The Hyman Who Cried "Censorship"
“Sit down and shut up!”
That’s the message Sinclair Broadcasting is sending to its customers. Mark Hyman’s latest editorial claims to be a meditation on the abuse of the internet, but it’s a thinly veiled swipe at any an all who would voice their disapproval of Sinclair Broadcasting and Hyman himself.
Citing the use of internet petitions and mail campaigns targeting the FCC concerning "everything from indecency to broadcast ownership regulations," [emphasis added]Hyman suggests that a lot of hubbub can result from a small cadre of devoted of emailers.
It’s true that complaints to the FCC have sometimes been overblown because a handful of activists used internet technology to make it appear as though tens of thousands of complaints were coming in, rather than a couple of dozen (the most egregious example being the brouhaha following “Nipple-Gate” at last year’s Superbowl).
But that’s not the case with the campaign to stop media ownership deregulation. The FCC received between one and two million letters from people across the political spectrum protesting the relaxation of ownership rules (a relaxation that directly benefits Sinclair Broadcasting). Hyman tries to equate this groundswell of opposition to the prefabricated outrage of the decency police, but it’s an apples and oranges comparison.
Hyman then mentions the ability of website authors to mimic the style and look of authoritative institutions, following this with the statement, “The danger, of course, is the trade defamation that accompanies such efforts.”
Of course. We doubt Hyman knows what “trade defamation” means. He certainly uses it erroneously in this case. “Trade defamation” is defined as "the knowing publication of a false matter derogatory to the plaintiff's business calculated to prevent or interfere with relationships between the plaintiff and others to its detriment." It’s aimed at businesses who slander or libel competitors to gain economic advantage. It’s not aimed at people who make websites to dispense information (or disinformation).
Where did Hyman pick up such fancy language? Probably from the legal team at Sinclair Broadcasting who threatened to sue a plethora of people for “trade defamation” in the wake of the announcement by Media Matters for America that Staples Office Supply had pulled advertising from Sinclair-owned stations in part because of complaints from irate viewers.
Even in this extremely narrow context, “trade defamation” is not applicable, since Media Matters had made the announcement in good faith and had their press release vetted by Staples.
But let’s not get picky. Hyman’s misappropriation of the term “trade defamation” is part of a much larger goal on the part of Sinclair: to intimidate those who dare speak out against them.
The First Amendment is for everyone, not just those who own dozens of television stations. Sinclair has cried “censorship” because of letter-writing campaigns to advertisers. But that isn’t censorship. If the government passed a law that told Mark Hyman he couldn’t criticize Democrats, that would be censorship. But customers writing to advertisers and asking them not to buy ad time from Sinclair is simply free speech. I have the choice of what businesses to patronize and which ones not to. I also have the right to tell these businesses why I’m choosing to patronize or not patronize them. This is a perfect example of free speech and the free market working together, not censorship.
But Hyman and Sinclair seem to think that those who don’t own their own media empires should sit back and take it without complaining. Mark Hyman should be able to say whatever he wants without consequence, while those who complain about him are guilty of “censorship” and “trade defamation.”
But Sinclair might want to be careful about invoking trade regulations. Their legal eagles should look up “material misrepresentation,” which, in the context of business, means presenting a product in a false or misleading way to consumers, making them think they’re getting something they’re not.
Let’s think up some examples (hypothetical, of course). Maybe there’s a television commentator who packages a bit of corporate damage control as newsworthy “commentary.” Or what about a regular editorial spot that appears on local news, but that doesn’t identify the person editorializing as a corporate employee, causing viewers to assume he’s a local voice? Or maybe that commentator is presenting himself as a newsman when he has no journalistic background whatsoever. Or maybe that commentator routinely makes demonstrably false and misleading statements in order to get customers to support political candidates that are favored by his employer.
What about a company whose entire business model is based on presenting canned news created in a centralized studio in a way that makes it seem “local” to its viewers?
We’re just wondering . . .
And that’s The Counterpoint.