Can you smell the fear? Switch on cable news or tune in to talk radio and it comes wafting in.
Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck has bottled his own scent. Lou Dobbs' fear gives off a distinct undertone of racial intolerance. And Rush Limbaugh takes to the air to spread an odor that's designed to make Americans angry at, well, other Americans.
It's a fear that's laced with paranoia, stoked by misinformation and prejudice and fed to millions of people via powerful media. But most of all, it's a fear of the changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans called for when they stepped into voting booths last November.
Since then, the old guard has fallen into alignment with old media to hijack the public debate over reform, and vilify reformers as anti-American. And to them the most anti-American notion of the lot is the idea that we need to reform the media itself.
"Part of the strategy of this fundamental 'transformation' of America is to silence dissent," Glenn Beck said on Fox last month. The "most diabolical, hidden parts of this plan," according to Beck, are efforts to reform media through "localism and diversity" -- two principles that have grounded modern communications policy for decades.
Beck was later joined on the program by Rush Limbaugh, who called localism and diversity part of the growing tyranny of the left. This issue is "simply un-American," Limbaugh crowed. "They're trying to do this back-door route with diversity... to shut you up by shutting us down."
Not to be outdone, Lou Dobbs stated falsely: "When you talk about diversity, [you aren't] talking about ethnic, racial or religious diversity, [you 're] talking about more liberals on the air."
The cloud of media hysteria could have been waved off by more sensible voices on cable's evening news roster. But few have stepped forward to challenge Beck, Limbaugh and Dobbs, to replace their fomenting with facts. More worrisome, voices of reason seem to be absent from the media "pundocracy" altogether.
While Beck and his ilk want to portray diversity and localism as a dangerous conspiracy to censor, the fact remains that these ideas have been staples of communications policy since the beginning. The central mandate of the Federal Communications Commission -- as enshrined in the Communications Act of 1934 -- is to promote localism, diversity and competition in the media. This same principle of localism has been a rallying cry for several generations of true conservatives.
Broadcasters get hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of subsidies and the right to use our airwaves in exchange for a basic commitment to be responsive to the interests of local communities.
Moreover, the Supreme Court recognized that "safeguarding the public's right to receive a diversity of views and information over the airwaves is ... an integral component of the FCC's mission."
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Sadly, the FCC has failed to live up to this standard. And what mainstream media's fear-merchants are most afraid of is not censorship, but an FCC that actually does its job -- creating more opportunities for people like you and me to participate in media.
We don't have that now. Washington bureaucrats have allowed powerful media corporations to control the public airwaves and dominate local cable networks. We have reached a nadir where the free press that Thomas Jefferson hoped would open "all the avenues to truth" has devolved into a media system that's a megaphone for the few.
Beck and Limbaugh, in particular, are two corporate welfare babies who owe much of their existence to this regulatory failure, which handed control of our airwaves to massive conglomerates like Clear Channel and ABC Radio to broadcast their fear agenda via a syndicated network of centrally owned radio stations.
The cable sector that carries Beck and Dobbs' nightly paranoia is itself a gigantic bundle of government handouts, having built invaluable local monopolies via granted rights-of-way that beam these two into nearly every den in America.
Try calculating what it would cost to get your content across America without a local or federal government clearing your path, and you quickly realize that blowhards like Beck, Dobbs and Limbaugh are three of the nation's biggest beneficiaries of public largesse.
And while they're raking in millions in salaries via their government-granted fiefdoms, you, the owner of the airwaves and roads and telephone poles over which they transmit, are getting nothing in exchange.
The ultimate irony of Beck, Dobbs and Limbaugh is that they couch in populist rhetoric a message that, in its very essence, is anti-populist -- designed to protect the swindle at the core of our media system's failure.
And that is why the media's old guard is targeting the idea that this system needs to change.
In his media and technology agenda, President Obama took up the cause of reform by committing to "diversity in the ownership of broadcast media," and pledging to "promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints."
Obama is right, but he needs to get started on fulfilling that commitment.
Winning real change and giving more people a media voice is ultimately the best response we have to fear campaigns.