On whatever Deutsche Welle radio show our NPR station carries, they were talking this morning about Italy's free speech problem, and had an Italian journalist talking about how free American speech is.
I think, in some respects, he's right. There's no way American's would elect someone president who owned his own network of TV stations; I think we'd wince at it the same way we'd wince at electing a preacher (and, no, Huckabee's success in Arkansas and the generally high religious sentiment in this country notwithstanding, I don't think we would). And, yes, we have more robust legal freedom of speech protections than most people.
What we have are massive barriers to entry. Of course, the Founders couldn't have seen that coming, but the result of over a century of media consolidation is a very high price to enter the marketplace of ideas in any meaningful way, and it's co-option by elites.
Now, the irony of this is that I am writing in a blog - a medium, I have been informed, that is the most powerful force for free speech ever, as citizen journalists raze the ivory tower, etc. And blogging is all well and good - I read at least 5-10 regularly, and about 3 religiously. But it hasn't surpassed the barrier to entry problem. "Citizen Journalists" have descended into self-parody. Ideologically driven, irresponsible with the truth and, high-minded claims notwithstanding, essentially useless as journalists in any responsible sense of the word.
Why? Lack of time, for one thing. Lack of the infrastructure to report on anything not strictly local, lack of access to many important databases, lack of legal protection, inability to publicize one's ideas and reporting, inability to bundle one's content with similar ideas and reporting, isolation from the types of channels that assure access to the dominant media and ghettoization of the blogging world.
There have been some attempts to vault these barriers. Current TV produces some content (including the hilarious Target Women and That's So Gay), but leans heavily on links to the ideologically-similar Guardian. Talking Points Memo produces rather good content, but tends towards commentary. Overall, the role of new media seems to be as an adjunct to traditional media, rather than a replacement.
So, what will happen? Will traditional and new media reach a modus vivendi? Will traditional media collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, or will it rally and crush the usurpers?
I'm not sure of anything at this point.