Building a Movement for Media
by Robert A. Hackett
Project Censored 2001
by Peter Phillips and Project
Seven Stories Press, 2001,
Project Censored has identified critical
flaws in America's corporate media system. Through its strong
domestic market and the export of not just particular media products
but its entire model of organizing the media, that system influences
the flow of news, ideas, and entertainment around the world. Any
citizen, any social movement, concerned with promoting social
equality, justice, and democracy within and between nations will
sooner or later have to confront and challenge an increasingly
globalized corporate media system. Why is that the case?
Essentially, transnational corporations
in the communication and information industries have become key
bulwarks of global capitalism both ideologically and economically.
Since the 1980s, the emerging global media system has vastly enhanced
the communication infrastructure of international commerce, constituted
a crucial site of investment (think of Nasdaq), and through its
news, movies, television programs, and other media formats created
a cultural environment which promotes the politics and values
of consumerism and free market fundamentalism.
Undoubtedly, the global communication
system has enhanced (unevenly) the affluence of a minority of
the world's countries and people. It has also sometimes contributed
to the political liberalization of old-style authoritarian regimes
like those of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, the journalism
offered in such a hyper-commercialized, corporate-dominated system
in many ways contradicts fundamental democratic values and ideals,
such as equal opportunity for informed participation by all citizens
in discussing and deciding matters of public concern. In journalism,
as Project Censored's work highlights, marketing imperatives are
overriding the ethos of public service. Affluent consumers and
business are relatively well-served with a press that reflects
their generally conservative political dispositions. The rest
of us are offered a steady diet of trivia and scandal-"junk
food news." Unprecedented transnational media concentration
creates potentially centralized power over the public agenda.
Increasingly, newsrooms promote or censor stories based not on
their relevance to the public, but rather their ability to help
or hurt the commercial and political interests of the media empires.
Some people argue that new media technology,
particularly the Internet, is the solution to the "democratic
deficit" of the corporate media system. But the Internet,
while an extremely valuable organizing tool for grassroots activists,
is not likely to fundamentally shift the balance of political
power. Quite apart from the inequalities in access to computers
and telecommunication networks, the Net itself is becoming commercialized
and colonized by many of the same corporations which dominate
the conventional media.
While they offer some openings for alternative
and progressive views on particular issues, the dominant transnational
media on the whole are significant obstacles to movements promoting
progressive social change. Any fundamental challenge to the current
distribution of wealth and power within global capitalism is also
a challenge to the dominant media. How can ecologically sustainable
economies be achieved without addressing a media/advertising complex
that cultivates the desire for limitless consumption? Can a level
playing field for diverse political parties be achieved in the
U.S. without bitter opposition from the television networks, who
have a vested interest in hyper-expensive political advertising?
Can ethnic and gender equality be achieved while media representations
and employment practices continue (despite some progress) to stereotype,
marginalize, or underrepresent women and minorities? Can social
programs and workers' rights be sustained in the long run when
the agenda-setting media are closely tied to the corporate elite
and its interests? Can progressive social movements succeed when
they are demonized, trivialized, or ignored by the media on which
they generally depend to reach broader publics? And most crucially,
can democracy itself flourish without a political communication
system which nurtures equality, community, and informed engagement
with public issues?
The pivotal role of the media leads Robert
McChesney to observe, "Regardless of what a progressive group's
first issue of importance is, its second issue should be media
and communication, because so long as the media are in corporate
hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult,
if not impossible, across the board."
Encouragingly, there are growing signs
of organized grassroots activity within many countries to challenge
the "corporatization" of public communication. Such
activism for media democratization takes different forms in different
national contexts, and I do not attempt a global overview here.
In the U.S. and Canada alone, there are
hundreds of local and national projects and groups engaged in
one or more of the following dimensions of media activism, each
of which is typically associated with specific kinds of actors.
