No one should be surprised by the polls showing that close to 90 percent of Americans are satisfied with the performance of their selected President, or that close to 80 percent of the citizenry applaud his Administration's seat-of-the-pants management of an undeclared war. After all, most Americans get their information from media that have pledged to give the American people only the President's side of the story. CNN chief Walter Isaacson distributed a memo effectively instructing the network's domestic newscasts to be sugarcoated in order to maintain popular support for the President and his war. Fox News anchors got into a surreal competition to see who could wear the largest American flag lapel pin. Dan Rather, the man who occupies the seat Walter Cronkite once used to tell Lyndon Johnson the Vietnam War was unwinnable, now says, "George Bush is the President…. he wants me to line up, just tell me where."
No, we should not be surprised that a "just tell me where" press has managed to undermine debate at precisely the time America needs it most–but we should be angry. The role that US newsmedia have played in narrowing and warping the public discourse since September 11 provides dramatic evidence of the severe limitations of contemporary American journalism, and this nation's media system, when it comes to nurturing a viable democratic and humane society. It is now time to act upon that anger to forge a broader, bolder and more politically engaged movement to reform American media.
The base from which such a movement could spring has already been built. Indeed, the current crisis comes at a critical moment for media reform politics. Since the middle 1980s, when inept and disingenuous reporting on US interventions in Central America provoked tens of thousands of Americans to question the role media were playing in manufacturing consent, media activism has had a small but respectable place on the progressive agenda. The critique has gone well beyond complaints about shoddy journalism to broad expressions of concern about hypercommercial, corporate-directed culture and the corruption of communications policy-making by special-interest lobbies and pliable legislators.
Crucial organizations such as Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the Institute for Public Accuracy, the MediaChannel, Media Alliance and the Media Education Foundation have emerged over the past two decades. Acting as mainstream media watchdogs while pointing engaged Americans toward valuable alternative fare, these groups have raised awareness that any democratic reform in the United States must include media reform. Although it is hardly universal even among progressives, there is increasing recognition that media reform can no longer be dismissed as a "dependent variable" that will fall into place once the more important struggles have been won. People are beginning to understand that unless we make headway with the media, the more important struggles will never be won.
On the advocacy front, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and People for Better TV are pushing to improve public broadcasting and to tighten regulation of commercial broadcasting. Commercial Alert organizes campaigns against the commercialization of culture, from sports and museums to literature and media. The Center for Digital Democracy and the Media Access Project both work the corridors of power in Washington to win recognition of public-interest values under extremely difficult circumstances. These groups have won some important battles, particularly on Internet privacy issues.
In addition, local media watch groups have surfaced across the nation. Citizens' organizations do battle to limit billboards in public places and to combat the rise of advertising in schools–fighting often successfully to keep Channel One ads, corporate-sponsored texts and fast-food promotions out of classrooms and cafeterias. Innovative lawsuits challenging the worst excesses of media monopoly are being developed by regional groups such as Rocky Mountain Media Watch and a national consortium of civic organizations, lawyers and academics that has drawn support from Unitarian Universalist organizations. Media activists in Honolulu and San Francisco have joined with unions and community groups to prevent the closure of daily newspapers that provided a measure of competition and debate in those cities.