Nearly forty years ago, a few determined civil rights activists at the United Church of Christ and the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi, decided to take on the treatment of blacks by the television news. They drew a straight line from the racism they faced on the streets to the racism they faced in their living rooms when they turned on the TV. So they monitored newscasts at two local stations in Jackson. After determining that the stations were utterly failing to serve their African-American audiences, the activists filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission. And when they didn’t like what the FCC had to say, they took the commission to court, where they won. Big time.
The courts ultimately ruled that the broadcast license of station WLBT-TV ought to be taken away altogether. They said that while African-Americans were 45 percent of the audience, their concerns were totally ignored by the local television stations. It was a stunning decision, one that not only established the principle that news content must reflect in some fashion the actual diversity of local audiences but, just as important, that the public–not just corporate entities–had standing and could go directly to the FCC.
Today the landscape is radically different. With the Congressional deregulatory frenzy that started in the early 1990s, many media restrictions were loosened, and after passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the floodgates were completelythrown open. The rapid acceleration of consolidation in media and telecommunications industries that quickly followed–and is still under way–has occurred with the eager complicity of the FCC. Media reform advocates were placed on the defensive, but they did their best to mount a holding action and not be flattened by the commercial steamroller.
Meanwhile, the Jackson decision, which was once called the “Magna Carta for active public participation in broadcast regulation,” has all but disappeared from the annals of media policy advocacy. The lobbyists and scholars leading the current efforts at media reform are focusing on a whole different set of concerns–resistance to corporate media consolidation, the battle to preserve localism and against content that is commercial and sensationalistic–which are a far cry from the issues of racism and unfair treatment that launched the earlier movement.
There is an increasingly rebellious response to this Jeffersonian approach to media reform–and to the continued marginalization of people of color in the ever-more-consolidated world of mainstream media. In small towns and in church basements, in virtual communities and villages, a growing group of activists are going back to the movement’s roots using a framework they call media justice. Drawing inspiration from the environmental justice movement, media justice proponents are developing race-, class- and gender-conscious visions for changing media content and structure. A first-ever Media Justice Summit is planned for late spring 2004. Says co-convener and technology expert Art McGee, “We’re modeling the Media Justice Summit on the historic Environmental Justice Summit over a decade ago, in which people of color and the poor came together and made explicit their environmental issues and concerns, which had not been a part of the mainstream agendas of mostly white groups like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. We’re about to do something very similar.”
Using media as an organizing tool is certainly not new. For more than fifty years, America has nurtured a vibrant, alternative, overtly political media voice. But in the past few years, in response to glaring news failures like the 2000 presidential election and the “homeland security” journalism in the wake of 9/11, a broad convergence of activists launched a coordinated drive to reform media and use it to advance their broader agendas. They held a flurry of confabs, from the big-tent Media and Democracy Congresses of 1996 and 1997 to the more reflective Kopkind Colony series, where a small group of progressive organizers and journalists spend a week in conversation and retreat.