These forms include building autonomous or "alternative"
media independent of state and corporate control, which add diversity
to the media system insofar as they give voice to the marginalized,
convey counter-hegemonic information, and/or offer models of organization
and communication more democratic than the dominant commercial
Other major avenues of activism include
the media education movement, which is especially advanced in
Europe, and media analysis and monitoring projects such as Fairness
and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Project Censored in the U.S.,
and NewsWatch in Canada. Also present are campaigns and publicity
strategies to use and enhance openings for progressive voices
within the existing media (media skills training, media relation
strategies to gain access by achieving newsworthiness, etc.).
We see also satirical "culture jamming," which aims
to subvert the intended meanings of commercial and corporate media,
and challenges to ideological hegemony and the logic of the marketplace
from within mainstream media. Culture jamming is represented by
the struggles of journalists and other media workers and public
interest interventions in legal, regulatory, and political arenas
to challenge the processes and substance of state policy towards
media. Efforts to build national and international coalitions
around "the cultural environment," "media and democracy,"
"press and broadcasting freedom," or "the right
to communicate" are ongoing as well. In some countries-as
diverse as New Zealand, India, Brazil, Sweden and Finland-such
commitments are also represented directly in elected legislatures
from emerging progressive political parties.
Behind their diversity, democratic media
activism displays a fairly consistent and enduring commitment
to change media messages, practices, institutions, and contexts
(including state communication policies), in a direction which
enhances democratic values and subjectivity, as well as equal
participation in societal decision-making. A Polish public broadcasting
planner suggests that a key principle of democratic public communication
is the ability of each segment of society "to introduce ideas,
symbols, information, and elements of culture into social circulation"
so as to reach all other segments of society. This is at the heart
of the progressive project of a more equitable distribution of
economic, social, cultural, symbolic, and informational resources.
To be sure, there are important ambiguities
within the concept of media democratization. Debates over censorship,
pornography, and hate speech suggest the sometimes uneasy combination
of commitments to social solidarity, egalitarian social transformation,
and individual freedom from state or corporate power.
Nevertheless, media democracy manifestos
exhibit an impressive degree of convergence around the goals of
expanding the range of voices accessed through the media, building
an egalitarian public sphere, promoting the values and practices
of sustainable democracy, and offsetting or counteracting political
and economic inequalities found elsewhere in the social system.
Indeed, Jakubowicz suggests adopting the
term "communicative democracy" rather than "democratic
communication," in order to underscore that the idea of democracy
itself is premised upon communication between equals.
It is probably premature to describe these
various forms of media activism as a coherent social movement,
but they are laying the groundwork for one. In the rest of this
chapter, I reflect on both the obstacles that such a movement
would face, and the social resources it could draw upon. The chapter
concludes with some suggestions for strategic priorities.
OBSTASTACLES TO A MEDIA DEMOCRATIZATION
Without doubt, a media democracy movement
will face formidable obstacles. Of the relatively few published
case studies from which to draw historical lessons, one of the
best is McChesney's analysis of an early U.S. media reform movement:
the coalition to support public broadcasting and oppose the commercialization
of radio as it emerged as a mass medium in the 1930s.3 Within
a few years, that coalition's goal of reserving significant spectrum
space for public interest, noncommercial broadcasters had been
decisively defeated; conversely, the dominance of the corporate
networks was entrenched through legislation and regulatory practice.
The reformers failed partly due to their own avoidable shortcomings-their
political incompetence, their lack of coordination, and in some
cases, their elitist sympathies which militated against organizing
a popular base. Moreover, the onset of the Depression drastically
shifted national priorities towards more obviously bread-and-butter
Other obstacles confronting the reformers,
however, were more fundamental and long-term-primarily, the ideological,
political, and structural power of their main opponents, the broadcasting
corporations. The American corporate media, McChesney argues,
"have actively and successfully cultivated the ideology that
the status quo is the only rational media structure for a democratic
and freedom-loving society." More broadly, American political
culture since the early twentieth century has virtually precluded
public discussion of the fundamental weaknesses of capitalism,
forcing media reformers to argue defensively that commercial broadcasting
is a special case of market failure. This constraint has been
reinforced by the near-absence of a viable Left, and by the dominant
culture's sanitized images of capitalism.
