Cultivating the Media Garden

BY Laura S. Washington

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Bill Moyers delivered a withering critique of Republican attempts to spin the public and cow the media into somnolence.

The tides, they were a-rising in Memphis last month at the Free Press National Conference for Media Reform. A record-busting 3,000 people attended–a sizeable boost from the 2,500 at the 2005 confab in St. Louis. Media organizers packed the ballroom of the Memphis Convention Center to rally in a deafening call for change in the corporate media.

The highlights were many:

“The Rev.” Bill Moyers: The mild-mannered Southern gentleman kicked off the conference with a lilting, yet blistering, denunciation of the evil corporate and public media. He delivered a withering critique of Republican attempts to spin the public and cow the media into somnolence.

On the eve of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Moyers compared the corporate-owned media of today to plantation owners of long ago. “What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable. If we are not diligent, then it will happen to the internet, [creating] a media plantation for the 21st century dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have controlled the media for the last 50 years.”

“Something is wrong with this system. This is the moment freedom begins,” he went on, “the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it’s time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself.”

Moyers chose not a pen, but a megaphone to announce he would be back on PBS in April, with a reprise of his old weekly program “Bill Moyers’ Journal.”

The coo-some twosome: Everywhere Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein–a couple of Washington-bureaucrats-turned-rock-stars–went at the conference, they were met with hosannas and standing ovations.

Last year, the FCC commissioners did some serious damage to an American corporate icon, AT&T–and boosted the cause of “net neutrality.” They set conditions on FCC approval of the merger of AT&T and Bell South, commanding that the new company pledge to treat Web traffic equally.

The Internet is imperiled by the gatekeeper aspirations of cable and telephone companies to control the “tubes” that carry broadband media. If corporations are allowed to control the flow of the Web, they can dismantle its inherently egalitarian infrastructure, and endanger independent media and political organizing in the process.

21st Century free speech: No worry, at least for the moment. Monsieurs Adelstein and Copp played political hardball, extracting a pledge from AT&T that it would observe net neutrality for the next two years. That victory, combined with the Democratic Party sweep, had the crowd pumped.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, added hot sauce to the concoction, calling for the demise of corporate influence in his committee. “I believe we can do it right and will continue to fight to make national telecommunications policy reflect our highest aspirations as a society,” he pledged.

A Senior Moment: The other “Rev,” Jesse L. Jackson Sr., was also in town for the conference and King birthday celebrations. Jackson recalled that the concept of a broad-based racial and economic coalition was birthed on King’s last birthday: Jan. 15, 1968. Three months before his assassination, King convened a meeting at a church basement in Memphis, with African Americans from deep South Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, whites from Appalachia, native Americans, and Jewish allies from New York, Jackson told the crowd.

The rainbow emerged. “We had never really worked together before,” Jackson recalled, adding, they were “choosing coalition over coexistence.”

Jackson’s inclusion was one of many concerted efforts the Free Press made to capture the black struggle under the banner. The media reform movement had been running at a diversity deficit, and had been rightly attacked as a bastion of displaced white male elites in search of a platform.

This year, the dovetailing of black and white voices was impressive. Activist actor Danny Glover, deejay Davey D, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus and Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, to name a few. The end result: A rainbow that would do King proud.

The Whisper Number: Still, a fear of victories undone hovered under the radar. You can be sure that the corporate media doesn’t plan to adopt oblivion as a return address. Media activists have to learn to work with like-minded members of the corporate media to change the landscape. Moyers, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, and Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” are already doing it every day.

It’s a fertile moment. Media consolidation, falling circulation, declining ad revenues and layoffs have put both mainstream media and independent media into a tailspin.

Get to work, media reformers: The flowers can bloom for progressive endeavors. Instead of pissing in the garden, it’s time to cultivate the soil.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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