The national campaign by Consumers Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Coalition and dozens of other groups to prevent AT&T from colonizing the Internet has much in common with the fight by a 28-year-old disabled veteran named Valerie Walasek to keep her favorite radio station on the air. For one thing, both are part of a broad media reform movement that is transforming the debate over communications policy at the national, state and local levels. For another, both scored significant victories in December.
After collecting 1.4 million signatures on petitions, gaining support from musicians such as Moby and the Dixie Chicks and building alliances with key members of Congress, the SavetheInternet.com Coalition forced AT&T to respect network neutrality–the principle that all Internet users must have equal access to all websites–as part of a deal to allow the telecommunications behemoth to acquire BellSouth. Around the same time, radio giant Clear Channel gave in to a noisy petitioning and picketing campaign by Walasek and other fans of the Air America affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, and reversed a decision to do away with the affiliate’s liberal talk format.
A decade ago, when Bob McChesney and John Nichols began arguing in these pages for the formation of a grassroots media reform movement, following the passage of a sweeping giveaway to the corporations known as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the notion that people power could tip the balance back seemed a bit fanciful. But as 3,000 activists from across the country gather on January 12 in Memphis for the third National Conference for Media Reform, this movement has come of age. Federal Communications Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein will address the conference, as will Ed Markey, the new chair of the powerful telecommunications subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
No one is predicting the imminent collapse of Big Media and the arrival of a golden age. Telecommunications giants are still out to undermine net neutrality, while media companies continue to push for rule changes that would allow them to own the newspaper and radio and television stations in a single city. Moreover, as Nichols notes in his article on page 11, journalism itself is under threat, as newspapers decline in readership and owners slash staffs and dumb down coverage in an effort to make higher profits.
If the threats are real, however, so too are the possibilities to upend more of Big Media’s agenda. The fight will be easier with Democrats like Markey in key positions in Congress and with longtime allies like Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown ready to use newly won Senate seats to advance the cause. While Democrats have yet to fully embrace media reform, they’re a good deal more sympathetic than the GOP to the movement’s emphasis on diversity and democracy. With prodding from the media reform movement, Congressional Democrats might even embrace an affirmative agenda that could make media–particularly media that use the people’s airwaves–more likely to serve civic values than the commercial/entertainment values dictated by corporations concerned with the bottom line.