In the 1930s the structural power of corporate
media was already evident in their dominance over politicians'
access to voters and over the terms of public debate, including
debate about media issues themselves. Today, the weapons of globalized
media conglomerates include their sheer financial resources and
their ability to use cross-promotional synergy, brand-name recognition,
distribution muscle, high entry costs, and economies of scale.
Oligopolistic markets give them the power to marginalize or take
over smaller players. They also have the ability to pre-empt or
co-opt politically troublesome opposition through token concessions.
Canada, Britain, and many other Western
countries succeeded, where the U.S. failed, in establishing a
viable, mass-audience public broadcasting service, one which could
to some extent counterbalance the democratic shortcomings of a
purely corporate, commercial system. Today public broadcasting
around the world faces severe challenges. These include declining
audiences related to channel multiplication, the decline of social
democratic governments in western Europe, governmental pressure
to become more commercial, the resulting identity crisis and dislocation,
right-wing attacks on its perceived left-liberal bias, and broader
critiques that see it as obsolete or irrelevant.
The broader context for public broadcasting's
crisis is the worldwide hegemony of market liberalism, and the
process of media globalization. The flipside of the concentrated
power of global media capital is the social and political indeterminacy
of the groups that would potentially benefit from media democratization.
For the most part, they are diffused, marginalized, and/or difficult
to mobilize. The apathy of media audiences is not surprising during
"normal" times of social and economic stability in the
advanced capitalist societies. There is no widespread popular
clamor for participation in mass communication (on the production
side), nor for more access to a greater range of views (on the
consumption side). If anything, given marketing and cultural pressures
towards social fragmentation, many consumers want fewer voices
and less complexity in their daily media fare, not more. Many
consumers also identify with the branded images, products, programs,
and celebrities that constitute the corporate mediascape.
The culture of consumerism and the sheer
burdens of daily life militate against all movements for social
change, but especially one with goals as seemingly remote from
daily concerns or immediate successes as media democracy. According
to some theorists, accessible and diverse media programming may
be a "merit good" like education, training, or health;
left to themselves, consumers "tend to take less care to
obtain it than is in their own long-term interests.''
The current absence of mass involvement
in media democratization, however, should not be taken as unduly
discouraging. Demands for participatory communication are historically
more frequent in times of revolutionary upheaval when people's
stories, actions, and protests are prominent in public communication.
Michael Traber identifies three such waves of change. The eighteenth-century
middle-class revolutions in France and America established the
democratic rights of the individual vis-a-vis despotic government.
The early "utopian" years of twentieth-century socialist
revolts in Mexico and Russia posited a second generation of human
rights in which the state has, in principle if not practice, a
positive role in promoting citizens' well-being, including their
access to the means of communication. The third wave of communication
rights derives from the postwar Third World anticolonial struggles;
these "solidarity" rights emphasize the duty of states
and social organizations to place common human interests before
national and individual interest.
During more stable periods, however, demands
for expanded public communication rights are typically confined
to advocacy groups, creative cultural producers, alternative journalists,
mainstream media workers, scholars, and others with occupational
or political incentives to seek media access. Indeed, some of
the most articulate and energetic spokespeople for media democracy,
at least in the U.S., have come from their ranks. But the interests
of these groups are not identical, and in many cases they are
marginalized, lacking the power resources strategically to intervene
in a media system dominated by huge companies which integrate
production and distribution.
Moreover, without brand-name products
to sell, media democracy groups in a market economy are perpetually
short of money. Typically, they depend on supporters' donations,
short-term contracts, memberships, government or foundation grants,
or sponsorship by institutions, such as the several trade unions
which help underwrite the British Campaign for Press and Broadcasting
Freedom (CPBF). While the CPBF itself has largely maintained its
democratic autonomy, such funding is elsewhere often tied to specific
projects or institutional agendas. Even foundation grants, a major
funding source for progressive groups in the U.S., have important
limitations. They increase the sense of rivalry between groups
pursuing the same funders, and they are often time-consuming to
pursue: unlike their right-wing counterparts, "liberal"
foundations still tend to fund specific projects rather than long-term
SOCIAL BASES FOR A MOVEMENT
While the obstacles are formidable, there
are also deep and persistent social bases for media democratization.
