Written By: Daniel Roman
Coca-Cola denounced Georgia’s new voting law, while Major League Baseball threatened to pull out of Atlanta in response. In Florida, the NCAA threatened to pull championships from the state if the legislature approves a law restricting participation in high school sports to members of each biological sex. The last month has provided numerous reminders of how freedom is not just threatened by governments but by any concentration of power in too few hands. There is no clearer example than the media coverage during the 2020 election, where stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop were buried as “disinformation”–though he now concedes the laptop may be genuine—while now disproven tales of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were once reported as fact. The traditional justification for such behavior is that they are “private companies” pursuing the “profit motive”. After all, such private action is what conservatives are supposed to champion.
True as that may be in principle, the events of the past year raise serious questions about the meaning of a free press in a country where the press is dominated by massive media outlets that exist to promote the political agendas of the CEOs of the large corporations that control them, even at the cost of losing money on the news divisions themselves.
Two eastern European nations, Hungary and Poland, have long faced this same problem, and the resulting popular backlash has dramatically shaped their politics. Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland have each taken bold steps to stand up the media oligarchies attempting to dominate their own countries. This has made those governments extremely unpopular with liberal elites, which constantly portray Poland and Hungary as rogue states on the verge of tyranny. The liberal media organization Vox has warned ominously that what Hungary represents is a warning of what could happen to American democracy.
They are right, but in a different way than they think. The situation in Hungary and Poland prior to the current governments was a dystopian preview of what a society looks like when all the institutions of economic power and information distribution control either political parties or foreigners. In their own ways, each of these countries has provided Americans with an example of how to start fighting back. As such, it makes sense in this series chronicling the global revolt against left-wing elites to examine the dystopias they seek to create and how they will portray anyone who resists.
To read the New York Times editorial page, Hungary is a dystopian totalitarian state where dissent is punished, same-sex couples are forced into hiding, and migrants are rounded up behind barbed wire. Poland too is said to be a reactionary nation where women are on the verge of being reduced to the status they enjoy in the Handmaid’s Tale, while Holocaust denial is supposedly official policy. That these are exaggerations at best, outright fabrications at worst should come as no surprise. Hungary offers same-sex couples civil partnerships, and since a 2018 court ruling by judges supposedly in the pocket of the conservative government, recognizes same-sex marriages performed abroad. The opposition took control of Budapest and 10 of 23 other cities which held mayoral elections in 2019, hardly the sort of “democracy” that would be allowed in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
As for Poland, the Prime Minister from 2015 to 2017, Beata Szydlo, was a woman, and recent moves to restrict abortion were ordered by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that a fetus had human rights. The supposedly reactionary Law and Justice government have actually delayed implementing the decision for three months.
However, the most common charges against Poland and Hungary relate to “freedom of the press.” Supposedly, the ruling parties have turned the state media into an ideological mouthpiece for the government while cracking down on independent outlets, usually by withdrawing advertising by government agencies. As with many charges made by the corporate press, there is an element of truth in these charges insofar as they describe an actual process which is ongoing, but the charges lack all context. The reporting omits crucial details in order to advance a narrative in a struggle in which those doing the reporting are not impartial observers but participants with financial and political interests.
In order to discuss the question of “media freedom” in Poland or Hungary, we need to take a look at what the media landscape actually looks like and what “independent journalism” actually means in a Post-Communist society. Fundamentally, there are three main categories of media outlets in Eastern European states. None of them are truly “independent” in the sense that they represent journalistic enterprises founded on profit rather than loss-making operations designed to spread an agenda. There has never been a truly “independent” press like many Americans were familiar with in the relatively recent past. Media outlets in Eastern Europe are, respectively, state and political party press organs, the local language branches of multinational media networks, and outlets funded by foreign NGOs such as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.
The first group is a direct legacy of Communist rule. Under Communism, all media was subordinate in practice to the Communist party line, but not all media was controlled by the government. There were, of course, state media outlets, including national TV, radio, and newspaper operations, but the political parties, including the Communist Party itself, also operated their own media empires. Political parties, you say? Weren’t Eastern European Communist states one-party dictatorships? In reality, yes, but in theory, they were pluralistic “People’s Democracies” with multiple political parties spanning the spectrum, all of whom “accepted” the “leading role” of the Communist Party. In East Germany, this included a puppet version of the Christian Democratic Union and the Liberal Democratic Party. In Poland, there was a nominally liberal Democratic party along with a Peasants party. These “parties” all operated their own newspapers, which echoed the Communist Party’s line to their respective constituencies, whether it be Christians, small shopkeepers, or peasants. When Communism fell, they abandoned their deference to the Communist Party in order to branch out on their own. Nonetheless, they kept ownership of the media empires they had acquired under Communist rule and were still led by men and women who had collaborated with the Communist dictatorship. These are among the “opposition” papers that the American and Western European press now said to be under “attack”.
