2008 Conference for Media Reform

The 2008 National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), sponsored by the nonprofit media reform group Free Press, was held in Minneapolis June 6-8. The largest gathering of its kind in the country, the 2008 NCMR revealed many strengths of the Media Reform movement as well as some problems.

Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney, speaking on "Democracy Now!" on the opening day of the Conference, reminded listeners that there is "a deep crisis" in our media system "and Americans understand that this is not acceptable." While this has been true for decades (or longer), McChesney explained that "the media reform movement [has] exploded in the last five years" due to "two crucial events."

"The first one," McChesney said, "is a technological revolution that is really changing the business pattern for all media industries. And because of that, a lot of the rules and regulations and the way industries are structured are up in the air and we’re in a position now—we can change the rules and regulations to make our media system vastly better. Or, if we don’t do anything, the corporate community will do a good job to make sure it suits their interests in what emerges in the digital era.

"Secondly, we’re in a period in which journalism, as we know it, is in freefall. It’s disintegrating. And people are aware of this. It’s not just the content of journalism, the fluff that we talk about, but it’s the actual resources that the corporate community is devoting to journalism. I mean, there’s been a sharp drop-off in the number of working journalists who cover communities—in every community in this country. I mean, there are communities of decent size now that barely have any journalism covering them, so if you live in a town, you won’t know what’s going on there anymore. You also see this in terms of foreign coverage in the United States where, despite globalization, despite the U.S. role in the world, there are far fewer reporters covering the world for the United States than there were 25 years ago.

"This is a deep crisis and Americans understand that this is not acceptable. So you put those two things together and people say, ‘We’ve got to do something about it.’ And that’s the basis of this movement."

NCMR opening plenary

Some evidence of the "explosion" of the movement is the growth of the NCMR itself. The conference has grown from 1,700 participants at the first NCMR in 2003 to the more than 3,000 who gathered this year to attend the more than 75 workshops, listen to the plenary speeches and performances, and network with other activists.

The very name of the conference proclaims that it is striving "for media reform," but the motivation and goals of the attendees I spoke with were far more complex, and often more radical, than the term "reform" might imply, reflecting the increasing diversity of participants. The dozens of attendees I spoke with seemed to represent three distinct segments within a larger movement. These segments—call them Media Reform, Media Democracy, and Media Justice—have been present since the first NCMR and came together again this year, resulting in varying degrees of tension and frustration that were expressed in many ways throughout the conference.

Media Reform

The media reform strain of the movement tends to focus on the legislative and regulatory structures that shape the way our media system operates. Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver, in his opening remarks, spoke of "the victories we’ve had" since the last conference, affirming for the audience that:

  • We got the United States Senate to overwhelmingly reject the FCC’s latest outrageous attempt to let Big Media get even bigger
  • We stopped the White House and Congress from abolishing net neutrality and turning the Internet into a private fiefdom for the largest cable and phone companies
  • We are pushing Congress to award thousands of new low power FM radio station licenses to cities and towns that sorely need more independent voices
  • We are challenging unfair postal rate hikes that threaten to shut down independent publications that are the lifeblood of our democracy
  • We have created a movement of thousands of people committed to creating the media system we so desperately need
  • For the first time ever, we have presidential candidates debating an open Internet and media consolidation

Another indication of the "inside the Beltway" focus of the conference was seen in the downloadable "Action Flyer" from the conference website:  "Don’t let the energy from this weekend dissipate: Take the conference home to your community. Turn up the heat in Congress and help make this a summer of media reform." Attendees were urged to: "Demand Accountability in the Propaganda Pundits Scandal" to "Write Your Rep to Save the Internet" and to "Record Your Support for Low Power FM" by "send[ing] a message to Washington."

Media Democracy

Reforming means there is some greater value worth saving, that you care enough about it to want to save it, but that you recognize the problematic areas and want to fix them. I don’t feel that way about the publishing industry…" Those words come from blogger Aaminah Hernández, writing in a recent post. She was speaking about publishing, but many people at NCMR 2008 would say the same thing about the idea of "reforming" the media as a whole.

Workshop on hip hop activism

Morgan State University professor Jared Ball told one workshop that, "A lot of folks in [African and Black American] communities have known for a very long time and taken for granted that we are not going to reform media, we are not going to democratize media in a decidedly undemocratic society. We are going to have to be producers of our own media, to create new communities, with whom we’ll create new forms of political struggle that will overthrow power. Then you’ll have new media. It doesn’t work the other way around."

Thinking like this has led many of the conference participants to adopt the do-it-yourself, "be the media" attitude that might be called media democracy. The media democracy segment of the movement was represented in various workshops, such as:

  • Hop Activism: Urban Strategies and Media Coalitions
  • In Our Own Voices: Youth Making Media
  • Where We’ll Take It: Young Leaders on the Future of Media
  • The Fighting Press: Ethnic Media Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
  • News for the People: Can Black Radio Provide the News We Need?

Those workshops featured the voices of people who have long been making their own media at the community level, publishing stories rarely told in the corporatized mass media. However, while this grassroots work was represented at the workshop level and in the hallways, it was not well-represented at the plenary level.

