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Our Media, Not Theirs

Building the U.S. media reform movement

BY Robert McChesney and John Nichols
When citizens begin to entertain the notion that media can be an issue—rather than something that simply happens to us, and to our democracy—they get excited. The fundamental challenge is not convincing people that something should be done about media structures. The challenge is to convince people that something can be done. That simple leap of faith, if it is taken by enough Americans, will provide us with a base that is strong enough to challenge corporate control and radically reshape the media landscape in the United States. So how do we free the political imagination? How do we widen the parameters of the debate to include topics that have been left off the table for generations? How do we make media a national issue?

Countless American activists, from John Brown to Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Mother Jones to Martin Luther King Jr., have proved that it is possible to force an issue into the nation’s political discourse, even an issue that the political and economic elites would prefer to keep off the radar. The environmental movement also shared a damning feature with the cause of media reform: There were no powerful monied interests that would benefit by its success. And as Saul Alinsky said, when faced with organized money, the only recourse is organized people.

To determine whether a media reform movement could generate enough popular support to overcome organized money, we must answer the three key questions that Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson posed for the burgeoning environmental movement back in the ’60s:

Does the issue affect everyone in some fundamental way? Yes. In this age of the Internet, round-the-clock cable and broadcast programming, and advertising campaigns that reach even into schools, the average American is in contact with media for almost 12 hours per day.

Is there an alternative to the status quo, a remedy that can and should be put in place? Yes again. Though the exact contours of a U.S. reform program need to be developed, none of the media issues that ought to concern Americans are unique to this country. And none of the responses to corporate media that have been advanced elsewhere would be difficult to adapt to America.

Do people believe they have the power to implement necessary changes and, if not, can they be made to believe anew in their ability to use democracy to set things right? For now, the honest answer is no. And for good reason. The sheer corruption of U.S. politics has erected a daunting obstacle. It is difficult to be confident about the prospects for reform when regulators and politicians are frequently in the pockets of big-spending corporate communication lobbies, and—surprise, surprise—there is little coverage of media activism or media policy debates in the corporate news media.

Moreover, activists are well aware that over the past generation the political right has zeroed in on the media as a primary target for their political work. According to Sally Covington’s study of leading conservative foundations, they have spent in the vicinity of one-half of their funds to promote pro-corporate, right-wing media and media “deregulation.” In addition to having deep pockets, these big-bankroll conservatives march in ideological harmony with much of the commercial news media, especially on matters of neoliberal economic policy, free trade and military interventions abroad. As the media cheer on a potentially perpetual war that has yet to be declared—let alone explained in a coherent manner—it feels like the situation is only deteriorating.

Demoralized about the prospects for structural changes, progressives channeled their energies toward what they can change and improve: their own media. Yet as important as this work is, there are inherent limits to what can be done with independent media, even with access to the Internet. Too often, the alternative media remain on the margins, seemingly confirming that commercial media conglomerates have become so massive because they “give the people what they want.”

The problem with this disconnect is that it suggests that corporate media have mastered the marketplace on the basis of their wit and wisdom. In fact, our media system is not the legitimate result of free market competition. It is the result of relentless lobbying from big-business interests that have won explicit government policies and subsidies permitting them to scrap public-interest obligations and increase commercialization and conglomeration. It is untenable to accept such massive subsidies for the wealthy, and to content ourselves with the “freedom” to forge alternatives that only occupy the margins.

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How, then, can we force a change in the media systems that dominate the discourse and misinform the debate?

The problem with organizing a media democracy movement is not a lack of activity. Numerous groups work the corridors of power in Washington, struggling to win recognition of public-interest values under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. These groups have won some important battles, particularly on Internet privacy issues. Over the past six months, they have organized a stunning campaign to stop the FCC from scrapping media ownership caps.

Beyond the Beltway, there are strong currents of activism on media issues—from local media watch groups and media literacy education efforts to newspaper unions and microradio broadcasters. But we need to better network our organizations and link our campaigns. With scant resources available, allied groups are often forced to try to outscramble one another in the race for funding. More often than not, we are also forced to defend against new corporate initiatives, rather than to effectively advance positive reforms.

We need to energize and build the movement by sharing resources and strategizing to work pro-actively in ways that cross-support a diverse array of approaches, networks and campaigns. This way we can best build the coalition—a national media reform coalition—necessary to drive the movement.

Making media a political issue in America is going to take an energized coalition to get the issues on the national radar. How can such a coalition be built? First and foremost, by organizing in our communities. Yes, foundations and other nonprofit organizations have to be a source of seed money for initial development of the movement, but the reform coalition must ultimately be broad-based and member-funded like Greenpeace or, dare we say it, the National Rifle Association. “All of the issues we talk about are interlinked,” explains Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. “We are fighting against a lot of the same corporations. The corporations, while they supposedly compete with one another, actually work together very well when it comes to lobbying. We need to link up the activists and start to work together as well as the corporations do for the other side.”

Even if we can draw together all the key media-reform players in Washington and around the country, however, our growing coalition will be little more than a political footnote if we do not quickly reach out beyond the media-reform circle. To fuel a mass movement, we must reach out to and involve organized groups that currently are not very active in media reform but are seriously hampered by the current media system. Absent far too long from media reform activism have been the cause’s natural allies: organized labor, teachers, librarians, civil libertarians, artists, religious denominations and civil rights groups.

To be sure, there has been some movement in this regard. For example, the Newspaper Guild section of the Communication Workers union, which represents print journalists and other newspaper employees across the country, is becoming a serious and savvy player in debates over media monopoly and diversity. The National Organization for Women (NOW), many disability rights groups, as well as a number of gay and lesbian organizations, have developed effective and influential critiques of mainstream media coverage of issues concerning their communities—and, increasingly, of the media structures that maintain stereotypes.

