A 12-Step Program for Media Democracy | The Nation


A 12-Step Program for Media Democracy

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These days, it's the media conglomerates who are drunk with power--demanding a larger share of the nation's airwaves and threatening to turn the World Wide Web into an electronic theme park--and we're the ones with a twelve-step program. But at least with this particular regimen you won't bore your friends with tales of self-discipline and sobriety. For this is a twelve-step plan on behalf of a more democratic media system, a collective effort to ensure that alternative, independent voices will still be heard over the growing din of conglomerate media culture.

About the Author

Gary O. Larson
Gary O. Larson manages the Center for Digital Democracy's "Dot-Commons" project.
Jeffrey Chester
Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org), a Washington-based...

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Listed below are twelve opportunities for activism across three broad areas of concern:

Concentration and Control

Although the Information Age has blunted somewhat the force of A.J. Liebling's famous dictum--"freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one"--the consolidation of ownership across the various media remains a threat to our democracy. The public's right to information and ideas from the widest possible range of sources means little in a world dominated by a handful of interlocking media giants. There may be more media outlets than ever before, given the enormous range of niche publications, special-interest websites and self-produced recordings, but the mass media--more massive today than ever--scarcely admit independent or alternative voices. As the Consumers Union pointed out in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation in July 2001, mere variety is no substitute for genuine diversity, as the growth in media variety "has not been accompanied by a comparable growth of independent, diversely owned competitive communications services and media voices."

A major component of any effort to ensure democratic media, then, is a regulatory structure that sets limits on the amount of market power that any one company can amass (and here we are more concerned with the "marketplace of ideas," so vital to our democracy, than with ratings points or circulation figures, which often go to the highest bidder).

Unfortunately, many of the ownership safeguards established to protect the public interest have come under attack, and the reigning laissez-faire spirit in Washington, spearheaded by FCC Chairman Michael Powell, does not augur well for the preservation of these safeguards. Thus advocacy efforts are urgently needed in the following four areas:

1. Ownership Limits

One after another, the final few defenses against media oligopoly are coming up for review at the FCC (which recently indicated that it would review all of these media ownership regulations before announcing any specific policy changes). These safeguards include the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban (no single company can own both a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same market) and the cable ownership cap (no company can serve more than 30 percent of the nation's cable households) that are under review. Limits on the number of TV stations a network or station group can own (currently limited to 35 percent of the national audience) are also being considered, as the powerful media lobby--lining campaign coffers with one hand, threatening negative coverage with the other--makes its case for complete deregulation. But don't look for this revolution to be televised or covered anywhere else in the mainstream press, since media attention to this issue (which has generated literally thousands of pages of court and FCC filings) has been scant. But there are a number of organizations (including Media Access Project, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America) that are working to stem the tide of media deregulation. For a guide to how to fight back against the media giants, see the Center for Digital Democracy's (CDD) Take Action toolkit.

2. Merger Review

In a legal strategy seemingly designed to set the founding fathers spinning in their graves, the media conglomerates are quick to invoke their First Amendment rights whenever another merger or acquisition seems in order. Any limits on a corporation's right to acquire as much media market share as it possibly can, or so the argument runs, violate that company's First Amendment right to "speak" in whatever venue it chooses. Never mind the public's right to "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources" (in the words of the Supreme Court). If they weren't finding such a sympathetic audience in Washington these days, such constitutional contortions would be laughable. But as the protracted AOL Time Warner merger review demonstrated (under a different administration and FCC and FTC leadership, admittedly), there will be opportunities for public-interest advocates to make clear the dire implications of the current rich-get-richer, journalism-gets-poorer school of media ownership. Some important safeguards were built into the FTC's and FCC's approval of the AOL Time Warner merger, and we need to demand similar constraints in reviews involving AT&T Broadband and Comcast, EchoStar and DirecTV, and others. Unlike the fine-print filings of most FCC rule-makings, the merger review of these industry behemoths is invariably front-page news, and media activists should take advantage of such notoriety to raise the important public-interest issues--open access to new-media platforms, robust local news and public affairs programming, diversity of viewpoint, minority ownership and content--that will surely be affected by these major media mergers.

3. Spectrum Management

In the range of telecommunications issues before us, there is probably none more complex than the management of the electromagnetic spectrum, the radio waves that carry everything from ham operators and baby monitors to radio and TV broadcasts, wireless phone calls and civil defense applications. Still, a number of spectrum issues are alarmingly simple: Telecommunications and broadcast companies shouldn't get anything for nothing--these are public airwaves, after all, merely licensed for a variety of private uses--and a portion of the proceeds from the spectrum auctions that the government conducts periodically should be devoted to public-interest uses. Moreover, advances in technology--with various digital transmission and reception devices much more finely calibrated than the analog broadcast equipment of old--suggest that additional unlicensed uses of spectrum may now be possible, including open, community-access communications systems. A number of projects are underway to explore these and other public-interest applications, including the New America Foundation's Public Assets Program and NYU Law Professor Yochai Benkler's research on a "spectrum commons."

