Media Reform




O

n
June 2, 2003 the FCC voted to relax key media ownership rules, that
would pave the way for a renewed wave of corporate consolidation
in the communications industry. Spearheaded by FCC chair Michael
Powell (Colin Powell’s son), the rule changes would permit
one broadcast network to own another, raise the national cap on
the number of stations a TV network can own, allow a company to
own cable TV systems and TV stations in the same community, and
eliminate a ban on cross-ownership of newspapers, TV, and radio
stations in local markets. 


Unlike
past media deregulation enacted with little fanfare, this latest
effort incited a firestorm of opposition voiced by over three million
people who registered complaints with Congress and the FCC. Congress
responded to this unprecedented public pressure and began crafting
bipartisan legislation to repeal part or all of the decision. In
September, the Senate passed one such bill to nullify the rule changes
altogether and there will be a concerted effort to force the House
leadership to allow a vote on it in 2004.  


If
media activists and members of Congress succeed in this endeavor,
it will likely mean a major grassroots victory in the face of one
of the most feared lobbies in Washington, DC.  


An
important figure in the national groundswell challenging corporate
media’s agenda is Robert McChesney, professor of communication
at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. McChesney is
a leading media historian and critic, and the founder of Free Press.
He writes widely for academic and non-academic publications and
has written numerous books, the most recent being

Rich


Media,
Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times

(2000)
and, with John Nichols,

Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic
Struggle Against Corporate Media

(2002). 




DANIEL
MCLEOD:




A survey conducted in February 2003 found
that 95 percent of U.S. citizens had little to no awareness of the
proposed June 2 rule changes. By fall, media ownership was the hottest
issue among constituents on Capitol Hill, second only to Iraq. How
was such a critical mass alerted and engaged on this issue in such
a short time span?



ROBERT
MCCHESNEY: I think there were two or three things that triggered
the enormous public eruption in 2003. The first was the war in Iraq.
Much of the news media seemed to be rabidly pro- war and hyper-jingoistic.
FAIR [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting] did a survey of mainstream
television news and the sources used by the newscasts in the week
or two leading up to the actual invasion. They show overwhelmingly
pro-war positions that were used as sources. I don’t know the
exact figure, but it is well over 90 percent. 


The
reason why this became important for the media ownership fight was
that almost immediately on entering the war, thanks to MoveON and
other antiwar activists, the word started getting out that the very
same companies that were the most rabidly pro-Bush and pro-war—Rupert
Murdoch’s News Corporation, Clear Channel Radio—were leading
the fight to relax media ownership rules so they could get bigger
and bigger. This really freaked out a lot of people who were against
the war. 


MoveOn,
the Internet activist group, was flooded with people on its list
saying, “We gotta stop this.” It was really grassroots
driven and I think a lot of the anti-war movement channeled its
energy into this fight. That generated hundreds of thousands of
people who wrote letters, emails, signed petitions, and participated
in demonstrations. In addition, the experience of radio in this
country made this issue very concrete in many people’s eyes. 


Normally
an issue about ownership caps on what media companies can own would
seem incredibly wonkish and abstract to most citizens, but in 1996
Congress passed a law loosening the regulation of radio stations
in the United States dramatically. It went from a company being
allowed to have 40 stations nationally to unlimited and from 4 stations
to 8 in a single market. As a result of those changes radio has
been turned upside down. 


One
company, Clear Channel, has over 1,200 stations and almost every
community in the country now has two or three companies completely
dominating the market. We’ve seen a real elimination of localism,
of local content radio, and certainly of local news. Increasingly
what you get are these huge chains piping in disc jockeys. So radio,
what should be our most decentralized, creative, local media because
it is so inexpensive, has become our most regimented and standardized. 


Big
companies have also increased the commercialism dramatically, from
11 or 12 minutes an hour in the early 1990s to 17 to 19 minutes
an hour today. Payola has returned with companies charging musicians
to play their music on the air. All sorts of corruption has emerged.
Radio, in effect, has been destroyed and this has registered with
people across the political spectrum. Conservatives, moderates,
and apoliticals don’t like the state of radio either. They
like having local content on radio. 




Third,
I think conservatives were moved by the fact that the companies
leading the fight to get bigger and bigger were also at the cutting
edge of putting incredibly vulgar programs on prime time broadcasting
and their cable channels. The general belief among many conservatives
was that if you have local owners for media you would be less likely
to have offensive fare because the owners would be more responsive
to their community. 




A
notable player in mobilizing public ferment has been a g




roup
you founded, Free Press. Can you tell us about this organization? 





Free
Press was founded at the end of 2002 by John Nichols, who writes
for the

Nation

, Josh Silver, who had been a campaign finance
activist in Arizona and elsewhere, and me. Our vision was of a group
that would advocate structural changes in our media system primarily
at the national and legislative level in Congress. They would be
sweeping, proactive, and improve the situation—not just to
keep things from getting worse. Our goal was to try to get increased
public involvement around tangible, coherent, progressive media
reforms to do two things ultimately—to make the commercial
system more competitive, more localized, more decentralized and,
two, to build a strong, healthy, vibrant, and pluralistic nonprofit
and noncommercial media sector. 


Ultimately,
that’s what we need to have a decent media system in this country
and to push forward any genuine semblance of meaningful self-government.
Free Press was founded with that mission and, in our view, no one
was doing that. There were terrific groups doing great work inside
Washington defending the public interest at the FCC and in the courts
and doing their best to hold the line in Congress—the Consumers
Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Media Access Project,
Center for Digital Democracy, the Benton Foundation—but they
had been so busy playing defense and fighting to keep things where
they were that they hadn’t had time to do the outreach and
generate grassroots support for proactive measures beyond the rhetorical
level. We wanted to put some people behind what they were doing
and really jack it up a couple notches. 


