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.”

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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