I do not want to suggest that social movements simply reflect
existing tensions and interests; they have a creative role in
raising new issues and forging new identities. But, extrapolating
from the political economy approach to communications analysis,
it is possible to suggest some of the structural conditions and
social dynamics most favorable to media democracy activism.
The conflicting interests and inequalities
generated within a capitalist social structure have spurred various
forms of social, cultural, and political resistance, most classically
the organized workers' movement and socialist parties. Communicative
democracy can be seen as a product of the ways that subordinate
social classes constitute themselves through their own media and
culture. The struggles of workers and social democratic parties
have been a major backbone in western Europe of both the Left
press, and advocacy for reformist state media policies. The CPBF
in Britain is an exemplar. It was founded in 1979 as an alliance
between journalists, academics, and public sector workers facing
hostile press coverage, and print media unions facing technological
annihilation. CPBF attempted to increase workers' influence over
media employment and coverage, and to influence, with some success,
the communications policy stance of the Trade Union Congress and
the Labour Party during its long stay in opposition. While Britain's
current "New Labour" government clearly has no interest
in challenging the media conglomerates, CPBF continues to be probably
the most impressive progressive advocate of media reform in western
Europe. It also inspired the formation, in 1996, of a fledgling
Canadian counterpart to oppose growing press concentration. It
was spearheaded by several media unions and the country's largest
progressive advocacy coalition, the Council of Canadians. In the
U.S., unions have to date shown little interest in coalitions
for media reform, preferring to put most of their eggs in the
basket of conventional public relations strategies. There are
signs, however, that under pressure from media mega-mergers, layoffs,
and management assaults on editorial integrity, once reticent
American media workers are becoming less reluctant to join unions
and form alliances.
Indeed, while the point has been contested,
some political economists regard the cultural industries as more
fertile sites for worker resistance, compared to other industrial
sectors. Bernard Miege points to the tendency to define divisions,
the inherent "creativity crisis," and the tension between
different technical and social "logics" at work in cultural
industries. One challenge and opportunity for a media democratization
movement is to find the common ground between worker resistance
from within, and the demands for media access and diversity from
Some forms of nationalism generate localized
resistance to the logic of globalized capitalism. The centrality
of language and culture in nationalist politics gives it immediate
relevance to struggles over communication policies and structures.
Anticapitalist Third World nationalism was a driving force behind
the movement for a New World Information and Communication Order
(NWICO) in the 1970s and 1980s. A landmark for this movement was
the UNESCO-commissioned report Many Voices, One World, authored
by a commission headed by Sean MacBride. While a sympathetic
critic described the report as "ambiguous,
contradictory, and deficient" in its efforts to straddle
different positions, its commitment to the right to communicate
and to a "balanced flow" of information between North
and South-arguably the report's most important legacies-implied
the structural reform of the dominant, western-based corporate
media system. Not surprisingly, these ideas were anathema to the
corporate media and their political allies. NWICO's demise as
an intergovernmental movement was ensured by the relentless hostility
of the Reagan and Thatcher governments, the collapse of the Soviet
bloc which had supported aspects of NWICO, the global hegemony
of market liberalism, and the retreat from socialist and anti-imperialist
versions of nationalism by Third World political elites. Those
elites have abandoned NWICO "in favor of negotiating national
and regional relationships with the global media powers."
Nevertheless, the impetus behind NWICO
has not altogether disappeared. Rather, given its appeal to the
"communication imagination" of the Third World, it has
arguably become a "people's movement" with "deep
roots in a historic sociopolitical and cultural process"
of decolonization, participatory development, and democratization.
Since the 1980s, NGOs, social movements, local cultural producers,
and some communication policy experts and institutes have been
the main torchbearers for more equity and autonomy within global
communication, and/or for more participatory communication institutions
and stronger indigenous cultural expression within nations.
Such developmental communication needs
in the South have become the major focus of the ecumenical World
Association for Christian Communication (WACC), which explicitly
promotes media democratization and the right to communicate. Based
in London and financed largely by development agencies and Protestant
churches in the North, the WACC sponsors training programs and
over 100 communication projects in the South, many of which give
voice to marginalized people's criticisms of existing social injustices.