Both the NAACP and Rainbow/PUSH have targeted media as a central focus for their activities—organizing forums, sending leaders to testify before Congress, and raising tough questions about federal policies regarding minority ownership of broadcast outlets. The United Church of Christ has been doing good work for years, and the Unitarians are now supporting some vital media reform initiatives. The American Academy of Pediatrics went so far as to formally resolve that commercial television was a public health hazard for children. These groups have to be brought together to strategize and maximize their effect on the national level.

While it may seem like a no-brainer for groups that have long suffered from media neglect to endorse fundamental reform of the media, there are no guarantees that these groups will simply fall into place as coalition partners. Media corporations do not just lobby Congress; they lobby a lot of the groups that suffer under the current system. Some of those groups have been bought off by contributions from foundations associated with AOL, Verizon and other media monoliths; others—particularly large sections of organized labor—have been convinced that they have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that consistently kicks them in the teeth.

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Media reform needs its equivalent of the Voting Rights Act or the Equal Rights Amendment—simple, basic reforms that everyone can understand, embrace and advocate in union halls, church basements and school assemblies. There is no way around it: Structural media reform is mandatory if we are serious about addressing the crisis of democracy in the United States. We see the following proposals as essential—though certainly not exclusive—starting points for mobilizing a media-reform agenda:

  • Establish a full tier of low-power, non-commercial community radio and television stations across the nation.
  • Apply existing anti-monopoly laws to the media and, where necessary, expand their reach to restrict ownership of radio stations to one or two per owner. Consider similar steps for television stations and moves to break the lock of newspaper chains on entire regions.
  • Establish a formal study and hearings to determine fair media ownership regulations across all sectors.
  • Revamp and supercharge public broadcasting to eliminate commercial pressures, reduce immediate political pressures, and serve communities without significant disposable incomes.
  • Provide for a $200 tax credit that all taxpayers can use to apply their tax dollars to any nonprofit medium, as long as it meets Internal Revenue Service criteria. This tool would allow new low-power radio and television stations, as well as existing community broadcasters, labor union newspapers and other publications to have the resources to provide serious news coverage and cultural programming.
  • Lower mailing costs for nonprofit and significantly non-commercial publications.
  • Eliminate political candidate advertising as a condition of a broadcast license; or require that a station must run, for free, ads of similar length for all candidates on the ballot.
  • Decommercialize local TV news. In return for the grant of access to the airwaves, which makes media companies rich, require that those companies set aside an hour each day of commercial-free time for news programming, with a budget based on a percentage of the station’s revenues. This would free journalists to do the job of informing citizens, and allow stations to compete on the basis of quality news-gathering as opposed to sensationalism.
  • Reduce or eliminate TV advertising to children under 12.
  • Revamp copyright laws to reflect their intended goal: to protect the ability of creative producers to earn a living, and to protect the public’s right to a healthy and viable public domain.
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Many of these ideas are already popular with Americans—when they get a chance to hear about them. Moreover, the enthusiasm tends to cross the political spectrum. The corporate media lobbies work to keep their operations in Washington outside of the public view, because they suspect the same thing we do: When people hear about the corruption of communication policy-making, they’re appalled.

But the new media reform coalition we envision cannot be simply about building toward a great day of reckoning. It must also have the near-term objective of organizing on the pressing policy matters that are currently in play in Washington. As mentioned above, the FCC is considering the elimination of the remaining rules that prevent media consolidation, including bans on owning TV stations and newspapers in the same community and limits on the number of TV stations and cable TV systems a single corporation may own nationwide.

The corporate media lobbying superstars are putting a full-court press on the FCC. The proposed scrapping of these regulations will increase the shareholder value of these firms dramatically, and will undoubtedly lead to a massive wave of mergers and acquisitions. If the lesson of past ownership deregulation—particularly the 1996 downsizing of radio ownership rules—provide any indication of where this change will take us, we can expect decreased funding for journalism and increased commercialism. All of this is taking place beneath the radar of corporate journalism, unreported and unexamined—as the 1996 Telecommunications Act was—in classically corrupt fashion.

We know a thousand frustrations and disappointments lie ahead. But consider where the journey could take us. Consider what the U.S. media landscape would look like if all of the reform agenda we propose were enacted. Corporate dominance over the free flow of information would be curbed, and a truly diverse, creative, multicultural, public-interest media would thrive. Across the country, an amazing variety of well-funded alternative media would emerge, both local and national, many non-commercial and nonprofit. In this new world, the privatized marketplace of ideas would become more of a public commons—a vibrant flowering garden, not the commercialized strip mall we currently endure.

“We go around with all this frustration over media. But most of us think it’s just something that happens to us,” explains Patty Allen, a labor activist who worked 23 years on an Oscar Mayer meatpacking line in Wisconsin and got turned on to media issues by Ralph Nader. “When I first heard Nader say that we own the airwaves and that we have a right to demand something better in return, I remember how liberating it felt. I was saying, ‘Wow, now that I know this, what do I do? Where do I sign up? How can I demand a change?’ I think there’s a lot of people like me all over this country who are ready. But we need a sense that we’re not just wasting our time.”

Such a realization is critical to unleashing the sort of broad grassroots action that will finally make media a genuine and ongoing issue in America. Media need not be the enemy of our desires for democratic renewal in America. Media can be what Jefferson, Madison and especially the most visionary of our founders, Tom Paine, intended: the tool by which citizens ascertain the information they need to be the governors, not the governed.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington D.C. correspondent and the associate editor for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc. His articles have appeared in many newspapers.

Robert W. McChesney is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former editor of Monthly Review. He is the author of many books, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He hosts Media Matters on WILL-AM radio.

McChesney and Nichols have co-authored the books It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press) and, most recently, The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation's media-reform network.

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