Media Justice

The concept of media justice is summarized on the Media Justice Network website: "Media Justice speaks to the need to go beyond creating greater access to the same old media structure. We are interested in more than access, more than rights, more than taking up space in one more cyber car along the corporate information highway. Media Justice takes into account history, culture, privilege, and power. We seek new relationships with media and a new vision for its control, access, and structure. And we understand that this will require new policies, new systems that treat our airways and our communities as more than markets."

While many in the media reform movement would agree with such sentiments, the term media reform poses a problem for many and it goes beyond quibbling about language.

Just a Language Problem?

The tensions between media justice and media reform have existed since the first NCMR in 2003. While everyone I spoke with agreed that some progress had been made, they also agreed that much remained to be done if we were to have a vibrant and inclusive movement that goes beyond reforming the media to transforming the media.

Remarks in the opening plenary on Friday morning by Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director of the Ruckus Society, gave a hint of the tensions that would be heard and felt throughout the weekend. Speaking as a grassroots community organizer, she addressed the assembled media reformers saying, "We must be respectful of each other. Over here, in the media reform world, we need to have a deep respect for those in the community organizing world. And vice versa. And that means that you can’t just ask us to come to your media policy struggle. You need to come meet us where we’re at and support us on the front lines of our organizing."

I spoke with Malkia Cyril, director of the Oakland-based Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Justice Network, and asked her about the relationship between justice and reform. She explained: "Media justice is about making the kinds of changes, both in the arena of policy and in the arena of building a strong, vibrant media system, that lead to structural changes around racial justice, economic justice, and gender justice. We’re talking about structural changes in the media that lead to real justice in terms of social outcomes. Media reform is a part of that. Media reform is social reforms that lead to media justice. So, what we’re saying explicitly is that the distinction is that media reform is an element of justice. It’s not the end result. Justice is the end result."

I asked both Brown and Cyril if progress was being made toward closing the gap—perceived and actual—between the media reform and media justice strains of the movement. Brown replied, "I absolutely think that’s happening. It could happen faster. I’m very hopeful at this moment for those communities coming together."

Cyril elaborated, saying, "I do believe that over the course of not just this conference, but over the course of the last three years, there has been an increase in collaboration between the media reform segments of our movement and the media justice segments of our movement. We’re not different movements. We’re different political trends within a single movement. We collaborate. The Media Democracy Coalition and the Media Action Grassroots Network are great example of that. Our advisory council is made up of beltway policy advocates and our leadership team and membership is all made up of grassroots regional advocates. So there are places where infrastructure is being built to bring the beltway and reform movement folks into collaboration with grassroots justice folks."

Right-Wing Hysteria

Meanwhile, on what seems like another planet, the right wing saw none of these tensions and stresses. The day after the conference, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, on his show "The O’Reilly Factor," offered his audience a look at "what the lunatic left was up to this past weekend." O’Reilly claimed, "The hatred level at that conference, not just toward Fox News, but everything about America, traditional America, was just off the chart." This, says O’Reilly, tells the world that "obviously they’re unstable people." Still, despite their instability, O’Reilly considers media reformers to be "a threat" that "can do a lot of damage to America."

A hint of the true character of the "fascists" who organized the conference, said O’Reilly, was that, as members of the "radical left," they "don’t want any dissenting voices…. There are no dissenting voices in that conference…because if you do, you feel threatened." To which Fox News analyst Mary Katharine Ham added that the organizers of the NCMR "give these Orwellian speeches about how they want to improve diversity and media. They don’t. They want to shut it down. And they were getting all sorts of cheers about it."

Speaking after the conference, Minneapolis organizer and media activist John Slade commented on these claims, saying, "While O’Reilly is repeating his tired ‘liberal fascist’ idea, claiming that the convention and movement were engaging in some kind of groupthink, the opposite was the case. From Naomi Klein, who warned us against complacency and putting all our hopes on one politician, to Van Jones, who went right up to tax-law land in his support of Obama, there were diverse voices. And that diversity existed with the willing complicity of the host organizations. This is the sign of a healthy movement. Movements are never monolithic; they’re different people with different opinions sharing a common goal."

Many conference participants did talk about barriers to diversity within the movement, although for very different reasons than the ones Ham and O’Reilly were claiming. Rosa Alicia Clemente, co-founder of the REAC Hip Hop Coalition, told the audience in one workshop, "Getting hip hop into the media reform movement has been a struggle." In another workshop, Loris Ann Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media, said almost exactly the same words about ethnic media. One organizer who works with low-income communities said that she had not even told her community about the conference because "they couldn’t afford it." Other missing voices included organized labor, which had no presence at the conference—in fact, the word "labor" could not be found in the program. There was no evidence, either, of the disability rights or the immigrant rights movements.

Still, many of those who attended felt energized and inspired at the end of it all. I stopped people coming out of the closing session on Sunday afternoon to ask them why they came to the conference and whether they had gotten what they came for. Despite a variety of motivations for attending, respondents all said that they did get what they came for, a testament to the variety of workshops, formats, and issues addressed.

Whatever one might call the movement represented at the 2008 National Conference for Media Reform, it is clear that a movement it is. As with any movement, there are growing pains having to do with issues of leadership, strategy, legitimacy, and ownership. Hopefully, the tensions and struggles within the media reform movement will serve as a catalyst for building an ever-more inclusive and representative campaign that has the power to transform our media landscape.


Jeff Nygaard is a Minneapolis freelance journalist/reporter and activist; photos are by him. He publishes an email newsletter called Nygaard Notes (www.nygaardnotes.org).