Fighting the Media’s Plantation Mentality

Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke

During the first day of the third National Conference for Media Reform, 300 people packed the chairs and lined the walls of the In These Times-moderated panel Building and Sustaining Independent Media. The excitement around the topic was surprising: after all, the panel was going head-to-head with a panel on net neutrality across the hall, an issue at the core of the media reform fight. But attendees’ enthusiasm for a variety of panels on independent media, citizen journalism and Web 2.0 projects demonstrated how the Free Press successfully expanded the definition of an effective media reform movement at this year’s conference.

'A truly powerful media is one that can stop a war, not start one,' said Jane Fonda.

While the first conference in Madison, Wisconsin in 2003 focused more narrowly on policy issues, attendees were eager to see the issues of media quality and corporate control being addressed on a national, activist platform. By the second conference in St. Louis in May 2005, the movement had hit an awkward stage. Local and grassroots activists challenged leading media reform advocates to expand their conceptions of who was going to be part of revolutionizing our media system and how that would happen.

In response, this year’s theme was broadening the movement for media reform.” An expanded program of panels brought new voices to the table, which made for lively and sometimes contentious discussions.

Speaking just days before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, journalism icon Bill Moyers linked the media reform and the civil rights movements, comparing the attitudes of corporate media owners to an entrenched plantation mentality.”

He spoke of conservative domination of the media and warned, We have reached the stage where the poohbahs of punditry have only to proclaim that the world is flat for people to agree without going to the edge of the world and looking over themselves.” However, he noted, the evolution of new media has now allowed ordinary people to wrest the pen from the pundits: A nation of stories – every citizen a Tom Paine.” He urged the audience to fight for net neutrality and keep the emerging broadband system from becoming a media plantation for the 21st century.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. was one of the many voices rallying against the racial inequalities of the current media environment. Jackson criticized the mass media lockout of people of color” – a claim supported by a recent Free Press study about media ownership.

Tension was still high between reformers” and representatives of communities of color, youth and gender equality movements, who support a more radical vision of media justice.” Panels on women’s media and hip-hop activism erupted into complaints about the lack of diversity at the conference.

While many claim that online media has leveled the playing field for participation, others disagree. We have to acknowledge that whatever tools we create are as segregated as the rest of society,” noted Chris Raab of AfroNetizen. The power of citizen journalism is only as powerful as our values.” 

Similar tensions surfaced in the interactions between the beleaguered representatives of traditional print, broadcast and radio media and proponents of new and citizen media. Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media, said journalism is being liberated from the priesthood,” from a top-down and fundamentally controlled media world,” while Jay Rosen of PressThink spoke excitedly about the new role of the the people formerly known as the audience.” New forms of journalism are thriving, and new organizations, such as the Media Bloggers Association, are coalescing to serve them.

Others were not so enthusiastic. At a discussion around public access television, older advocates complained that the focus on new technologies ignored the long struggle required to secure space and training funds for community media. And at the panel on citizen reporting, a journalism professor asked what she was supposed to tell her students about earning a living, only to be advised by Rosen that revenue supports are being separated from journalism itself,” and that journalism students would need to learn to become entrepreneurs. 

The week before the conference, independent media had suffered a blow with the news that the Independent Press Association had suddenly shut its doors. The organization, which provided technical assistance, loans and newsstand distribution to hundreds of small publications around the country, including In These Times, had been suffering upheaval and was unable to sustain operations. As a result of lagging newsstand revenue, several small magazines have recently folded, including Clamor, LiP and others. This added a sense of urgency to discussions about how severely under-resourced independent media is. 

This issue was addressed in the Building and Sustaining Independent Media panel, which included several members of a more recent progressive media support organization, The Media Consortium According to Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks,” which is broadcast on Air America, independent media-makers experimenting with new technologies like satellite radio or online broadcasting should not worry about how they’ll manage, but should just do it.” Several panelists discussed their unique business models and how their work makes a public impact that moves beyond just securing mass audiences and advertising dollars.

Kim Spencer, president of Link TV, described their program Mosaic,” which aggregates news from the Middle East and has garnered a surprising audience. Mainstream reporters are using it as a source for their own reporting. In addition he said, The White House and the State Department monitor it every day.” 

The renewed energy around independent media and the rise of new media technologies may seem to mitigate the threat of media consolidation, but according to Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, corporations are working hard to diminish the freedoms of the online media world. The net neutrality fight was mentioned many times throughout the course of the conference, and the Save the Internet coalition plans to launch a new, aggressive campaign for a Broadband Bill of Rights in February.

Despite their differences, attendees were able to agree on one shared principle: The corporate media is not working and we need to fix it. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps brought the point home with his announcement of an American Media Contract:

We, the American people have given broadcasters free use of the nation’s most valuable spectrum, and we expect something in return. We expect this:

1. a right to media that strengthens our democracy.

2. a right to local stations that are actually local.

3. a right to media that looks and sounds like America.

4. a right to news that isn’t canned and radio playlists that aren’t for sale.

5. a right to programming that isn’t so damned bad so damned often.

Jane Fonda summed up the feelings of many attendees during the final plenary: We need a media that strengthens democracy, not a media that strengthens the government, a media that enriches public discourse, not one that enriches corporations … a media that is so powerful that it can speak for the powerless. … A truly powerful media is one that can stop a war, not start one.”

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Jessica Clark is a former executive editor of In These Times and director of the Future of Public Media Project at American University’s Center for Social Media.
Tracy Van Slyke, a former publisher of In These Times, is project director of The Media Consortium and co-editor of buildthee​cho​.net. Clark and Van Slyke are the co-authors of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press)
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