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Tom Friedman: Filtered Media and Enlightened Autocracy

John on September 10, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Here is what Thomas Friedman said in his Tuesday NY Times column about autocracy:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

As it happens, Friedman was also on Meet the Press Sunday:

YouTube Preview Image

Jump in about 1:50 and you’ll hear him say:

[T]he Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, left, right, center, up, down, and requires that kind of filtering by anyone. And I always felt, you know, when modems first came out, when that was how we got connected to the Internet, that every modem sold in America should actually come with a warning from the surgeon general that would have said, “judgment not included,” OK?

Whose judgment should be used to filter America’s information?A number of blogs have posted either the autocracy quote or the video, but to my knowledge no one has made the connection between the two. Friedman sees the silver lining in enlightened autocracy and also feels that the “unfiltered information” on the internet makes it is a sewer. As it happens China, which is the autocracy Tom writes about in his column, also has a draconian policy toward freedom of the internet. Here is a brief list of censored topics:

  • Websites related to the persecuted Falun Gong spiritual practice
  • News sources that often cover some taboo topics such as police brutality, Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, freedom of speech and democracy sites. These sites include Voice of America, BBC News, and Yahoo! Hong Kong
  • Media sites which may include unregulated content, social commentary or political commentary censored by the PRC. The Chinese Wikipedia and Livejournal are examples of such blocked sites.
  • Sites hosted by Taiwan’s government and major newspaper and television media and other sites with information on Taiwanese independence
  • Web sites that contain obscenity, pornography, and criminal activity.
  • Sites linked with the Dalai Lama and his International Tibet Independence Movement, including his teachings.
  • “Nine Commentaries” or the nine articles that were published by that comment on the Chinese Communist Party

In addition to the censorship of certain topics, restrictions on bloggers and online journalists are part of black letter law in China:

In September 2000, the State Council Order No. 292 created the first content restrictions for Internet content providers. China-based Web sites cannot link to overseas news Web sites or carry news from overseas media without separate approval. Only “licensed print publishers” have the authority to bring out news on-line. Non-licensed Web sites that wish to broadcast news may only publish information already released publicly by other news media. These sites must obtain approval from state information offices and from the State Council Information Agency.

Given his statements, it seems fair to ask if this is the sort of thing Tom Friedman would prefer to see in America? Think about his argument. The internet is a sewer. Why? Because the information is unfiltered and does not come packaged with judgment. I’ve no doubt the Chinese Communists would agree. But this really gets us to the crux of the issue. Whose judgment should be used to filter America’s information?

According to Tom Friedman (and Brokaw who seemed in lockstep) the answer is professional journalists, presumably people like themselves. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Mark Bowden’s Atlantic piece is taking this same line. Mark also seems to be mourning the death of media filters and people making “judgments” before passing us our news.

But it seems to me that in a Democracy, where the people make the decisions about their government, filtered and pre-packaged information turns out to be little more than enlightened autocracy once removed. No thanks, Tom.

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