A 12-Step Program for Media Democracy

A 12-Step Program for Media Democracy

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


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.

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.

7. New Media Tools of Democracy

The Internet has long been a boon to democratic discourse, from the free flow of Usenet group discussions to the targeted interests of e-mail listservs. The advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s provided a new forum for civic programming online, a publishing platform fully accessible to nonprofit organizations and individual activists alike. More recently, peer-to-peer file sharing has altered the means of digital content distribution–much to the chagrin of the music industry, to be sure, but also providing a viable model for alternative distribution networks that bypass the bottlenecks and tollgates of the reigning commercial delivery systems. On a somewhat smaller scale, the phenomenon of “blogging” (personal Web logs that comment on and highlight notable websites) has emerged as a new form of journalism, blurring the distinction between producer and consumer that marks the traditional top-down media system. With the growing power of the media giants, however, it becomes all the more important to preserve these democratic traditions online, and to ensure their survival in the broadband era, in which streaming media will play an increasingly important role in the delivery of content. So, too, must the PEG-access concept in cable (i.e., Public-, Education- and Government-access channels) be reinvented for the digital age, taking full advantage of the two-way communications that the new cable networks will provide. Community-based wireless networks, finally, (employing the low-cost I.E.E.E. 802.11b) must also be encouraged as a means of fostering public-access networks. Organizations working on these fronts nationally include the Alliance for Community Media, the Association for Community Networking and FreeNetworks.org.

But much work will have to be done at the local level, where municipal governments, cable franchise authorities, public libraries and community-based organizations need to assess their broadband networking needs and then work together to satisfy that demand. Waiting for the marketplace to deliver these vital civic services simply won’t work.

8. New Support Structures for the Digital Age

From the earliest philanthropic gestures of the Carnegies and Rockefellers, through the massive Depression-era and postwar federal funding programs, to the elaborate private funding structure that now encompasses more than 20,000 foundations, we’ve always found a way to support our analog culture. Now, with a distinctly digital culture emerging at the dawn of the twenty-first century (and with significant portions of more traditional expression to become available via broadband networks), we must find similar means, public and private alike, to support noncommercial projects devoted to the creation and distribution of various forms of new media. In the federal arena, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Ed Markey has introduced the Wireless Technology Investment and Digital Dividends Act, which, among other things, would create a permanent Digital Dividends Trust Fund, based on the proceeds of spectrum auctions, to support both “human capital telecommunications investments” (e.g., teacher training, educational software development, digitizing archival material and AmeriCorps technology projects) and “broadband infrastructure investments for public access and rural development” (e.g., projects that attack the digital divide in rural and inner-city locations). Based on Newton Minow and Lawrence Grossman’s Digital Promise project, Markey’s bill would also establish a “spectrum commons,” setting aside two bands of frequencies (20 MHz of spectrum below 2 GHz and another band between 2 and 6 GHz) for unlicensed public use as an open wireless platform for communications. But until such time that either spectrum auctions or a new Corporation for Public Telecommunications can channel support to educational, civic and cultural new media, private foundations will need to expand their efforts in support of noncommercial, public-service programming in the digital environment. Ever quick to recommend collaboration among their applicants and grantees alike, foundations themselves must now explore cooperative strategies in order to meet the demands of the digital age.

Access and Diversity

As Ben Bagdikian has chronicled in the various editions of his The Media Monopoly over the years, the number of companies controlling the bulk of our print, broadcast and entertainment industries has dwindled from fifty corporations in 1983 to a mere six in 2000. Equally disturbing, this “survival of the fittest” (in which fitness is defined by an insatiable appetite for market power) has affected the new media as well. In the first five years of the World Wide Web’s existence, for example, when it was growing at an almost exponential rate, diversity prevailed. But by 1999, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, 110 companies controlled 60 percent of users’ online time. Just two years later, that figure had been reduced to a mere fourteen companies. And today, the democracy that was once the Internet is beginning to look more and more like an oligarchy. The recent attacks on the traditional ownership/diversity safeguards, moreover, waged in the courts and at the FCC, represent an effort on the part of a handful of entertainment conglomerates (AOL Time Warner, General Electric/NBC, Disney/ABC, Viacom/CBS and News Corp/Fox among them) to extend their hegemony into the digital frontier. There is no guarantee, in other words, that the spirit of competition, diversity and democracy that has long been the hallmark of the traditional, “narrowband” Internet will prevail in the broadband future.

While the broadband era will doubtless bring new online products and services, these must not come at the expense of other, less marketable but no less important fare. There must be room, in short, for the collective wisdom and shared expertise, for civic participation and educational programming, that have proved so valuable to our society in the past. The new broadband networks can help preserve these assets, and make them more widely available, but only if these networks incorporate the open-access, nondiscriminatory principles that have long governed the Internet, and if other policies are in place to share the fruits of the digital revolution with the widest possible audience. On this front, four areas of policy reform demand our attention:

9. Open Access/Open Architecture

In “The Open Access Principle: Cable Access as a Case Study for the Next Generation Internet,” Stanford Professorof Communications Francois Bar writes of “an electronic marketplace which systematically favors the providers of content, services or transactions who have a privileged financial relationship with the monopoly owner of the underlying infrastructure…. The infrastructure owner will have strong incentives to configure its network to give superior performance to the preferred ISP and superior service to the ISP’s favored partners.” With the FCC’s recent reclassification of cable Internet service as an unregulated “information service” rather than a telecommunications service, we’ve moved one step closer to the tilted playing field that Bar and others have described. Thus the principle of open access and nondiscriminatory transport remains as important a public policy goal as ever. As EarthLink CEO Garry Betty recently testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the minimum standards for effective open access are as follows:

Consumers of broadband cable services should have a choice among multiple ISPs.