Even in the North Atlantic geopolitical
region, cultural nationalism in countries like France has helped
put some brakes on global trade liberalization. Moreover, even
such liberalization has a "silver lining," according
to a leading Irish communications researcher: as the state deregulates
and commercializes media, the ethic of public service (still strong
in many liberal democracies other than the U.S.) can be used to
lever state funding for democratic alternative and community media.
The opportunity lies in the state's need for legitimacy, and in
the widely perceived centrality of media to society's own image
and sense of identity.
The defense of minority languages is a
related wellspring of demands for media access and diversity.
Economic and media globalization contributes to cultural homogenization,
as a handful of dominant languages are expanding at the cost of
others. Within the next century, 90 percent of the world's languages
may die out. Control over language, crucial to cultural and personal
identity, is a primary means of exerting power over other aspects
of people's lives. Millions of people are denied the right to
use their own language (and may even be legally penalized for
doing so) in state-supported education or public communication.
Forced linguistic assimilation is not peculiar to authoritarian
Third World regimes. Residential schools still haunt the living
memories of aboriginal people in Canada, where dominant media
still arguably contribute to their marginalization and misrepresentation.
A 1998 referendum in California, intended to deny Spanish-speaking
children bilingual education, was one of five international cases
selected by supporters of the People's Communication Charter (PCC)
for the first public hearing on languages and human rights at
the Hague in 1999.
Access and expression through public communication
is the oxygen for such developmental and cultural needs. This
point can be expanded: Media democratization is essential if human
values in private and public life- values like friendship, citizenship,
and the nurturing of children-are to be successfully defended
against the corrosive logic of commercialization. Rejection of
the idea that all aspects of human life can be bought and sold
in the marketplace is developing. We now see resistance to the
erosion of public broadcasting, the commodification of public
information, the targeting by advertisers of children at home
and in schools, and the intrusion of violent television programming
in family life. Perceptions of commercial television's negative
impact on the socialization of children have led parents and educators
to media activism. Librarians have joined alliances to defend
public access to information.
Religious commitments, too often ignored
by the contemporary Left as a potential agent for progressive
social change, have also inspired media activism. In one analysis,
if religion is to survive in a modern world polarized between
the strictly private sphere and the mass media, then it has no
choice but to project itself through public communication and
to challenge the dominance of commercial and political speech.
Does such religious intervention constitute media democratization?
That depends. Patriarchal, monolithic and exclusionary forms of
religious fundamentalism have fuelled efforts to censor and demonize
gay people, for example. But the ecumenical, inclusive and dialogical
vision of the WACC and other progressive religious organizations,
committed to values of human dignity, love, and solidarity, has
inspired critique and action against the materialistic, consumerist,
and narcissistic individualist biases of commercial media.
The communicative needs and practices
of "new" social movements emerging since the 1960s have
been another crucial springboard for challenges to the corporate
media. The anti-Vietnam war protests and "counterculture"
of the 1960s generated an upsurge of oppositional media forms,
notably "underground" or alternative urban newspapers.
To be sure, most of these papers commercialized or disappeared
as the youth counterculture re-integrated into the middle-class
mainstream. According to one of its veteran editors, however,
the alternative press enjoyed a revival during the Reagan-Bush
era of the 1980s, in response to the mainstream media's political
timidity and the emergence of a culturally progressive baby-boomer
Other movements have had more staying
power than the youth counterculture. Most notably, movements for
civil rights-first for blacks, then Latinos, aboriginal peoples,
and other ethnic minorities-have generally sought not the revolutionary
transformation of the social or media system, but rather fairer
and greater representation within it. (The most militant such
groups either politically marginalized themselves or, like the
Black Panthers, were crushed by state repression.) Nevertheless,
the reformist civil rights movement has generated significant
demands for change in the dominant media-against exclusion or
stereotyping of minorities in media content, and for more diversity
in media employment and ownership.
Since the 1970s, movements for gender
equality have engaged in similar kinds of media activism. According
to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD), "Great
strides have been made toward more accurate and inclusive representation"
of gays in the dominant U.S. news and entertainment media. Arguably,
the value to advertisers of the affluent gay male market has given
the latter media leverage not enjoyed by many other minorities,
like African Americans.