What
Free Press really wanted to do was go around to all the constituencies
in this country that are affected by media, that really could benefit
by having a more democratic media system and get them to understand
that this is their fight too; that they have a stake in this. Groups
like civil liberties and civil rights organizations, environmental
groups, feminist groups, and the labor movement. 


We
would be a small guerrilla army that would try to work with other
groups, try to seed new groups, help coordinate activities, and
pick a handful of campaigns we’d specifically work on. Otherwise
we’d try to support groups doing other campaigns so we can
keep working together. 




Have
these efforts to reach other allies engaged in non-media activism




been fruitful in the past year? 



I
think so. We have a long way to go, but I think we’ve made
phenomenal headway. Labor is getting up to speed on this issue in
a way it hasn’t in a very long time— probably since the
1940s. We also have seen an organization like Common Cause, a civic
organization concerned with good governance, make media policy one
of their main issues. Their hundreds of thousands of rank and file
membership said, “We want to work on this,” and now a
third of all their policy work is on media issues. They hadn’t
done anything ever on media the previous 30 years, but now suddenly
they’ve become a real big player here. We’re seeing the
civil rights and African American communities for example. Rainbow/PUSH
has always been a player in this area and they’re increasing
their involvement. So I think that signs are very hopeful. 




Given
t




he amount of economic, political, and cultural power
at stake, big media can’t possibly take this lying down. What
tactics have they already used and what can we expect down the road? 





The
media firms are a very difficult lobby to beat and the conventional
wisdom is that you can’t beat them—they’re rich,
they’re powerful, they have huge lobbies in Washington and
they have tremendous influence with politicians of all stripes.
They also have the added advantage of controlling the news media,
which means that you’re not going to see a lot of coverage
or criticism of media in their pages or on their airwaves. To top
it off, the commercial news media has one of the most impressive
public relations arsenals of any industry in this country—all
sorts of stuff they’ve developed about how they represent freedom
of the press, the First Amendment, how they give the people what
they want, that this is the “American way,” and they wrap
themselves in the flag. It seems like a pretty tough combination
to beat and most people prior to 2003 thought it was a pretty hopeless
fight. What we showed in 2003 was that fighting over media issues,
as difficult as it seemed before 2003, opened tangible possibilities
for organizing in ways progressives hadn’t anticipated. 


What’s
really nice about media activism is that you can win discreet fights
and keep the victories. If we win, for example, low-power FM radio
and get 1,000 new FM radio stations for local community groups without
ads on the air sometime in 2004—and I think we can win this.
They can’t take it away from us. It also means you can generate
allies on some issues like low- power FM or media ownership and
then try to bring them over to other issues like copyright or cable
regulation or public broadcasting. 


What’s
also good about media activism is, as abstract as it seems at the
policy level, it is something everyone experiences in their life.
People, whatever their political views, don’t like their kids’
brains being marinated in advertising every day. It bothers them
and when they get it linked up to a tangible policy issue, and maybe
opens their eyes to corruption of our political economy. 


I
think we’ve seen that happen this year with some of the activists
who used to be hardcore conservatives and now see just how corrupt
policy-making is and how closely linked government is to big business
and how that’s really the nexus of power in this society, not
government as some sort of liberal antagonist to entrepreneurs in
the business sector. I think it’s an area that can draw people
into progressive politics. 




You
wrote a chapter in





Rich Media, Poor Democracy

about corporations using the First Amendment to protect their dominance
of the media. Do you think they will exercise this right to block
changes proposed by the reform movement? 



We
have to revisit the First Amendment case law ultimately in this
movement. Currently, there’s a misconception that freedom of
the press was meant by the founders to mean the right of capitalists
to make as much money as possible producing media without any interference.
It doesn’t even take a close review of history or the law to
see that that is preposterous.  


In
the first several generations of the republic there is no notion
whatsoever that just letting rich people make as much money as possible
doing media has anything to do with the free press or democratic
media system. No one advocated that. It was unthinkable. 




Will
media reform be a 2004 presidential issue?




 



It’s
going to be tough. George W. Bush and his Administration are the
number one fans of media concentration in the United States. They’re
the driving force behind the FCC’s loosening of media ownership
rules, they’re the driving force behind getting the Republican
leadership in the House and Senate to keep those changes despite
the fact the Senate’s already shot it down 55-40 and the House
has the majority of the members who want to get rid of what the
FCC did. 


The
Bush administration’s position is crystal clear. This is payback
time for the big media corporations that have backed Bush throughout
his political career, like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation
and Clear Channel. All the Democratic candidates for president have
come out against relaxing media ownership rules so there’s
a clear split between the two parties there.  


The
Green candidate, say it’s Ralph Nader, has been a champion
of media reform going back 20 years. He’s been the pioneer
in many respects, so I think there’s a chance it could be an
issue there. We hope it will be an issue also in all the Congressional
races and Free Press, along with other groups, is going to be working
on making media reform and media ownership something that gets on
the table and debated. 




What
are some steps a person can take to get engaged?




 



There’s
a wide range of issues to work on. There are literally over 100
groups working on various issues and someone can find what’s
really important to them, work on it, and then try to be part of
networks so the whole of the movement is greater than the sum of
the parts. Our website, www.mediareform.net, lists all the basic
issues being fought over. For each issue we tell the groups that
are working on it, what the action campaigns are. We have a list
of all the media reform organizations in the United States. We also
have a “take action” section that lists all the active
campaigns and how you can get involved with those.



 





Daniel McLeod
is a mental health counselor and activist.
















He lives in western Massachusetts.