Cable broadband providers must negotiate at arms-length nondiscriminatory commercial arrangements with both affiliated and nonaffiliated ISPs (including “first screen” placement).

ISPs should have the choice of operating on a national, regional or local basis.

Both the ISP and the cable operator should have the opportunity for a direct relationship with the customer.

ISPs should be allowed to provide video streaming and there should be no discriminatory restrictions on provision of content.

Coupled with an expanded concept of PEG access–one that takes full advantage of the advanced, two-way communications features of the new cable broadband networks–these open-access, nondiscriminatory transport principles will go a long way toward ensuring that the broadband cable platform serves the public interest, now and in the future.

10. Set-Top Standards

Once described as the most valuable square foot of real-estate in the world, the set-top box that is perched innocently on our TV sets is about to become even more valuable. Infused with microprocessors, hard disk recorders and other digital technologies, the next generation of the set-top box will perform a variety of entertainment, communications and e-commerce functions–including some, unfortunately, that will have more to do with AOL Time Warner’s and Microsoft’s interests than with our own. Remarkably, some thirty years after they first appeared, these set-top devices are still essentially black boxes, whose simple LED displays may tell us what channel we’re watching, but little else. And they remain largely beyond the reach of regulators at the FCC and FTC, who thus far have ignored not only the increasing power and sophistication of set-top boxes, but also the real threat that their proprietary standards and closed architecture will enable cable operators to control the Internet’s vital “last mile.” Stated most simply, if our mailboxes were as vulnerable to incursion and control as our set-top boxes currently are, no one would stand for it. Especially as these devices become what may turn out to be the most important and powerful household appliance, a review of their capabilities and control mechanisms, and a requirement that they handle Internet traffic in an open, nondiscriminatory fashion, would seem to be in order.

11. Digital Television

Even as the long-awaited transition to digital television seems destined to miss the federally mandated 2006 deadline, the power of the new platform to redefine the television medium remains clear. While it has often been compared to the transition from black-and-white to color television that began in the 1950s, the impending shift to DTV will be far more dramatic. “It is more akin to the arrival of television in a radio world,” observes industry analyst Gary Arlen, “especially in the programming realm…. The tools and content of today’s digital environment make it possible for broadcasters to reinvent their medium, not merely enhance it.” In the process, we must also reinvent the civic uses to which television can be put in the digital age, building on the admittedly faint public-interest tradition that is supposed to govern the use of the public’s airwaves. Such was the task of the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters (the so-called Gore Commission) in 1998, which failed, however, to breathe new life into the public interest principle. Although it included a small number of public-interest advocates (including former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, children’s television advocate Peggy Charren and the Media Access Project’s executive director at the time, Gigi Sohn), the committee, co-chaired by CBS president Leslie Moonves, was ultimately ill suited to produce the kind of thoroughgoing reform that is so sorely needed if the digital television revolution is to realize its full potential. There’s still time to reopen that issue at the FCC, however, just as there is time to demand a public-interest dividend from the spectrum that the nation’s 1,600 TV stations will relinquish once the transition to DTV is complete.

12. Universal Service

Extending basic telephone service to all Americans has long been a goal of federal telecommunications policy (and it’s a goal that, even at the start of the twenty-first century, has never been fully achieved). In 1996 the concept of universal service was nominally expanded to include the following three goals: “(1) increase access to advanced telecommunications services throughout the nation; (2) advance the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas; and (3) promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates.” In the six years since that new mandate was adopted, even while considerable progress has been made in closing the so-called digital divide, little effort has been made to redefine universal service for the digital age. Mere connections to the Internet are hardly sufficient, for that environment (which grows more commercial every day), offers no guarantee of advanced services in the public interest. Fortunately, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 empowers both the Federal State Joint Board, which oversees Universal Service, and the FCC itself “to determine those other principles that, consistent with the 1996 Act, are necessary to protect the public interest.” As a start, the board and commission might explore ways in which guarantees of advanced telecommunications services might be extended beyond the current list of institutions–which includes “all schools, classrooms, health care providers, and libraries”–to reach further into the community, via social, cultural and other community-based organizations.

While they obviously come with no guarantees, these twelve steps would nonetheless go a long way toward advancing the course of media democracy in the digital age. The sad irony is that never before have we had such communications power at our disposal, in the form of new digital technologies that allow any of us to be producers as well as consumers of media content. The corresponding danger, of course, is that we’ve never had so much to lose, in ceding that power to the cable and telecom giants eager to make the new media as monolithic and market-driven as the old. The time to act, clearly, is now.

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