On a Thursday in mid-May, the Senate did something that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Led by Democrat Byron Dorgan, the senators–Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives–gave Rupert Murdoch and his fellow media moguls the sort of slap that masters of the universe don’t expect from mere mortals on Capitol Hill. With a voice vote that confirmed the near-unanimous sentiment of senators who had heard from hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding that they act, the legislators moved to nullify an FCC attempt to permit a radical form of media consolidation: a rule change designed to permit one corporation to own daily and weekly newspapers as well as television and radio stations in the same local market. The removal of the historic bar to newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership has long been a top priority of Big Media. They want to dramatically increase revenues by buying up major media properties in American cities, shutting down competing newsrooms and creating a one-size-fits-all local discourse that’s great for the bottom line but lousy for the communities they are supposed to serve and a nightmare for democracy.
That’s just some of the good news at a time when the media policy debate has been redefined by the emergence of a muscular grassroots reform movement. Bush Administration schemes to use federal dollars to subsidize friendly journalists and illegally push its propaganda as legitimate news have been exposed and halted, with the House approving a defense appropriations amendment that outlaws any “concerted effort to propagandize” by the Pentagon. Public broadcasting, community broadcasting and cable access channels have withstood assault from corporate interlopers, fundamentalist censors and the GOP Congressional allies they share in common. And against a full-frontal attack from two industries, telephone and cable–whose entire business model is based on lobbying Congress and regulators to get monopoly privileges–a grassroots movement has preserved network neutrality, the first amendment of the digital epoch, which holds that Internet service providers shall not censor or discriminate against particular websites or services. So successful has this challenge to the telecom lobbies been that the House may soon endorse the Internet Freedom Preservation Act.
But while the picture has improved, especially compared with just a few years ago, the news is not nearly good enough. The Senate’s resolution of disapproval did not reverse the FCC’s cross-ownership rule change. It merely began a pushback that still requires a House vote–and even if it passes Congress, it will then encounter a veto by George W. Bush. Likewise, while public and community media have been spared from the executioner, they still face deep-seated funding and competitive disadvantages that require structural reforms, not Band-Aids.
The media reform movement must prepare now to promote a wide range of structural reforms–to talk of changing media for the better rather than merely preventing it from getting worse. “Media reform” has become a catch-all phrase to describe the broad goals of a movement that says consolidated ownership of broadcast and cable media, chain ownership of newspapers, and telephone and cable-company colonization of the Internet pose a threat not just to the culture of the Republic but to democracy itself. The movement that became a force to be reckoned with during the Bush years had to fight defensive actions with the purpose of preventing more consolidation, more homogenization and more manipulation of information by elites. Now, however, we must require corporations that reap immense profits from the people’s airwaves to meet high public-service standards, dust off rusty but still functional antitrust laws to break up TV and radio conglomerates, address over-the-top commercialization of our culture and establish a heterogeneous and accountable noncommercial media sector. In sum, we need to establish rules and structures designed to create a cultural environment that will enlighten, empower and energize citizens so they can realize the full promise of an American experiment that has, since its founding, relied on freedom of the press to rest authority in the people.