In 2003, an unprecedented 750,000 Americans wrote the Federal Communications Commission, urging them not to relax media ownership rules. Since then, the movement to reshape national media policy has gained momentum, and the media reform organization Free Press (www.freepress.net) has been instrumental every step of the way.
Free Press is building on bipartisan concerns about media concentration by helping to organize a series of hearings that allow citizens to speak directly to FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps. They eventually hope to hold similar hearings in all 50 states.
In These Times spoke with Free Press founder and In These Times contributing editor Robert McChesney about current media reform battles and the challenges of getting the word out about crucial but highly technical communications policy issues.
What are the next steps in the media reform movement?
One of our biggest campaigns is to establish community broadband wireless around the country. This is an extraordinary new technology that allows towns, communities and neighborhoods to set up their own non-commercial, non-profit, public utility wireless system. The big concern we have is that the telecom and cable companies are trying to get laws passed that don’t let city governments set up their own systems and allow these cable, DSL and phone companies to reserve the rights to broadband.
These are the sort of tangible, winnable fights we’re having in every state now. We only lose when we don’t organize and the powerful corporate lobbies get their way behind closed doors.
We’re also fighting to get low-power FM radio stations on the dial across the country. I think we’ll win that fight if enough people organize.
Every progressive organization struggles to get its message out beyond its core group of supporters. How do we get the media reform message out to people in rural areas of this country?
Media reform activists are not going to get much coverage in the news media itself because the media clearly has a vested interest in the way these stories are covered.
The Internet has become a crucial tool for us. One of the lessons of the media ownership fight of 2003 was how we could use the new technologies to really build up a strong mass movement without relying on much conventional news media coverage. I don’t think the Internet by itself is satisfactory, but it has allowed us to do some relatively inexpensive organizing that would have probably been very difficult 10, 15, 20 years ago. We also do hard, on-the-ground organizing on issues that matter in the community. For example, we’ve organized hearings in Texas and South Dakota that were overwhelmingly attended by Latinos and Native Americans who very concerned about local media. Campaigns to get malt liquor advertising out of a working-class neighborhood’s billboard advertising, or advertising out of the schools, are the sorts of things that you can organize in communities that are sympathetic to your cause but largely oblivious to you.
In the media reform movement we’re fortunate because the greatest weaknesses of the corporate media system is that it’s increasingly unprofitable to do local coverage, especially in poor areas and rural areas. So, rural media has really collapsed in the last 20 years of corporate media concentration. There’s an understanding across the political spectrum that there is a problem here. We have to find tangible issues to work around and then work through farmers’ organizations and other agricultural groups. They’re already organized in those areas and we need to draw them into our struggle.
The Internet has vastly changed how people consume media in this country. Are some of the media ownership rules going to be irrelevant in a few years?
That remains to be seen. So far it hasn’t happened, and this claim has been made for 10 years now.
The problem is that if we let companies dominate conventional media, all evidence indicates they will then come to dominate what comes later too. It will give them market leverage on whatever the new technologies bring. So the more competitive and the more egalitarian we make our existing conventional media system, the more likely our technologies will evolve in that manner as well.
For a longer audio version of this interview, visit In These Times’ radio program, Fire on the Prairie.