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.