Finally, there were “independent” media outlets, which were nominally outside of governmental control, but like all companies in Eastern Bloc states, were subject to management by their local Communist Party cells. The leaders of those cells often sold the ownership stakes to themselves when Communist rule ended.
When the Communists lost power in 1990-1991, Hungary and Poland saw a multitude of political parties spring up with their own press organs and a variety of leading newspapers and TV stations. But only the government-controlled media was outside the influence of ex-Communists by virtue of being under the control of the new democratic governments. The press of the political parties was under the control of their Communist-era leadership, many of whom had been secret party members, while the “independent” press was under the control of their former Communist party bosses. It would be a lie to say that the government-controlled press did not take a “partisan” line against the “independent” press. Of course, they did. If they had not, the entire press would have been in the hands of former Communists. And despite struggles over patronage, all of these categories of outlets were united in a desire to avoid a serious reckoning with the Communist past or with how they came to control their current assets.
Anyone looking to start a new newspaper or television station was going to face dire odds competing against this array of institutional power in the hands of former Communists. In fact, it was next to impossible. The result is that almost no one successfully did so without help. That is where George Soros and his Open Society foundation came in. By effectively funding outlets, he allowed them to compete with the various post-Communist outlets. Much is made of how Viktor Orban once worked with George Soros in the early 1990s, and this is perceived as proof of Orban’s hypocrisy. In reality, it proves his acumen and consistency. Orban is a nationalist, and his primary goal was to break the power of the post-Communist oligarchy, which had a stranglehold on media and politics. Soros shared that goal. Soros’ motivations for doing so may have been self-serving, but in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe, the saying “an enemy of my enemy is my friend” was true.
The same applied to the other major force in Polish and Hungarian media. That is foreign media conglomerates that established local branches. Because of the limited profits available, these almost inevitably ended up being German firms, which shared an interest in expanding Germany’s influence. Once more, in the early 1990s, the influence of German media companies helped counter that of the Post-Communist Oligarchy.
Nonetheless, Viktor Orban rightly felt in 2010, just as the leaders of Poland’s Law and Justice party did in 2015, that it was no longer acceptable to have an environment in which every media firm was either aligned with a former-Communist political party, a former Communist oligarch, the Germans, or a foreign donor who was deliberately losing money in order to advance an ideological agenda. Consequently, Orban and later his Polish imitators set out to “right” this situation.
Any American who has lamented the mainstream media’s bias in this country can imagine what they might be willing to support if not only the majority of the U.S. media but literally every single outlet was under the control of the far-left or Chinese billionaires. You can also imagine, after listening to the American press characterize Donald Trump’s complaints about media coverage as an “attack upon freedom of the press,” just how exaggerated some of the claims about Hungarian and Polish leaders’ “anti-democratic actions” have been.
The methods of Orban in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland have included those the Western media has denounced. These include transferring state advertising from German-owned and Soros-funded outlets to new, local startups. To Western critics, this is characterized as “disempowering the opposition media” while building up “government-favored media outlets.” Such charges are technically true insofar as the Germans, Soros, and the former Communists are all hostile to Orban and therefore in “opposition.” It is also technically true that anyone the government chooses to spend money on is by definition “government-favored.” But that is a far cry from the claim that this is an effort to create a single media empire. It is an effort to break the power of a media entirely under the control of groups that do not have Hungarian interests at heart.
This Hungarian media campaign is nationalist, but it’s unclear if it is even populist. Orban could easily have accepted endless accolades from Soros controlled outlets as he did in the early 1990s and the universal praise of German ones. But he would then have to follow the agenda of George Soros, especially regarding migration, and support the interests of the German government. That might keep Orban in office but not in power, and it would leave any future Hungarian leader with the same dilemma. Orban has rejected this option and embarked on a much more difficult path–as has the governing party in Poland.
The New York Times would have us know that there is much to learn from the Hungarian and Polish examples. In their view, we should understand the danger of any leader taking on the media oligarchy. They are correct, but perhaps not in the way they know. At a time when states are under assault by a corporate oligarchy that has made clear its ideological agenda, perhaps it is more obvious than ever that Orban, and indeed Trump, had a point about the media. Independent does not mean “independent” from whoever happens to be in office. It means independent to report the news, and at worst, seek profit, rather than serving as a propaganda arm for the rich and powerful.
The “Great Realignment” is not only breaking up traditional left-wing voting blocks–it is breaking up left-wing media oligarchies. Would-be Republican leaders have much to learn from the Hungarian and Polish examples.
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