Free-Market Media's New Friend

Thierer seeks to counter left-leaning advocate groups

When Adam Thierer was planning his latest career move, he did what any free-market purist would: He exploited an underserved market.

Thierer, director of the Progress & Freedom Foundation's Center for Digital Media Freedom, which opened in March, sensed a need for a think tank that would focus on media issues from the perspective of economic conservatives.

“There was this hole in the free-market movement to counter the many left-of-center groups whose leaders have spent their entire lives dedicated to media policy,” says Thierer, who joined PFF after four years as director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

The switch from Cato, where he also studied telephone and broadband policy, to PFF allowed him to focus solely on media issues—and to battle the small army of left-leaning advocacy groups that have been campaigning for the government to reinstate tough media-ownership limits and public-interest obligations that broadcasters and cable operators had been chipping away at since the 1980s.

“I've been dueling with them on a part-time basis for many years,” he says, “and I wanted to devote all my time to counter the things they have been advocating.”

Thierer got into the think-tank world while wrapping up undergraduate work at Indiana University, where he majored in journalism and political philosophy. He spent a year in London working for the Adam Smith Institute, which conducted economic studies for clients.

“I always knew I'd be a writer of some sort and thought I'd be a reporter. In England, I realized think-tank work is great work if you can get it. It's the next best thing to being an academic. You get to sit around and think big thoughts and talk about how the world should work, without having to grade papers.”

Thierer, who says he typically votes for independent candidates over rivals from the major parties, also likes being able to weigh in on public policy without the obligation to support the larger Republican or Democratic platforms.

“It kills me when I'm labeled a conservative or Republican stooge,” he says.

PFF, founded in 1993 to promote a “philosophy of limited government, free markets and individual sovereignty” in media, telecommunications and technology policy, has operated mostly in the shadows of more-established and well-known conservative think tanks, such as Cato and the Heritage Foundation.

But thanks to the rapid proliferation of digital media technology and the debates over media ownership and programming indecency, PFF's specialization in the high-tech and telecom arena has won the group a following in Washington, especially among deregulation-friendly Republicans in Congress and at the FCC.

“We have a very clear vision about how the world should work,” says Thierer. “I wouldn't label us conservative or libertarian. Those terms are increasingly meaningless when you talk about economics. We are simply market-oriented.”

“Borrow that soapbox? No.”

Thierer intends to make PFF's intellectual presence felt when the FCC revisits media-ownership rules. He believes the backing of an economic think tank will be critical to offset the influence of an anti-consolidation coalition comprising 116 groups—including Media Access Project (MAP), Common Cause, the United Church of Christ and the AFL-CIO—which last week issued a “Bill of Media Rights” for citizens. The anti-consolidation groups last week called on Congress to impose local-programming requirements, minority-employment obligations, and restrictions on local ownership of media outlets.

Thierer believes that sort of government intervention is wrong. “We're going to stand for the proposition that most of the rules should be eliminated.” In a book to be published by the foundation next month, Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate Over Media Ownership, he argues that holders of broadcast and cable licenses should be entitled to property rights that shield their businesses from the very government obligations the anti-consolidation groups are seeking. “People should have editorial discretion to control what is said on their soapbox. Should you have a right to borrow that soap box? No, you should go find another or build your own.”

He maintains that, because of the affordability of personalized broadband outlets, the era is ending when it can be argued that individuals and groups underrepresented in big-media ownership are unable to publicly convey their viewpoints. “What happens when broadcasting is just another channel of communications? Do we extend all those mandates to the Internet?”

MAP President Andrew Schwartzman says he respects his rival's intellectual integrity on ownership issues. “He's wrong, but he's sincerely wrong.”

There is one policy area where Thierer finds himself in the unfamiliar position of aligning with liberal advocacy groups and opposing many Republicans in Washington: the government's crackdown on indecency. His main focus is fighting the crackdown's spread to cable and Internet media.

“My fear is the broadcast industry's old second-class–citizenship standard will become the standard for all new digital media” he says. “Instead, we should be spreading the gold standard we've had for newspapers and the Internet to all digital services.”