Likewise, feminism has unleashed energy
for media transformation. At the national level, some elements
of the feminist movement have long specialized in monitoring and
advocacy work around media representation of women. Canada's MediaWatch
and the Women's Desk at FAIR in New York are two examples. At
the international level, no longer inhibited by the 1980s backlash
against NWICO, women's rights conferences have increasingly placed
the question of media power on their agenda. Women have expressed
specific concerns about their commodification in advertising,
their victimization in media violence, and their degradation in
pornography. Definitions of communication rights, feminists argue,
must take into account women's perspective before they can be
considered genuinely "universal." At the same time,
many feminists argue that their struggle is not simply for their
own power but rather for a more just, sustainable, peoplecentered
(rather than capital-dominated) world order. Because of the social
construction of gender, women may be better placed than men to
understand the need for, and to implement, more empowering and
inclusive patterns of communication.
To be sure, there is no single feminist
approach to media analysis or action; one must speak of feminisms.
Michele Mattelart distinguishes between liberal feminists seeking
equal participation in existing media structures dominated by
patriarchal codes of professionalism and "objectivity,"
and a more radical questioning of the role of media structures
and codes in constructing gender difference and colonizing women's
definitions of themselves.
Other critical social movements have also
emerged in anglo-North America during the 1970s and 1980s-notably
movements for environmental sustainability, for peace and nuclear
disarmament, and against American military intervention in Central
America and elsewhere. One example of media-oriented activism
engendered by these movements was a 1986 campaign by peace groups
and their allies against the ABC network production Amerika, a
film depicting a UN-backed Soviet occupation of the U.S. One legacy
of this campaign was the creation of America's leading progressive
media watchdog group, FAIR.
By and large, however, while the peace
and environmental movements sought to use the media to promote
their primary political objectives, they have generated relatively
few efforts to democratize the media themselves, by comparison
with movements for gender and ethnic equality. Why would this
be the case? One reason may be the relative self-satisfaction
on the part of the environmental movement with its ability to
convey its concerns through the existing media during the 1980s
and early 1990s. Most notably, Greenpeace seemed to have spectacular
success in building itself as the globe's leading environmental
advocacy group precisely through staging media events. Greenpeace
leaders apparently regarded the media, particularly television,
as a politically neutral tool, available for exploitation by those
who understood its technological logic. A second reason for the
relative absence of media challenges by environmental and peace
movements was their focus on challenging state policies, and thus
finding openings in the existing media to mobilize public opinion.
By contrast, movements for gender and ethnic equality are comparatively
more concerned about their cultural status and recognition. For
these latter groups, the media loom more immediately as part of
the landscape they wish to change.
As a hothouse for social movement media
activism, the special case of the province of Quebec, a predominantly
French-speaking enclave in North America, should be noted. It
has a unique context of "cultural resistance to the centrifugal
forces of the great North American melting pot." Rapid political
and social modernization during the 1960s, growing working-class
militancy, and a crystallizing polarization between the political
options of preserving or leaving the Canadian federation in the
1970s all created "some unique examples of social and political
uses of media," covering all kinds of activism. Taken together,
these elements have created "a distinctive media culture
and a situation in which media are considered as part of the normal
terrain of social struggle"-undoubtedly to a greater extent
than elsewhere in North America, where national and class conflicts
have not overlapped, and public media have not been used to forge
and defend collective identities to the same degree.
The most recent emerging "new"
social movement today is international rather than regional or
national in scope. The growing opposition to corporate-driven
trade liberalization-and conversely, the defense of democratic
human rights-is bringing in a new generation of media-savvy activists.
The communication needs of this movement are generating new forms
of alternative international communication, most notably through
the Internet and related new technology. As a partially successful
effort to both influence and bypass the corporate news media,
the Independent Media Center at the "battle of Seattle"
World Trade Organization protests is being replicated elsewhere.
At the same time, the continued indifference or hostility of major
corporate media to the progressive anti-WTO movement could help
increase activists' awareness of the need for structural media
reform, and the need to add the right to communicate to the emerging
global human rights agenda.
