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Up in Flames | The Nation

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Up in Flames

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What are the pieces of that agenda?

Click here for info on the National Conference on Media Reform, taking place November 7-9, and featuring Robert McChesney, John Nichols, Naomi Klein, Billy Bragg, Amy Goodman, John Sweeney, Lori Wallach, and many others.

About the Author

Robert W. McChesney
Robert McChesney is Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. He...
John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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It’s time to get back to our roots—the grassroots—to fight for reform of an increasingly monopolistic and manipulative media.

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§ Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is right to argue for a renewed look at antitrust initiatives. Competition and diversity have been under assault for more than two decades, and it is time to consider the effect on the marketplace of ideas when reviewing media mergers. It is time, as well, for the federal government to engage in a period of study and debate leading to agreed-on caps on media ownership that are considered appropriate for a democracy. The current system of case-by-case review of proposed mergers, which frequently results in the making of exceptions for individual firms and then whole sectors of media, is an abject failure.

§ Congress should roll back the number of radio stations a single firm can own. Senator Russ Feingold is considering sponsoring such legislation. Congress should also be pushed to pass legislation prohibiting media cross-ownership and vertical integration. There are tremendous economic benefits to media conglomeration--but they accrue almost entirely to the media owners. The public gets the shaft.

§ The regulatory process, which is in disarray and awash in corruption, must be reinvigorated. Commissioner Copps will hold a series of town meetings this fall designed to draw attention to the power that citizens still have to challenge the licenses of local broadcast outlets. "Most people do not even know that they can challenge the renewal of a local radio or television station if they believe that the station is not living up to its obligation due to a lack of local coverage, a lack of diversity, excessive indecency and violence, or for other concerns important to the community," says Copps. Activism needs to be directed at the hometown level, where broadcast licenses can be challenged.

§ The promised expansion of access by not-for-profit groups to low-power FM radio-station licenses, which was scuttled by a back-room deal in Congress several years ago, must take place [see Kevin Y. Kim, page 22]. Parallel to this shift in policy, tax incentives should be created to aid in the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets.

§ Funding for public broadcasting must expand dramatically. Only about 15 percent of funding for public radio and television comes from federal subsidies. And what funding does come from Congress is subject to great political pressures. Public broadcasting at the federal and state levels has the potential to provide a model of quality journalism and diversified cultural programming. But that won't happen if cash-starved PBS and NPR outlets are required, as some propose, to rely on the same sort of thirty-second spot advertising that dominates commercial broadcasting.

§ Broadcasters must be forced to give candidates free air time. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, the authors of the only meaningful campaign-finance-reform legislation of the past decade, are now proposing such a requirement. Their initiative is essential to making not just better campaigns but better media. Currently, media conglomerates are among the most powerful lobbyists against both campaign finance reform and media reform. The system works for them, even as it fails the rest of us.

§ Media conglomerates must not be allowed to impose their will on the United States and other countries via international trade deals. Media firms are currently lobbying the World Trade Organization and other multilateral organizations to accept a system of trade sanctions against countries that subsidize public broadcasting, that limit foreign ownership of media systems or that establish local content standards designed to protect national and regional cultures. They want similar assaults on regulation inserted into the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Representative Sherrod Brown is right when he says Congress should not pass trade agreements that undermine the ability of Congress to aid public broadcasting and protect media diversity and competition.

§ Beyond specific regulatory and trade fights, the media reform movement must address what ails existing media. Still top-heavy with white middle-class men, TV news departments and major newspapers remain in thrall to official sources. Their obsessive focus on crime coverage and celebrity trials leaves no room for covering the real issues that affect neighborhoods and whole classes of people. Coverage of communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, rural folks and just about everyone else who doesn't live in a handful of ZIP codes in New York and Los Angeles is badly warped, and it creates badly warped attitudes in society. Those attitudes shape the public discourse and public policy. Thus, media reformers must support the struggle to expand access to the airwaves and to assure that independent and innovative journalists, writers and filmmakers have the resources to create media that reflect all of America [see Makani Themba-Nixon and Nan Rubin, page 17].

This agenda is already long. And it is just the beginning. We have not even broached all the policies that will affect the Internet, such as copyright and access. That it is possible for a growing number of Americans to imagine these sorts of reforms being implemented provides a measure of recent progress. A year ago the conventional wisdom was that media reform was a nonstarter as a political issue--because even some activists feared it was too abstract for people to sink their teeth into, because the corporate lobbies owned the politicians and regulators, and because, for obvious reasons, there was next to no coverage of media policy fights. Now, the world looks very different. Media reform clearly registers with millions across the political spectrum. The range of issues being put into play provides rare opportunities for the forces of civil society to win tangible victories. Even small victories can have big meaning, but they won't come easily. Michael Powell may be shellshocked, but the people who have grown accustomed to running media policy in this country--the media conglomerates, their lobbyists and those politicians they still manipulate like channel clickers--aren't going to give up without a fight.

There is real work to be done. For a media reform movement that is sustainable enough, broad-based enough and powerful enough to forge real changes in media ownership patterns, and in the character of American media, it is essential to build upon the passionate base of activists who did so much to make media an issue in 2003. We have to make media policy part of the 2004 presidential debate and all the campaigns that will follow it. And we have to make it a part of the kitchen-table debates where the real course of America can, and should, be plotted. To do that, the media reform movement that captured the imagination of antiwar activists and others in 2003 must burrow just as deeply into labor, church, farm and community groups, which are only beginning to recognize how their ideals and ambitions are being damaged. If the initial challenge was one of perception--making media an issue--the next challenge is one of organization. "Media reform has become an issue for millions of Americans," says Bernie Sanders. "Now, we've got to make media reform more than an issue. We have to make it a reality for all Americans."

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