scholars, reporters, and activists converged in Madison, Wisconsin
from November 7 to 9. The big draw was the National Conference on
Media Reform, organized by Free Press (www.mediareform.net) and
UW- Madison’s A.E. Havens Center. As Free Press cofounders
Robert McChesney and John Nichols stated, the turnout of more than
1,600 far surpassed their initial estimates of a few hundred attendees.
But the national conference wasn’t the only game in town. A
free parallel meeting of marginalized voices greatly enriched the
conversation. In all, three not-mutually exclusive visions were
advanced: be the media, reform the media, and radically transform
by the national conference’s registration fee, emphasis on
big names, and focus on “reform,” Madison Indymedia, Infoshop,
and WORT community radio organized a free parallel meeting called
Be the Media!
the Media! opened Friday evening with the film
in a Time of War
, by the Hudson Mohawk Independent Media Center,
and a discussion with Juan Gonzalez, Jeremy Scahill, and Amy Goodman
of “Democracy Now!” Although many in the packed auditorium
likely came to see Amy Goodman, local activists also spoke. Volunteers
at the community access TV station warned of a threat by city council
members to cut their funding (a cheap political stunt that, fortunately,
failed). El Salvador and Palestine solidarity activists gave updates
on their work. “Being informed is only the first part,”
Madison-Arcatao (El Salvador) Sister-City Project member Marc Rosenthal
stated. “We also need to organize.”
was devoted to hands- on, action-oriented workshops on subjects
ranging from making bilingual media to starting a microradio station
to performing political theater. Attendance was on the small side,
though participants included both national conference attendees
and local activists. Workshops assumed knowledge of the issues and
a desire to put information gained to use with local media projects
and in the streets—assumptions which seemed pretty accurate.
the same DIY spirit, and correctly guessing that “any corporate
media coverage of the conference will be perfunctory (if at all),”
activists launched a Be the Media! Blog (www.wisconsinite.net) to
report on the weekend’s events. The Bloggers also pulled off
the impressive feat of webcasting many national conference events
with “less than a month’s worth of planning, a budget
of $0, a handful of volunteers, and a whole lot of donated time/resources.”
National Conference on Media Reform’s stated aims were to strengthen
grassroots and national coalitions, develop unified plans for immediate
and long-term reforms, and generate policies and strategies that
will structurally improve the media system. Though it was impressive
in many respects, the conference, in my opinion, failed to meet
the last two of its goals.
because of the overwhelming participant response, the conference
relied on an “expert” to audience one-way flow of information.
Only one hour at the end of the conference offered a more interactive
structure. These “issue salons”—on issues including
hyper-commercialism, media ownership, and democratic governance
—used a speed dating format in which people talked in small
groups for six minutes and then changed groups. It was fun, but
any in- depth discussion was impossible.
the plenary sessions and workshops I attended, little time was devoted
to policies, strategies, or plans. Instead, well-known people talked
about topics that, for the most part, media reformers could safely
be assumed to already be familiar with. “Big media is invested
in the socioeconomic status quo…. We have underestimated the impact
of media control on our [wider social justice] struggle…. How
are we different from a society where [images of war] are banned?”
it fell short of its admittedly ambitious goals, the conference
did an excellent job at building community among independent journalists,
policy activists, nonprofit leaders, and even some policy makers.
The large turnout and all-star speakers’ roster, including
Naomi Klein, Ralph Nader, Bill Moyers, and FCC commissioners Michael
Copps and Jonathan Adelstein (who played a mean harmonica during
Saturday night’s performance), were exciting. The energy and
camaraderie generated will be important to the long-term struggle
for media reform.
was only one workshop that discussed media and communities of color
and it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the national conference.
“We ain’t fighting to take back the media, because we
never had it in the first place,” stated one of the media justice
organizing in communities of color, working with youth of color,
and women of color media collectives are working together under
the banner of media justice. One core principle is that access to
media is a human right. Another is that mass media—through
its racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist language and images—is
an instru- ment of genocide.
media justice approach “depends on base-building and community
organizing—not lobbying.” Another presenter highlighted
the media reform/media justice divide with an anecdote: Philadelphia
organizers door-knocking to register people in opposition to the
FCC plan relaxing media ownership rules encountered many people
of color unwilling to give their names and addresses to any government
that they had almost completely ignored issues of race, class, and
gender, Nichols and McChesney asked the media justice coalition
to speak at the closing plenary—ten minutes before it started.
Malkia Cyril took the opportunity to inform the audience, “We
won’t stay at the margins of the media and events like this
much longer.” The coalition is planning its own conference
in 2004 (www.media justice.org).
best evidence from the weekend that the media democracy movement
is thriving is that there was no single event or single answer to
the question of what needs to be done. Hopefully the conversation
will continue, with an increased awareness of and respect for the
range of strategies and actions.
Farsetta is a radio journalist, freelance writer, and research director
at the Center for Media and Democracy.