There are indications of other new openings
to gain hearings for communicative democracy. As the flipside
of media commercialism and infotainment, public cynicism towards
journalism, as measured in polls, has grown sharply in recent
years, especially in the U.S. Trade unionists, environmentalists,
and left-of-center parties and movements in Canada and the U.S.
are becoming more aware that the rightward shift in the press,
the elimination of social affairs and labor beats, media concentration,
and the displacement of independent, public-interest journalism
by commercially-driven infotainment, all mean that conventional
media relations practices will have decreasing success in gaining
media access for progressives. They will be forced to consider
alternative strategies and coalitions to gain a public voice.
CONCLUSION: HOW TO BUILD A MEDIA DEMOCRATIZATION
I have argued that, notwithstanding formidable
obstacles, there is an urgent need, a reasonably coherent paradigm,
important social bases, and multiple forms of activism prefiguring
a radical project of media democratization. The question remains:
Can these factors really cohere into an effective new social movement?
This question in turn raises others. Could media democratization
be achieved simply as a byproduct of the political and communicative
practices of existing movements? Or is a distinct new movement
indeed necessary? If so, around what strategies, core program,
and collective identities should such a movement mobilize? Should
it be a movement of the Left, or a broader coalition? Should the
Left put communicative democracy atop its own agenda, in hopes
of finding new supporters for progressive social change, or would
such a move further marginalize the Left? To what extent is media
reform connected with and dependent upon broader social and political
Space does not permit adequate exploration
of these questions here. Moreover, neither I nor most of the veteran
media scholars and activists I interviewed could offer more than
provisional and speculative answers. I conclude this essay with
some of them.
Does media democratization require a movement?
Robert White argues that new social movements are not only the
main source of, but also a model for, democratic communication.
Indeed, he virtually equates the two, for two reasons. First,
movements need to practice horizontal, participatory communication
internally, in order to attract loyal members, challenge hegemonic
definitions of reality, enhance the movement's cultural status,
and project its symbols into the public arena. Second, full-scale
communicative democracy involves not only structural media reform,
but also normative change, spreading participatory communication
practices throughout society. For White, movements are the birthplace
of such cultural transformation.
Such a view perhaps romanticizes oppositional
social movements. More importantly, it conflates democratization
through the media (the use of media by groups seeking progressive
change in other social spheres), and democratization of the media.
These two processes are not identical. They do overlap, however.
In engaging in public communication for their primary objectives,
progressive movements add to media diversity; conversely, structural
media reform would create more public space for critical movements.
The latter, however, is unlikely to be
achieved without a popular movement devoted specifically to this
objective. Only sustained popular pressure is likely to persuade
governments to challenge the power and earn the wrath of media
conglomerates. Examples of socially progressive governments retreating
from media reform in the face of virulent hostility from media
capital abound, from Venezuela in 1974 and Mexico in 1977-1980
to Britain's New Labour government in the 1990s. In one case (Peru
in the 1970s), a progressive nationalist military government expropriated
major media outlets and turned them over to peasant and labor
organizations, only to find that the latter were neither prepared
nor very interested in managing the media.
The communicative practices of various
existing social movements are not on their own likely to put media
reform on the political agenda. Industry structure and state policy
institutions have created technologically-mediated public communication
as a distinct sphere of economic and political activity. Coordinated
popular action and the naming of a collective project- media democratization-is
necessary to counter corporate power in this sphere. Such a project
will likely be spearheaded by the groups with the most direct
stake in media issues (independent journalists, communication
researchers, etc.). It will need to draw from the energies and
frustrations of other social movements prepared to devote at least
a small portion of their resources to it. Clearly, the Left as
a whole has a stake in the success of such a movement. It will
have greater cultural and political resonance if it can attract
groups (such as parents, librarians, churches) which are critical
of the corporate media but which do not currently identify with
Is such a coalition possible, without
sacrificing the progressive aspects of media reform? We do not
yet know, but the 1996 founding convention of the Cultural Environment
Movement in St. Louis offered encouraging evidence that it is.
