wing
candidates to answer to "irrational bloggers" or others who will ask them tough
questions -- they have an entire network devoted to twisting the truth on their
behalf, and have corporate interests willing to plaster the airwaves with
attacks on their opponents.
The same Joe Miller who was willing to physically restrain a reporter who dared
ask him about alleged ethics violations has had no problem with the
corporate-funded Club For Growth spending thousands of dollars to attack his
opponents, while under no obligation to tell voters where those thousands of
dollars come from.
While right-wingers promote conspiracy theories about a supposed Obama-led
totalitarian regime, incidents like this one reveal the truth behind their view
of democracy. In a world where the right to "free speech" doesn't protect the
rights of citizens to ask questions, find accurate information, and hold those
in power accountable, what we get instead is the kind of free-for-all where Joe
Miller's hired goons can restrain a reporter and where big corporations can fund
attack ads without ever being held accountable by voters. What we get is free
speech for the wealthy and powerful and tough luck for the rest of us. It's the
First Amendment turned on its head, and democracy gone dangerously awry.