Thus before we sell off more of the spectrum for the real and imagined benefits of "3rd Generation" (3G) wireless phone service, we should give more thought to preserving portions of this valuable--if invisible--electromagnetic property for civic and other public-interest uses.

4. Privacy Protection

Interactive television (ITV) has been so long in the making that skeptics will be excused for thinking that it will never arrive. But rudimentary forms of menu-driven, pay-per-click television are already here, and with the impending introduction of more sophisticated set-top boxes, ITV will finally arrive at our doorsteps. And along with all of the customized services that it will offer, ITV will also bring new threats to our personal privacy, in the forms of intricate data-collection schemes (often under the guise of "personalizing" service to match our tastes and interests) and "one to one" marketing ploys. Occupying a gray area between cable and Internet service, ITV is poised to slip through the cracks of FTC and FCC oversight (fissures that grow larger every day, it seems). But with a little concerted advocacy work, the same kind of attention that has been focused on Internet privacy can be extended to the new ITV platform. (For more information on this issue, see CDD's report.) EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, continues to play a leadership role on a wide variety of digital privacy issues.

Content and Culture

Although the "public interest" is mentioned over 100 times in the original Communications Act of 1934 and its subsequent incarnations over the years (culminating in the Telecommunications Act of 1996), that concept has never been adequately defined. Beyond the vague notion that all broadcasters somehow operate in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity" by the very act of making their fare (no matter how pedestrian or trivial) available to the masses, the issue is rarely discussed. The broadcast industry itself, when pressed on the subject, is quick to cite news coverage, emergency weather alerts, public service announcements and purported "educational and informational programming" as among the stations' primary public-interest offerings. More recently, the National Association of Broadcasters has touted its post-9/11 coverage and fundraising efforts (extraordinary events by any measure and scarcely reflective of typical prime-time programming). For the most part, though, the public interest principle has languished for decades. Even the tepid solutions offered by the Gore Commission in 1998 (discussed in step eleven, below) seem wildly optimistic in today's deregulatory climate, and any effort to reinvigorate the content and culture of the media in the digital age will likely have to arise from beyond Washington. Still, the basic rules of content ownership and the public domain are tied to federal legislation (including the flawed Digital Millennium Copyright Act), and any significant effort to fund the development of noncommercial new-media programming will likely depend on federal sources (including tapping the proceeds of spectrum auctions). If we are to realize the full potential of the digital age to deliver new forms of public-interest programming, then, action is needed in the following four areas:

5. Intellectual Property/Fair Use/Open Source

Balancing the rights of copyright owners with those of consumers, never a simple task, has become far more complex in the digital era. The ease with which digital content can be copied, stored and transmitted electronically (with neither a loss of quality nor a diminution in the supply of the original item) has produced a spate of legislative and technological remedies. In most cases, however, the proposed cures are worse than the alleged disease. Such was the case with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with its infamous section 1201 (which makes it illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work"--even for legal, fair use purposes). As Virginia Democratic Representative Rick Boucher has observed, the DMCA "has moved our nation one step closer to a 'pay per use' society that threatens to advance the narrow interests of copyright owners over the broader public interest of information consumers." More recently, South Carolina Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings has introduced a similarly wrongheaded measure, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, which proposes to build copy-protection technology into any computer or consumer-electronics device to prevent any unauthorized copying of music, movies or software. Arrayed against these assaults on consumer rights and citizen interests are a handful of efforts to promote fair use, shared intellectual property resources and the public domain, including Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation

and the Creative Commons.

But this battle will not be easily won, given the resources of the entertainment conglomerates. Thus the nonprofit sector, which stands to lose the most if fair use withers away and online information becomes a commodity, needs to be more actively involved in this issue.

6. The "Dot Commons" Online Civic Sector

Neither a particular place online nor a Web portal nor a collection of laudable URLs, the dot-commons concept acknowledges that the same nonprofit sector that we've protected and promoted in the real world, through tax-exemption and charitable contributions, for example, deserves similar treatment in the online context. Thus we must find new ways to nurture and support public-interest programming--from community information resources and educational applications to cultural expression and social services--that is unlikely to be well served by the commercial marketplace. A number of civic networking experiments have been conducted over the years, some focusing narrowly on political participation, others devoted more broadly to the exchange of ideas and information. Still others address such issues as youth civic participation, cultural diversity and closing the digital divide.

What's missing is a national movement to weave together the various strands of "e-democracy"--from community networks to public-access media centers to voter-education websites--and to build a broader coalition involving other parts of the nonprofit sector (including consumer advocates, media activists, social service agencies, libraries and cultural organizations) that have equally as much at stake in the broadband revolution. CDD's Dot-Commons project is a small step in this direction, but much more work remains to be done in this area. David Bollier and Tim Watts's Saving the Information Commons is perhaps the best single source on this topic, with references to a number of organizations and projects worthy of support. The eighty-three-page report is available for download from the New America Foundation's website.

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