Founded by senior U.S. communications scholar George Gerbner and
endorsed by 150 organizations, the CEM brought researchers, educators,
policy-makers, cultural workers and producers together with religious,
environmental, public health and children's rights groups. The
CEM endorsed both the PCC and a "Viewer's Declaration of
Independence" which called for change to a brutalizing and
homogenized cultural environment dominated by media conglomerates
with "nothing to tell but something to sell." Before
it can fulfill its promise of becoming a genuine mass movement,
the CEM or any similar grouping would need to attract organized
labor, and to satisfy such organizational needs as long-term stable
funding and staffing and representative collective decision-making.
Still, the breadth of its vision and coalition indicates a potential,
though embryonic, movement.
What should the strategic priorities of
such a movement be? A 1998 survey of U.S. media activists found
differences of opinion-for example, between building autonomous
media and influencing or reforming the dominant media; between
"insider" strategies of working with media professionals
and policy elites, and the "outsider" strategy of mobilizing
marginalized groups for an assault on the citadel; and between
the inwardfocused strategy of mending fences within the movement,
and campaigns to spread the message outwards.
Too often, activists disdain strategies
for change which differ from their own. To be sure, one must often
choose between the different forms of media activism; it is not
simply a matter of allocating scarce resources, but also of choosing
between constituencies which cannot simultaneously be attracted
with the same language and tactics. For instance, San Francisco's
Media Alliance, an impressive membership-based coalition which
originated in the 1970s as an effort to reform and reinvigorate
local journalism from within, may have alienated potential media
supporters in the 1990s when it organized a protest against a
local news outlet.
At the same time, media democratization
is too big a project to be accomplished through any single strategy,
and there are potential synergies between different approaches.
For example, "those who focus directly on existing power
structures and those who work to foster alternatives beyond them
expand each other's social wiggle-room. The presence of oppositional
movements can force dominant power structures to bow to opposing
viewpoints, while activists who engage with mainstream media can
push for practices and policies that offer more opportunities
and resources for oppositional cultures to grow and thrive.''
Interviews with various activists suggest
some of the guiding principles for any successful strategy. It
must involve carefully building coalitions, which are broad enough
to be politically effective but not so broad as to contain internal,
potentially paralyzing divisions. Greater coordination or collaboration
are essential, but it is neither possible nor necessary to fit
all progressive media activism into the same tent. A movement
needs a common and compelling focus, such as the right to communicate,
but one which allows different groups to participate in different
ways without sacrificing their autonomy. The Equal Rights Amendment,
which energized the women's movement in the 1970s, has been suggested
as a precedent in this respect.
Ideally, communicative democracy campaigns
need to connect with deeply felt concerns of broad constituencies,
find supporters within political and economic elites (or at least
exploit divisions within them), and make possible links between
local, national, and international action, as well as between
"grassroots" and "tree-tops" (elite, policy-making)
levels. Such campaigns need to use existing resources to reduce
the costs of mobilization, give individuals psychological and
material incentives to participate, and build networks which can
respond quickly on different issues. Where possible, a campaign
should not be simply reactive, but should create agenda-setting
or springboard effects-for example, by participating in the institutional
design and implementation of new technology, such as digital television.
A media democracy movement needs to draw on the strengths rather
than the potential divisiveness of its diversity. It should identify
short-term, winnable objectives, building on the momentum of initial
successes, and develop a "strategic capacity" that builds
from individual initiatives to global organizations.
Several candidates for such coalitions
and campaigns present themselves. These include adding the right
to communicate to the emerging international human rights agenda,
building coalitions to defend media workers' rights and/ or challenge
media concentration, and reinvigorating public broadcasting. (The
recently formed Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting in
the U.S. joins the older Friends of Canadian Broadcasting in the
ranks of leading media reform groups in their respective countries.)
The first step, though, is for progressive movements to place
media democratization higher on their own agendas, as a precondition
of their own political advance.
Robert A. Hackett, professor of communication,
co-directs NewsWatch Canada at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver.
His recent publications include (with Richard Gruneau et al.)
The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada's Press, and
(with Yuezhi Zhao) Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics
of Objectivity. E-Mail: email@example.com
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