The Making of a Movement

The Making of a Movement

Getting serious about media reform: at a standstill now, the media reform movement's time has come.


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.

Despite all these achievements, however, the media reform movement remains at something of a standstill. The sheer corruption of US politics is itself a daunting obstacle. The Center for Public Integrity in 2000 issued "Off the Record: What Media Corporations Don't Tell You About Their Legislative Agendas"–an alarming exposé of the huge lobbying machines employed by the largest communications corporations and their trade associations, as well as the considerable campaign contributions they make. According to the center, the fifty largest media companies and four of their trade associations spent $111.3 million between 1996 and mid-2000 to lobby Congress and the executive branch. Between 1993 and mid-2000, the center determined, media corporations and their employees have given $75 million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office and to the two major political parties. Regulators and politicians tend therefore to be in the pockets of big-spending corporate communications lobbies, and–surprise, surprise–the corporate newsmedia rarely cover media policy debates. Notwithstanding all the good work by media activists, the "range" of communications policy debate in Washington still tends to run all the way from GE to GM, to borrow a line from FAIR's Jeff Cohen.

At this very moment, for example, the FCC is considering the elimination of the remaining restrictions on media consolidation, including bans on cross-ownership by a single firm of TV stations and newspapers in the same community, and limits on the number of TV stations and cable TV systems a single corporation may own nationwide. The corporate media lobbying superstars are putting a full-court press on the FCC–which, with George W. Bush's imprint now firmly on its membership, is now even more pro-corporate than during the Clinton years. The proposed scrapping of these regulations will increase the shareholder value of numerous media firms dramatically, and will undoubtedly inspire a massive wave of mergers and acquisitions. If the lessons of past ownership deregulation–particularly the 1996 relaxation of radio ownership rules–are any guide, we can expect even less funding for journalism and more commercialism. All of this takes place without scrutiny from major media, and therefore is unknown to all but a handful of Americans.

The immensity of the economic and political barriers to democratic action has contributed to demoralization about the prospects for structural media reform and an understandable turn to that which progressives can hope to control: their own media. So it has been that much energy has gone into the struggle over the future of the Pacifica radio chain, which looks at long last to be heading toward a viable resolution. The Independent Press Association has grown dramatically to nurture scores of usually small, struggling nonprofit periodicals, which are mostly progressive in orientation. And dozens of local Independent Media Centers have mushroomed on the Internet over the past two years. These Indy Media Centers take advantage of new technology to provide dissident and alternative news stories and commentary; some, by focusing on local issues, have become a genuine alternative to established media at a level where that alternative can and does shift the dialogue. We have seen the positive impact of the IMC movement firsthand–in Seattle, in Washington, at the 2000 Democratic and Republican national conventions, at the three lamentable presidential debates later that year, during the Florida recount and in the aftermath of September 11 in New York and other cities. It is vital that this and other alternative media movements grow in scope and professionalism.

Yet, as important as this work is, there are inherent limits to what can be done with independent media, even with access to the Internet. Too often, the alternative media remain on the margins, seeming to confirm that the dominant structures are the natural domain of the massive media conglomerates that supposedly "give the people what they want."

The trouble with this disconnect between an engaged and vital alternative media and a disengaged and stenographic dominant media is that it suggests a natural order in which corporate media have mastered the marketplace on the basis of their wit and wisdom. In fact, our media system is not predominantly the result of free-market competition. Huge promotional budgets and continual rehashing of tried and true formulas play their role in drawing viewers, listeners and readers to dominant print and broadcast media. But their dominance is still made possible, in large part, by explicit government policies and subsidies that permit the creation of large and profitable conglomerates. When the government grants free monopoly rights to TV spectrum, for example, it is not setting the terms of competition; it is picking the winner of the competition. Such policies amount to an annual grant of corporate welfare that economist Dean Baker values in the tens of billions of dollars. These decisions have been made in the public's name, but without the public's informed consent. We must not accept such massive subsidies for wealthy corporations, nor should we content ourselves with the "freedom" to forge an alternative that occupies the margins. Our task is to return "informed consent" to media policy-making and to generate a diverse media system that serves our democratic needs.

In our view, what's needed to begin the job is now crystal clear–a national media reform coalition that can play quarterback for the media reform movement. The necessity argument takes two forms.

