“Get ready for an unprecedented government assault upon the First Amendment. President Obama will be at the heart of it.”
These are the words that open an article in the ultra-rightist Human Events by notorious kook, Jack Thompson (more on him later). The article is another in a series of hysterical rants from conservative Chicken Littles who fear that Democratic leadership is intent on restoring the “Fairness Doctrine” which they believe will sweep their heroes (Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, etc.) from the airwaves. This despite the fact that Barack Obama himself is on record opposing its reinstatement. But that doesn’t stop Thompson from building a delusional case for how Obama has devised an insidious plot to stifle right-wingers with an even more destructive attack on free speech.
Thompson leads his argument with this frightening passage from a speech by Charles Benton of the Benton Foundation:
“[O]ur number one national communications policy priority must be the eradication of racial and gender discrimination in media and telecommunications. Our shared goal: seeing the day when all Americans possess the tools to compete in commerce, to contribute to and enjoy the fruits of democracy, to receive unbiased and uncensored news and information, to create our culture.” [Emphasis by Thompson]
The Benton Foundation is a private institution that “works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance our democracy.” As illustrated in the quote above, their mission is one that most Americans would enthusiastically support. However, Thompson tries to turn it into something scary with creative italics. His attempt would be even more ludicrous had he included the next paragraph from the speech:
“In our democratic society, we are constantly on the outlook for undue influence by the government on our communications. But we should be equally vigilant to make sure that a handful of powerful people or companies do not dominate our discourse either.”
Is this really something that Thompson thinks conservatives should recoil from? He continues by trying to demonize the concept of “localism” which calls for the FCC “to gather information from consumers, industry, civic organizations, and others on broadcasters’ service to their local communities.” If Thompson is opposed to this, one wonders from where he thinks the FCC ought to get information. Politicians? Missionaries? Astrologers? He further disparages localism by associating it with the latest conservative buzz word for bogeyman, “community organizer.” What is most perplexing is that Thompson really expects anyone to be troubled by the agendas outlined above. But, sadly, there will be plenty of troubled readers who will buy Thompson’s snake oil.
Thompson’s most disturbing argument against localism comes with a reference to one of the right’s favorite new fright-makers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. However the connection is as fragile as Thompson’s grasp of reality. In 1967, the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication participated, with the NAACP and residents of Jackson, MS, in a challenge to the broadcast license of WLBT. For the record, Wright was not associated with the UCC at that time – he was not even a minister. In fact, he was wrapping up his service as a Navy medical technician assigned to the team caring for President Lyndon Johnson. It was not until 1972, after returning to college and earning two masters degrees and a Doctorate of Divinity, that he became pastor of UCC’s Trinity Church.
But it is Thompson’s characterization of the WLBT challenge that is truly disgusting. He calls WLBT “a Southern station [that] was not covering the civil rights movement fairly.” The truth is somewhat more unsavory than that trivialization. The book “Changing Channels – The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television,” by Kay Mills, describes what really happened with a little more detail and accuracy. Mills wrote about the situation in an article for the National Archives:
WLBT, which had gone on the air in 1953, employed no black people, either on camera or behind the scenes, although its audience was more than 40 percent black. The station also did not cover the black community in the same depth as it covered news about the white community, and it broadcast the Sunday services of only a local white church and none from black churches. Its station manager editorialized on the air against the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962, arguing that states, not the federal government, should determine who could attend their schools and colleges.
The case against WLBT was a hard fought matter of principles that endure today. Prior to this victory, which was argued before both the FCC and federal courts, the only people who could bring these sort of challenges were those with “an economic stake in the issue or people who could claim electrical interference from broadcasters’ signals.” This case provided the first ruling that permitted citizens to take action against broadcasters who failed to serve the public interest. It was the first time that regulators were forced to listen to citizens and not just the broadcasters and corporations.
WLBT was an egregious violator of the Fairness Doctrine rules in effect at the time. Its management was overtly racist. And they repeatedly resisted efforts to be more responsive to their viewers and the community at large. The battle against WLBT produced a profound victory that was aided by historic figures like Medger Evers, Thurgood Marshall, and Warren Burger. It is this example that Thompson chose in order to whip up opposition to Obama and an expired doctrine that Obama does not support.
Thompson is so fixated on roiling the waters that he would denigrate one of the most significant events in the civil rights movement to further his ignoble ends. Therein lies the seeds of his madness. Jack Thompson is a well known nutcase. He has a long history of feuding with a variety of people and institutions. He has been a crusading critic of pornography and violence in video games, advocating what amounts to censorship. And when his nuisance suits were quashed, he whined about being discriminated against for his Christian beliefs. Eventually, he was permanently disbarred from practicing law in Florida for making false statements and attempting to humiliate, embarrass, harass or intimidate litigants and other lawyers. None of this, however, keeps Human Events from making Thompson a regular contributor.
[Update: It has just been revealed that Kevin Werbach, a co-chair of Obama’s FCC transition team is an avid gamer. This should set up an epic battle between him and anti-gamer, Thompson.]
The Culture Warriors on the right are shameless in their brazen assaults on someone who has not even taken office. Yet somehow Obama is orchestrating an end to the First Amendment. The current state of the economy is already being referred to by the Hannitized as the Obama recession. If he chooses an aide or cabinet appointee with experience, he is said to have abandoned his promise for “change.” But if he names someone new from outside the beltway, he’ll be accused of being irresponsible.
The message is clear: The Martinets of Conservatism want you to hate Barack Obama – and they want you to start NOW!