This weekend, the 2013 National Conference for Media Reform brings together activists and media-makers from across the country for a vital discussion of today’s most pressing media and technology issues. Nation writers—including Dave Zirin and Aura Bogado—will be presenting alongside other luminaries of the independent media landscape. Watch the live feed here (courtesy of Free SpeechTV).
At a Friday panel, Nation correspondent John Nichols and media scholar Robert W. McChesney, co-founders of Free Press, delivered an eye-opening address on the dangers of media consolidation based on their new report in this week’s print issue of The Nation, “Will Obama Defend Media Democracy?” Nichols and McChesney ask whether President Obama can be counted on to protect democracy in his appointment of the next FCC chair and they examine the consequences of the money, media and election complex.
“In a communications landscape where everything is up for grabs, the most powerful—and self-serving—players are grabbing for everything,” write Nichols and McChesney. “The decisions that President Obama and his next appointee to chair the Federal Communications Commission will make in the coming months could well decide whether new media robber barons will dominate the local, state and national discourse.”
The new battleground for power lies in the regulation of broadband, and former FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps, who served at the agency from 2001 to 2011, is all too familiar with the political challenges of defending "net neutrality." In “The New Telecom Oligarchs,” in this week's issue of The Nation, he speaks out about his front row seat to the capitulation of the FCC in the market-altering Comcast-NBCU merger. As the sole dissenting voice in a four-to-one vote, he recalls the deal that made the US the only country on earth that short-circuited broadband development. For too long, protection of consumers and advancement of the public’s interest has been subsumed by big telecom and big media… and it’s time for a change.
Advocates of media democracy have coalesced around a pick for Julius Genachowski’s replacement as chair: Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law professor Susan Crawford. Praising her recent book, Captive Audience, in his article, Copps details how Crawford’s eyewitness accounting of how the media giants exert a stranglehold over consumers and government reveals the exhaustive reach of their monopolies.
As I argued several months back, Crawford is a leading telecommunications policy expert and proponent of democratizing access to broadband and high speed Internet. In promoting a reasonably priced, globally competitive, ubiquitous communications infrastructure that enables American competition and innovation, she has demonstrated her commitment to making high-speed Internet access a universal, affordable resource. The increasing digital divide between those who can afford access to high-speed Internet service, and the fully one-third of Americans who cannot afford it, is a profound inequity. The conspicuous absence of the FCC in redressing this digital injustice is denying the American people the vibrant and truth-telling media critical for a functioning democracy.
The increasing centralization and corporatization of American mass media has been a longstanding concern of The Nation. After the conservative mogul Frank Gannett’s company bought its fourteenth daily newspaper in 1928, a Nation editorial complained that the nation’s press increasingly “tends to concentrate in the hands of a comparatively small number of men.” In words that could easily have been written in 2013, the magazine continued: “With amalgamations and discontinuances taking place every day, and the difficulties of starting new newspapers almost insuperable, even for the very rich, it is hard to see how this tendency can be overcome.” The Gannett Company today controls 12 newspapers, including USA Today, and nearly two dozen TV stations.
In 1973, Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett argued in his 10,000-word article, “Merger, Monopoly & A Free Press,” that Watergate-era conversations about the freedom of the press and the role of journalists in democratic society was missing the point. The real story, Barnett argued, was about the media’s own increasing conglomeration and the Department of Justice’s complicity in deriving the American public of competitive news distribution. Tellingly, the cities Barnett writes about, in which the two major newspaper owners colluded to fix prices, frame stories, and ensure mutual immunity, seem almost paradisiacal: most American cities are lucky now to have even one daily newspaper, and only a handful have two.
These anxieties culminated in an unprecedented June 3, 1996 special issue of The Nation featuring transformative reporting by NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller that demonstrated how four mega-corporations—in those pre-Fox days, that meant NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN—amounted to a near-monopolization of televised media. Writers from James Fallows to Norman Lear, Walter Cronkite to Oliver Stone, dissected the tangled relationships represented on a four-page map—the first glossy centerfold ever to appear in The Nation—and noted some of the more glaring acts of omission and commission, as well as conflicts of interest, that occur when so much power, money, and means of distribution are concentrated in the hands of so few. Sadly, almost none of the reforms promoted by the contributors have come to pass, and the cartelization of American media—as well as the detrimental social and political effects that entails—have only gotten worse.
For continued insight into the changing media landscape and how it will affect our democracy, check back in regularly with The Nation as we continue to weigh in on the regulatory responsibilities of the FCC and other government agencies.
Reed Richardson reports on the prophecies of government tyranny, financial meltdown and violent anarchy featured on Doomsday Preppers that are being absorbed into contemporary conservatism.