First, the immense job of organizing media reform requires that our scarce resources be used efficiently, and that the various components of a media reform movement cooperate strategically. The problem is that the whole of the current media reform movement is significantly less than the sum of its parts. Isolated and impoverished, groups are forced to defend against new corporate initiatives rather than advance positive reform proposals. When they do get around to proposing reforms, activists have occasionally worked on competing agendas; such schisms dissipate energy, squander resources and guarantee defeat. More important, they are avoidable. Organizers of this new coalition could begin by convening a gathering of all the groups now struggling for reform, as well as the foundations and nonprofits willing to support their work. "All the issues we talk about are interlinked. We are fighting against a lot of the same corporations. The corporations, while they supposedly compete with one another, actually work together very well when it comes to lobbying," explains Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "We need to link up the activists and start to work together as well as the corporations do for the other side." Will every possible member organization get on the same media reform page? No. But after years of working with these groups in various settings, we have no doubt that most will.

Second, a coherent, focused and well-coordinated movement will be needed to launch a massive outreach effort to popularize the issue. That outreach can, and should, be guided by Saul Alinsky's maxim that the only way to beat organized money is with organized people. If the media reform movement stays within the Beltway, we know that we will always lose. Yet, so far, outreach beyond the core community of media activists has been done on a piecemeal basis by various reform groups and critics with very limited budgets. The results have, by and large, been predictably disappointing. As a result, says Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., "the case for media reform is not being heard in Washington now. It is not easy to make the case heard for any reform these days. That's why we need to do more. I hear people everywhere around the country complaining about the media, but we have yet to figure out how to translate those complaints into some kind of activist agenda that can begin to move Congress. There has to be more pressure from outside Washington for specific reforms. Members have to start hearing in their home districts that people want specific reforms of the media."

That will only happen if a concerted campaign organized around core democratic values takes the message of media reform to every college and university, every union hall, every convention and every church, synagogue and mosque in the land. To build a mass movement, the new coalition must link up with organized groups that currently engage in little activity in the way of media reform but that are seriously hampered by the current media system. Organized labor, educators, progressive religious groups, journalists, artists, feminists, environmental organizations and civil rights groups are obvious candidates.

These groups will not simply fall into place as coalition partners, however. Media corporations do not just lobby Congress; they lobby a lot of the groups that suffer under the current system. Some of those groups have been bought off by contributions from foundations associated with AOL, Verizon and other communications conglomerates; others–particularly large sections of organized labor–have been convinced that they have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that consistently kicks them in the teeth. Building a broad coalition will require a tremendous amount of education and old-fashioned organizing that will inevitably involve pressure from the grassroots on major institutions and unions in order to get the national leadership of those organizations to engage. Movement-building will require that able organizers like Chester, Cohen, FAIR's Janine Jackson and Media Alliance executive director Jeff Perlstein–who have already been engaged in the struggle–be provided with the resources to travel, organize and educate.

All the organizing in the world won't amount to a hill of beans, however, unless there is something tangible to fight for, and to win. That's why we need reform proposals that can be advocated, promoted and discussed. Media reform needs its equivalent of the Voting Rights Act or the Equal Rights Amendment–simple, basic reforms that grassroots activists can understand, embrace and advocate in union halls, church basements and school assemblies. And there has to be legislation to give the activism a sense of focus and possibility.

Fortunately, there are several members of Congress who are already engaged on these issues: Senator Fritz Hollings has emerged as a thoughtful critic of many of the excesses of media monopolies; Senator John McCain has questioned the giveaway of public airwaves to communications conglomerates; Representative John Conyers Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has been outspoken in criticizing the loss of diversity in media ownership and the failure of the FCC to battle monopolization and homogenization; Representative Louise Slaughter has introduced legislation mandating free airtime for political candidates; Senator Paul Wellstone has expressed an interest in legislation that would reassert standards for children's programming and perhaps adopt the approaches of other countries that regulate advertising directed at young children; and Jesse Jackson Jr. has expressed a willingness to introduce legislation aimed at broadening access to diverse media, along with a wide range of other media reform proposals. If an organized movement demands it, there are people in Congress with the courage and the awareness to provide it with a legislative focus.

Ultimately, we believe, the movement's legislative agenda must include proposals to:

§ Apply existing antimonopoly laws to the media and, where necessary, expand the reach of those laws to restrict ownership of radio stations to one or two per owner. Legislators should also consider steps to address monopolization of TV-station ownership and move to break the lock of newspaper chains on entire regions.

§ Initiate a formal, federally funded study and hearings to identify reasonable media ownership regulations across all sectors.

§ Establish a full tier of low-power, noncommercial radio and television stations across the nation.

