15 Steps Toward Media Reform

Since media self-reform has proven unsuccessful, the following are essential measures that must be taken by Congress, the President, the FCC, the FTC, the Justice Department anti-trust division, state licensing boards and state and local authorities if the public is to regain access to the full range of real news, reduce media conglomeration and commercial influence on news content, and make available better quality news media for the benefit of citizens' information in a free democracy:

1) Convene a nonpartisan, non-governmental, non-corporate commission of citizens to study the present and desired future status of the country's news media. Its final report must be frank, specific and unsparing of any special corporate interests or the status quo. How this commission will be chosen and administered is a major riddle, since it cannot involve government.

2) The National News Council, which existed from 1973 to 1984, should be revived. Supported by foundations, the Council heard serious complaints about specific cases of national news media performance. While its public recommendations were not mandatory, the Council provided the public with a voice and the news media with an alert to weaknesses and abuses. The Council must also design a means to address abuses in local news media. We suggest for the public's information that the Council's recommendations be announced on the subject broadcast news media or printed in the newspapers and magazines in question. A major PR campaign will be necessary to give the Council enough public respect and influence that the news media will feel voluntarily obliged to comply.

3) The Telecommunications Act of 1996 should be rolled back and replaced with new law that can begin to break up the most egregious conglomerates, reinstate mandatory local community access, and put teeth into the requirement that stations demonstrate their record of public interest programming when they apply for renewal of licenses. License challenge procedures must be made more accessible to civic groups dissatisfied with their local radio and TV broadcast stations. (Networks are not regulated but their local affiliates are.) The AOL & Time Warner merger and others like it should be examined carefully for its effects on quality of news information.

4) Public broadcasting must be financed through a new, nonpolitical system, as is done for the best systems of other democracies. Today, non-commercial broadcasting depends on appropriations by federal and state legislatures that themselves are heavily beholden to corporate interests. A small surtax on all consumer electronic equipment--computers, VCR's, TV sets, radios and the like--would be miniscule at the individual retail level but could provide funding for a full-fledged multi-channel radio and TV non-commercial system, and for a substantial national broadcast news and documentary operation.

5) The Federal Communications Commission has shifted from its original purpose of protecting consumers against unfair industry behavior to an opposite role of protecting media industries from their consumers and promoting their conglomeration. The championing of the 1996 Telecom Act by the FCC was a perfect example of this role reversal. The FCC must be reconstituted to include specified representatives from nonpartisan groups like the Parent Teachers Association and others, as well as Presidential appointees.

6) The Fairness Doctrine and equal time provisions must be restored. The answer to G. Gordon Liddy, Rush Limbaugh and Oliver North is not censorship but restoration of the public's right of timely reply on the stations and at the times those and other shows are broadcast. From the beginning of commercially licensed broadcasting in 1927, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote a reasonable amount of time to discussion of controversial issues of public importance, and to permit reasonable opportunities for opposing views to be heard. The Fairness Doctrine obliged stations to provide reasonable time for response by those attacked in discussions. These provisions were stripped away during the Reagan administration. The equal time provision in essence said that in the 45 days before an election, stations must make time available to opposing candidates on roughly the same time basis, whether for paid time or for public service campaign discussions.

7) Restrictions on time for commercials shown during newscasts were in effect until the Reagan administration dropped them in the mid 1980's. The restrictions on commercials should be restored to reduce some of the news media's incentive to narrow the truth in the news and to cater to corporate interests. However, stockholders will resist, because news shows and news channels such as MSNBC or CNN are highly profitable.

7a) To address the problem in #7, we need a parallel non-commercial public information system, or several of them, financed by consumer subscription sign ups, to compete with commercial news media channels and outlets for consumer attention. This is essentially the same idea as item #4. Other means of financing might include a small surtax on all consumer electronic equipment, as noted in #4.

8) The auctioning of broadcast frequencies to stations implies transfer of the airwaves to private ownership--but the public owns the airwaves. Frequencies should be granted, as in the past, on credible promises made and kept of public service. Let the FCC do what basic public ownership of the airwaves implies--grant stations licenses for a limited time, conditional upon their general performance as good citizens in their communities.

9) Make it routine to notify citizens of local market broadcast license renewals. All stations in a state have their renewal come up in the same year. As the date approaches, existing holders of licenses asking for renewal should be required to show public evidence of what they have done in the past to serve the interests of the public.

10) This country needs inexpensive licensing of low-power, city- and neighborhood-range radio and TV stations. Japan has them and so can the U.S. As it is, local communities have been excluded from the air by national broadcasters. The FCC has recently enacted new regs to allow low-power neighborhood broadcasting up the seven miles. Keep an eye on these developments, however, for the potential of a negative backfire in socially intolerant communities wherein local broadcasting capacity could be used to spread ideas of hate.

11) A majority of local townships are served by only one cable company which obviously means there is no competitive pressure to increase quality of programming and community service or to maintain reasonable cable rates. Community-wide voter approval of monopoly franchise renewal is suggested by Mr. Bagdikian, but voters, especially in rural areas, are not likely to nix their only cable source. Several cities in the midwest have wired their own cable and Internet systems in direct competition with private companies like TCI and Cox, forcing those companies to improve community service and reduce rates. These cities are taking a risk by entering this technical world and could be bypassed by satellite or other developments. As noted in #10, whether municipal control of media works fairly in the interest of all in some socially intolerant communities is a serious question, as well.

12) Paid political advertising should be banned from American broadcasting. In the two months before elections, every station should be required to provide prime time hours for local and national candidates, with fifteen-minute minimums to avoid slick sound bites without content.

13) Teach serious media literacy in public schools, using independently created curricula. Some are already available and others are being developed. The average American child will spend more time in front of a TV set than in front of a teacher. The young are targets for commercial materialism. They need to know how important an influence the media are in their lives and how to analyze the media and its news presentations.

14) Political candidates should take up the cause of media reform and run on it. Write to any running candidates to encourage them to speak up for media reform.

15) More citizens should join and contribute to various media reform groups like the Center for Media Education, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and the Institute for Alternative Journalism. There are other group but these can lead interested citizens to specific action and other action groups.

Media Reform