I include a section on the media in my critical thinking class and have, over the years, pointed out the ever-increasing media consolidation. One of the major consolidators is Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which own almost 200 local stations and is poised to expand this ownership. One obvious concern about media consolidation is that, by definition, it puts more and more control of the news into fewer and fewer hands. This reduces the options of news consumers and increases the chances of biases dominating the news. This should, obviously enough, concern people on the left on the right—there is no monopoly on bias or media ownership by the left or the right.
It might be objected that consolidation is not necessarily a bad thing, and, in fact, it has some benefits. For example, a large corporation can fund investigative journalism in a way that small operations cannot. As far as the concerns about consolidation, it could be claimed that this is only a problem when companies use their control in nefarious ways, something they surely would not do because of, perhaps, the free market. The easy and obvious reply is to point out what critics of the “liberal media” have been saying for years about the bias in media. This bias is, obviously enough, not limited to the left-wing media, as demonstrated by Sinclair’s heavy-handed, Russian style exercise in compelling local anchors to read a script denouncing their fellow journalists.
Deadspin created a video collage of the anchors reading from their script for the corporation, which would have been hilarious if it were a parody and not reality. While some have attacked the stations and anchors that participated (not all of them did), this is clearly unfair. If the anchors believed what they read, then they should not be condemned for being “cowards.” If the anchors did not believe what they read, they should no more be condemned than should hostages forced to read the propaganda of their captors. While Sinclair did not threaten to fire a gun at the employees if they did not comply, there is the clear threat of being fired for not doing what the owners say. While some might still call them cowards for not risking their jobs to take a principled stand, this is a great deal to expect from a person in the economic system we live in. While they obviously would not be killed, being out of work is seriously harmful in the United States. Naturally, anyone who criticizes them as cowards should give serious thought to whether they would risk their job to take such a stand. It can, of course, be claimed that the employees were really not at risk of any reprisals and that the worries of the workers are based on delusions. However, the evidence seems to show that many of the anchors felt compelled to read the script. I turn now to the matter of compelled speech.
The subject of compelled speech has figured prominently in some recent court cases. One involves the baker who has argued that being forced to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be compelled speech. Another features a compelled speech argument against compelling employees to pay fees to unions offset the costs of representation. In these cases, the general argument is that the right to free speech includes the right against compelled speech and thus forcing the baker to bake the cake or the employee to pay fees would be wrong. If this argument has merit, it would also seem to apply to the Sinclair case: forcing employees to engage in compelled speech by reading the script would be wrong.
The easy and obvious counter to this is to point out that the 1st Amendment forbids Congress from making any law abridging the freedom of speech. It says nothing about employers restricting, punishing or compelling their employees regarding speech. Workers, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, do have a constitutional right to talk politics, but no such right to keep their job. As such, Sinclair compelling its workers to speak seems to be perfectly legal. Sinclair is not unique in this—companies do compel workers to engage in partisan political activities and, ironically, do so under the protection of their own free speech rights. There are also those who claim that this practice of compelled speech is standard in the industry, insisting that what Sinclair did was no big deal, because what about CNN and MSNBC? The fact that it is legal does not, of course, entail that it should remain legal. After all, discrimination and sexual harassment by employers used to be not be illegal, but now are. As such, laws could be created protecting employees from compelled speech. However, there would need to be a compelling reason for such laws.
One obvious argument can be built around the professional ethics of journalists and editorialists. Journalists, as the Sinclair script notes, should not be pushing a biased agenda or engaging in false news. They should, of course, be presenting the truth and making it clear where the facts end, and opinion begins. If an employer compels a journalist to advance a biased agenda or present fake news, then this would be a violation of professional ethics.
While editorialists are in the business of presenting opinions, they are supposed to present their honest opinions and make it clear where their opinion ends and the opinion of another begins. As such, compelling them to express views that are not their own would also be a violation of professional ethics. Compelling journalists and editorialists in this manner would be somewhat analogous to the owner of a hospital compelling doctors to lie to patients, so they could make more money with unnecessary treatments. Both are clear violations of professional ethics.
One might object that as paid employees, they are obligated to speak as their employer requires. If they do not like the work they do, they can quit. The easy and obvious reply is that there is already a job whose professional ethics requires that the employee do just that: the paid spokesperson. If a media employee is to be compelled to speak, they must be properly identified as paid spokespeople and not wear the false mantle of being a journalist or editorialist.
There are legitimate concerns with how laws to protect professionals from compelled speech would be crafted and some might claim that this would be too hard or too harmful to employers. However, protecting professional ethics and preserving the moral right against compelled speech is no harder than crafting other laws and balancing harms. It must also be noted that such laws would need to be narrowly written to protect employees from certain types of compelled speech while avoiding harming the legitimate interests of employers. Since corporations are incredibly devoted to free speech rights, their moral principles should compel them to get on board with protecting the free speech rights of the people who work for them. To do otherwise would be inconsistent and hypocritical. Unless, of course, corporations are a better sort of people than real people.