§ Revamp and invest in public broadcasting to eliminate commercial pressures, reduce immediate political pressures and serve communities without significant disposable incomes.

§ Allow every taxpayer a $200 tax credit to apply to any nonprofit medium, as long as it meets IRS criteria.

§ Lower mailing costs for nonprofit and significantly noncommercial publications.

§ Eliminate political candidate advertising as a condition of a broadcast license, or require that if a station runs a paid political ad by a candidate it must run free ads of similar length from all the other candidates on the ballot immediately afterward.

§ Reduce or eliminate TV advertising directed at children under 12.

§ Decommercialize local TV news with regulations that require stations to grant journalists an hour daily of commercial-free news time, and set budget guidelines for those newscasts based on a percentage of the station's revenues.

We know from experience that many of these ideas are popular with Americans–when they get a chance to hear about them. Moreover, the enthusiasm tends to cross the political spectrum. Much of our optimism regarding a media reform movement is based on our research that shows how assiduously the corporate media lobbies work to keep their operations in Washington out of public view. They suspect the same thing we do: When people hear about the corruption of communications policy-making, they will be appalled. When people understand that it is their democratic right to reform this system, millions of them will be inclined to exercise that right.

What media policy-making needs is to be bathed in democracy. The coalition we envision will have its similarities to the civil rights movement or the women's movement–as it should, since access to information ought to be seen as a fundamental human right. It will stand outside political parties and encourage all of them to take up the mantle of democratic media reform, much as Britain's impressive Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom has done. Although its initial funding may well come from large grants, this reform coalition ultimately must be broad-based and member-funded, like Greenpeace or, dare we say it, the National Rifle Association. Activists must feel a sense of ownership and attachment to a citizen lobby if it is to have real impact. We understand that success will depend, over the long term, upon a rejuvenation of popular politics and, accordingly, a decrease in corporate political and economic power. At the same time, we are certain that a movement that expands the range of legitimate debate will ultimately change not just the debate but the current system. "I am convinced that when people start talking about these big issues, these fundamental issues, when they start to understand that they have the power as citizens in a democracy to take on the powers that be and change how things are done, then change becomes inevitable," says Jackson. "The challenge, of course, is to get people to recognize that they have that power."

Even before it gets down to the serious business of reforming existing media systems, the coalition we propose can lead an organized resistance to corporate welfare schemes like the proposed FCC deregulation. And it might even be able to prevent the complete corporatization of the Internet [see Jeffrey Chester and Gary O. Larson, "Something Old, Something New," in this issue]. The key is to have a network of informed organizations and individuals who are already up to speed on media issues and can swing into action on short notice. Currently that network does not exist. The heroic public-interest groups that now lead the fight to oppose corporate domination of FCC policies find themselves without sufficient popular awareness or support, and therefore without the leverage they need to prevail. The movement we propose will be all about increasing leverage over the FCC and Congress in the near term, with an eye toward structural reform down the road.

But is it really possible that such a coalition can take shape in the months and years to come and begin to shift the debate? History tells us that the possibility is real. At times of popular political resurgence throughout the twentieth century, media activism surfaced as a significant force. It was most intense in the Progressive Era, when the rise of the modern capitalist media system was met with sustained Progressive and radical criticism from the likes of Upton Sinclair, Eugene Victor Debs and Robert La Follette. In the 1930s a heterogeneous movement arose to battle commercial broadcasting, and a feisty consumer movement organized to limit advertising in our society. In the postwar years, the Congress of Industrial Organizations attempted to establish a national FM radio network, one of the first casualties of the war on independent labor and the left that marked that period. In the 1960s and '70s the underground press provided vital underpinning for the civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements.

In short, we are building on a long tradition. And there is considerable momentum at present to coalesce. In November some thirty-five media activists from all over the nation met for a day in New York to begin coordinating some of their activities on a range of issues, from local and national policy matters to creating alternative media. Leading media scholars and educators are forming a new national progressive media literacy organization, one that will remain independent of the media conglomerates that bankroll existing groups. We are excited by speculation that Bill Moyers, who has done so much to drum up funding for reform initiatives, will in 2002 use his considerable influence to convince progressive foundations to make a genuine commitment to this fundamental democratic initiative.

The bottom line is clear. Until reformers come together, until we create a formal campaign to democratize our communications policy-making and to blast open our media system, we will continue to see special issues of The Nation like this one lamenting our situation. We need no more proof than the current moment to tell us that the time to build a broad coalition for media reform has arrived.

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