Tilting at Media Windmills?

Susan J. Douglas

In April, the news media began a predictable turn to image scandals” in the presidential campaign. And then it got worse. 

ABC’s instantly scandalous April 16 debate” – moderated by Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos (who looked like newsmen, only smaller) – prompted an outpouring of protest and criticism. Public outrage – that it took 50 minutes to get to any issue of substance – became a news story in its own right. 

These people do not think the news media is too liberal.” 

They think it’s too stupid.

The audience has grown more willing than ever to vocally criticize the corporate media and their refusal to serve our interests. Some of the credit for this goes to Bob McChesney and John Nichols, founders of the spirited media reform organization, Free Press, and to Josh Silver, its indefatigable director.

When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or Congress is about to offer yet another regulatory gift basket to conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, or to allow corporate interests to determine what you can and cannot get online, Free Press mobilizes hundreds of thousands and bombards the Feds with protests. In 2007 alone, it helped generate more than 1 million letters to Congress and the FCC – not bad for an upstart organization founded by an academic (McChesney) and a journalist (Nichols) and that includes media critics like me on its board.

Free Press started in 2003 as an effort to focus people’s exasperation over the inanities we saw on our TVs and the radio. (Remember when Clear Channel censored songs like Hit Me With Your Best Shot” after 9/11?) Its goal was to also address the corporate consolidation going on behind the screens. 

Of particular concern to progressives was the domination of talk radio by right-wingers such as Rush Limbaugh, and the lack of ideological diversity in television news and public affairs programming. This was made possible by the deregulation of the media industry under President Reagan, its continuation under President Clinton (through the 1996 Telecommunications Act), and the Bush administration’s near complete give-away. 

But Free Press’ portfolio quickly expanded because the effects – and influence – of media consolidation extended beyond what we saw on TV.

Free Press champions net neutrality – an Internet free of corporate gatekeeping – and started the SavetheIn​ter​net​.com Coalition to ensure affordable Internet access. It also fights to improve funding for NPR and PBS, pushes for community media in the form of low-power FM radio stations and leads the challenge against postal rate hikes for small, independent periodicals.

All this might seem like tilting at windmills. After all, despite Free Press’ and its allies’ pressure on the FCC and Congress, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin still eked out a 3 – 2 vote to undo the long-standing cross-ownership rules that restrict companies from owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market. 

But Free Press now has a staff of 36, works the halls of Congress assiduously, has gotten a host of legislation proposed in subcommittees and successfully blocked the lobbyist-written 2006 Telecommunications Act, thanks to public disgust with the current state of affairs. 

Free Press has something we all cherish and miss: optimism. In June, Free Press will hold its fourth annual conference, and organizers are expecting more than 3,000 people in Minneapolis. If you want to remember what that mix of optimism and outrage feels like, go.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her forthcoming book is In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead..
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