Free Press is a pro-net neutrality and anti-business media advocacy organization  that supports tighter governmental control over the internet, blocking the consolidation of media corporations, and race-based federal regulations to install women and minorities in leadership positions in the media. Free Press was founded in 2003 by avowed socialist Robert McChesney and played a prominent role in the debates over “net neutrality” that led to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposing regulatory control over internet bandwidth during the early years of the Obama Administration, a policy that was later overturned by the FCC during the Trump Administration.
Free Press was founded in 2003 by Robert McChesney, a socialist professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; John Nichols, a Washington correspondent at the Nation; and Josh Silver, the founder of Represent.Us, an organization focused on reducing what it claims are the negative effects of campaign funding in American politics.
Free Press was created amid former President George W. Bush’s public campaign to build support for the 2003 Iraq War. As Nichols and McChesney later wrote, they believed that “Americans recognized that media outlets had let them down by tipping coverage in favor of a wrongheaded rush to war.” Free Press first rose to prominence by leveraging this perceived dissatisfaction with the media industry, joining with progressive organizations like Common Cause, MoveOn.org, and Code Pink to lobby in opposition to an FCC decision to allow greater consolidation within the broadcast industry.
Free Press and its associated 501(c)(4) advocacy organization Free Press Action focus on several main issue areas: preventing private media consolidation, preserving and increasing taxpayer funding for public media outlets, using the federal bureaucracy to alter ownership of media outlets on the basis of sex and race, securing universal access to high-speed broadband internet, protecting online privacy, and instituting so-called “net neutrality,” a regulatory policy governing how bandwidth is allocated that some have argued will “turn the internet into a public utility.”
Free Press has alleged that media companies “want to decide what you’re able to watch, listen to, read and share,” suppress stories about people of color, and use technology to ”silence dissenting voices” and ”criminalize communities of color.”
To support its agenda, Free Press monitors the FCC in order to spur public comments on proposed rulemaking, produces written interpretations of policies and news developments, and conducts research to support the policy and lobbying activities of Free Press Action.
Free Press has operated most prominently in favor of so-called net neutrality, working in tandem with other left-of-center groups like Color of Change, CREDO Action, Demand Progress, the Center for Media Justice, and Common Cause, the Ford Foundation, and George Soros’s Open Society Institute.
In 2009, Free Press commissioned a poll finding that “more than 50% of the public argued that, as a private resource, the Internet should not be regulated by the federal government.” Based on those findings, the poll called for “targeting supporters by asking them to act vigilantly” to prevent a “centrally controlled internet,” as opposed to calling on supporters to advocate for a government-regulated internet.
In support of net neutrality regulations, Free Press then developed research that could be used by the FCC to promote net neutrality. Several personnel affiliated with Free Press also joined the FCC under the Obama administration.
Following these developments, according to the John Fund writing in the Wall Street Journal: “The FCC’s ‘National Broadband Plan’ [under President Obama] . . . included only five citations of respected think tanks such as the International Technology and Innovation Foundation or the Brookings Institution. But the report cited research from liberal groups such as Free Press, Public Knowledge, Pew and the New America Foundation more than 50 times.”
As a result, Fund wrote, “the ‘media reform’ movement paid for research that backed its views, paid activists to promote the research, saw its allies installed in the FCC and other key agencies, and paid for the FCC research that evaluated the research they had already paid for.”
Beginning in 2003, Free Press has hosted a semi-regular conference entitled the National Conference for Media Reform.
During Free Press’s 2013 conference in Denver, Colorado, presenters included Ilyse Hogue, president of the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-Choice America; founder of left-wing website Jezebel.com Anna Holmes; Rasha Robinson, executive director of Color of Change; and former chief of staff and current chief operating officer of Ultraviolet, Kat Barr.
During its 2007 conference in Memphis, Tennessee, Free Press featured Democratic Party operative David Brock, former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, and self-described socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) as panelists. The event also featured exhibitions by left-wing publication Mother Jones, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and representatives of the “9/11 truth movement.”
Free Press collaborated with the Center for Media Justice to create Voices for Internet Freedom, an advocacy coalition focused on perceived digital threats to minorities. Affiliated organizations include the Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, and Presente.org.
The current president and CEO of Free Press and Free Press Action is Craig Aaron, who has led both organizations since 2011. Aaron is a former reporter for Congress Watch, a division of the left-wing organization Public Citizen. He was also the managing editor of the socialist magazine In These Times.
Free Press was co-founded by Robert McChesney, a socialist activist and professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As co-editor of the socialist publication Monthly Review, he wrote that ”our job is to make media reform part of our broader struggle for democracy, social justice, and, dare we say it, socialism.” He later said he was “hesitant to say I’m not a Marxist” and praised Venezuela under socialist dictator Hugo Chavez as having ”unqualified political dissent . . . in the mainstream media in a manner few other democratic nations have ever known, including our own.”
Free Press also retains connections with the pro-abortion group Planned Parenthood. Free Press Administrative Director Amy Martyn is the former administrative manager for the Western Massachusetts Planned Parenthood Center and Free Press Managing Director Misty Truedson was the statewide grassroots organizing coordinator for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
While Free Press self-reports certain financial information, including the names of some top donors, it does not detail how much each organization donates. However, it does claim to take money only from “charitable foundations and individual donors,” while refusing any donations from “business, government or political parties.” Free Press has also released a combined financial statement with Free Press Action, most recently covering calendar years 2017 and 2016.
Free Press collected an annual revenue of $4,424,641 in 2016 and $5,672,347 in 2017 with expenses totaling $2,758,125 in 2016 and $3,278,337 in 2017. Free Press most recently spend over $1.7 million in salaries for its roughly 34 employees.
Below is a list of major donors to Free Press and Free Press Action:
- Carnegie Corporation of New York
- Center for American Progress
- Community Foundation of New Jersey
- Craigslist Charitable Fund
- Democracy Fund
- Democracy Fund Voice
- Ford Foundation
- Foundation to Promote Open Society
- Joyce Foundation
- John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
- Open Society Institute
- Pew Charitable Trusts
- Rockefeller Brothers Fund
- Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
- San Francisco Foundation
- Schumann Center for Media and Democracy
- Schwab Charitable Fund
- Tides Foundation
- Working Assets (CREDO customer donation pool)
According to its self-reported data, Free Press fundraised $5,651,707 of its $5,672,347 in revenue 2017, receiving an average donation of $5,214 from 1,084 donors.
In 2016, Free Press reported fundraising $4,405,586 of its $4,424,641 in revenue, receiving an average donation of $17,622 from 250 donors.
In 2015, Free Press reported fundraising $2,438,063 of its $2,468,385 in revenue, receiving an average donation of $6,868 from 355 donors.