The first National Conference on Media Reform was held 18 months ago in Madison, Wisconsin. That conference, which drew 1,800 people from across the country and around the world, was a remarkable event in itself. But it was even more remarkable for the movement it helped advance to a new and dramatically more muscular stage.
After years of complaining as the media of the country consolidated and conglomerated into a corporate whole that was less than the sum of its parts, and where civic and democratic values were replaced by the commercial and entertainment demands of a corporate bottom line, twin streams of media critique and media activism exploded into a media reform movement that demanded fundamental changes in the way our media companies operate.
Suddenly, as journalist Bill Moyers suggested at that conference in November 2003, the fight was on “for a media system that serves as effectively as it sells – one that holds all the institutions of society, itself included, accountable.”
Moyers urged the activists who gathered in Madison in 2003 to “reach out to regular citizens.”
“We have to raise an even bigger tent than you have here,” he told the crowd that packed a downtown theater on that Saturday night. “Those of us in this place speak a common language about the ‘media.’ We must reach the audience that’s not here –- carry the fight to radio talk shows, local television, and the letters columns of our newspapers. (We) must engage the mainstream, not retreat from it. We have to get our fellow citizens to understand that what they see, hear, and read is not only the taste of programmers and producers but also a set of policy decisions made by the people we vote for.”
That has begun to happen. Reformers are winning real battles: blocking moves by the Federal Communications Commission to allow big media companies to grow even bigger, successfully challenging efforts by telephone companies to prevent communities from developing low-cost broadband internet services, forcing the federal government to stop pouring taxpayer dollars into the production of “fake news” video releases.
But the real work of opening up the media to more voices, and to the sort of discourse that is worthy of a great democracy, has only just begun.
This weekend, in St. Louis, the second National Conference on Media Reform will convene with more activists, more energy and more focus. Moyers will be back, along with Patti Smith, Al Franken, Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, Phil Donahue, U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-California.
These are exciting times for a movement that, while young, is showing signs of the strength that Moyers said it would have to develop.
The struggle to repair the dangerously dysfunctional media system that tells us more about Michael Jackson’s trial than about the truth of what is going on in Iraq will be a long and difficult one.
But this fight is on, and it is a fight we dare not lose — as it is a struggle for nothing less than the future of freedom of the press and our very democracy.
(John Nichols is a co-founder with Robert W. McChesney of Free Press, the media reform network that has organzied the national conferences.)