The Holy Grail

The crusade for media reform will face serious obstacles

Patricia Aufderheide

It is wonderfully invigorating to read Bob McChesney and John Nichols’ prose, which echoes many efforts I have covered and participated in over decades working with media reform advocates and activists.

McChesney and Nichols raise excellent points. Communications and media systems are the nervous system of our economy and our political systems. Moreover, they give us the background to our lived experience. No wonder media strongholds are well-guarded. Yes, we really need greater public support for communications and media systems that are more diverse and competitive than the ones we have today, as well as for vastly expanded public library systems and for public cyber-parks. And today we do lack our rallying calls for change. So far, so familiar.

McChesney and Nichols have an agenda, every point of which has been the focus of various media reform movements in the past. It’s all good, if backward-looking. Cable, Internet and wireless are transforming what we even mean by “media,” so any future agenda would build on those majestic changes wrought by digital developments. But there are plenty of other good ideas out there and being acted on now to update the agenda.

What is unclear to me, although I would love it to be less so, is what swings a mass movement into wanting that agenda or anything like it. The Holy Grail of media reform, at least over the past 40 years, has been mobilizing the general public to want more than they are getting from their media. “More” usually means more of things that are good for them, and maybe even hard for them, not just more lowest-common-denominator junk. One friend of mine calls this the Sunday School approach to media reform—in the sense that it’s always something you want other people to do while you’re watching Six Feet Under.

This is where I think the big challenges are: developing shared visions in our media and our communications systems of what’s possible, what we want, what we and our kids deserve. If I had the answer, I’d just tell you. I am pretty sure I haven’t yet seen shared visions that mobilize taxpayers across their many political and cultural differences. And I’m not even surprised at that. Consider some of the rough patches where media reform has tripped up in the past:

What’s public anyway? It’s easy to complain about The O’Reilly Factor and Rush Limbaugh. It’s hard to develop models for new electronic public spaces—non-commercial spaces where something other than the market (something like ideology) determines the content. Do you want your tax dollars going to fund (fill in the blank for noxious cause here)? Does your brother-in-law? We still need to wrangle that concept of publicness into a form that makes sense for people who really disagree with each other.

Oh great, another cause. In the ’80s, we used to say, “Media is everybody’s second-favorite issue.” All the national constituency groups (and I’ve been around many, many tables where McChesney and Nichols’ list of potential allies were all represented) basically told us, “We’re too busy fighting poverty/racism/police brutality/union-busting/disability discrimination; you fight this issue and let us know.”

Too much stuff. It’s hard to tell people that in a world of 450 digital channels of television, several national elite newspapers, way too many magazines and newsletters, 21-screen cineplexes, on-demand radio, and all of the World Wide Web that they don’t have media choices. The “GE to GM” phrase just doesn’t jibe with most people’s sense of their options. Yes, cable only reaches two-thirds of the population. Yes, people in rural areas have fewer radio stations. Yes, there is a lot of same-old dreck. But the experience of most people is more about David Schenk’s great phrase “data smog” than it is about lack and loss.

Who wants it? We have trouble pointing to any public appetite for more disturbing, thoughtful, challenging public affairs, even among communities of shared values. Look at the anemic state of all “alternative” or left publishing. It may be important to have, but is it the stuff of a mass movement?

Where’s the harm? We have great difficulty showing, or even knowing, what the consequences of communications and media arrangements are. That’s partly because of the limits of social science. There is no way to neatly disentangle media effects from other ones. Look at decades of inconclusive studies on TV violence. It’s also because the real action in media policy is on the bleeding edge of technology, where all the consequences are hypothetical. What are the implications of monopoly control of broadband? The official rejection of open broadband—which would have permitted competition—was made in an environment where perhaps 5 percent of Internet users had it.

Blowback alert. People love to complain about crap on TV. But some of them hate homosexuality in sit-coms, and they’re easily mobilized. We want structural change, not content control.


Building an ideological platform takes time, as conservatives learned, and it can’t be done just by fulminating and denouncing. There are messy issues when you’re dealing with the basic machinery of culture. Taking a page from the conservatives (as well as environmentalists), we could develop think tanks that work through ideological issues and do real research, and that build press relations with key journalists. We could cultivate tomorrow’s opinion-makers today, at high schools, colleges and universities. We can learn from a rich history of media reform.

And in fact, some of that is being done now. Let’s take advantage of the talent, energy and good work already in this field, and let’s not reinvent any wheels. Public demand needs to intersect with the trench warfare for structural regulation—at the agencies and standards bodies, in Congress, in the courts, at public utility and public service commissions. This crucial work will not happen through mass organizing. It requires an enormous amount of technical and legal competence. Don’t forget, the big guys not only have their political lobbyists, they also have their economists, their engineers and their computer geeks.

Inside the Beltway, where I live, there is a stunning group of mini think tanks with deep knowledge about the economics and politics of media. Most of them have a savvy sense of the complexities of communications policy, work with key stakeholders and regularly assemble coalitions for targeted campaigns. At Public Knowledge, Gigi Sohn is developing a network of arts organizations to support progressive intellectual property policies. At the Center for Digital Democracy, Jeffrey Chester is organizing stakeholders in communities across the nation to demand access to digital bandwidth on cable. In many research universities, exciting programs using new media have been launched. Projects are brewing in law schools and universities, including a joint project between my Center for Social Media and the Independent TV Service (itself a media reform victory) to write a policy primer for media artists. These projects connect constituencies with action.

As digital developments smudge the line between media (yesterday, our TVs) and communication (yesterday, our phones), the question of how we build systems for a democratic future is a big one. Deepening the public’s knowledge base about the underpinnings of our communications is good. Mapping the exciting landscape of communications policy projects is important. And the successes and failures of media reform movements so far are worth a much closer look. McChesney and Nichols are walking in a well-worn trench with their rallying call.

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Patricia Aufderheide, a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, was culture editor of In These Times from 1978 to 1986. Now a senior editor of the magazine, her most recent book is Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, co-authored with Peter Jaszi.
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