Getting Serious About Media Reform
by Robert McChesney and John Nichols
The Nation magazine, January 7 / 14, 2002
None should be surprised by the polls showing that close to
90 percent of Americans are satisfied with the performance of
their selected President, or that close to 80 percent of the citizenry
applaud his Administration's seat-of-the-pants management of an
undeclared war. After all, most Americans get their information
from media that have pledged to give the American people only
the President's side of the story. CNN chief Walter Isaacson distributed
a memo effectively instructing the network's domestic newscasts
to be sugarcoated in order to maintain popular support for the
President and his war. Fox News anchors got into a surreal competition
to see who could wear the largest American flag lapel pin. Dan
Rather, the man who occupies the seat Walter Cronkite once used
to tell Lyndon Johnson the Vietnam War was unwinnable, now says,
"George Bush is the President.... he wants me to line up,
just tell me where."
No, we should not be surprised that a "just tell me where"
press has managed to undermine debate at precisely the time America.
needs it most-but we should be angry. The role that US news media
have played in narrowing and warping the public discourse since
September 11 provides dramatic evidence of the severe limitations
of contemporary American journalism, and this nation's media system,
,when it comes to nurturing a viable democratic and humane society.
It is now time to act upon that anger to forge a broader, bolder
and more politically engaged movement to reform American media.
The base from which such a movement could spring has already
been built. Indeed, the current crisis comes at a critical moment
for media reform politics. Since the middle 1980s, when inept
and disingenuous reporting on US interventions in Central America
provoked tens of thousands of Americans to question the role media
were playing in . manufacturing consent, media activism has had
a small but respectable place on the progressive agenda. The critique
has gone well beyond complaints about shoddy journalism to broad
expressions of concern about hypercommercial, corporate-directed
culture and the corruption of communications policy-making I by
special-interest lobbies and pliable | legislators.
Crucial organizations such as Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
(FAIR), | the Institute for Public Accuracy, the MediaChannel,
Media Alliance and the Media Education Foundation have emerged
over the past two decades. Acting as mainstream media watchdogs
while pointing engaged Americans toward valuable alternative fare,
these groups have raised awareness that any democratic reform
in the United States must include media reform. Although it is
hardly universal even among progressives, there is increasing
recognition that media reform can no longer be dismissed as a
"dependent variable" that will fall into place once
the more important struggles have been won. People are beginning
to understand that unless we make headway with the media, the
more important struggles will never be won.
On the advocacy front, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting
and People for Better TV are pushing to improve public broadcasting
and to tighten regulation of commercial broadcasting. Commercial
Alert organizes campaigns against the commercialization of culture,
from sports and museums to literature and media. The Center for
Digital Democracy and the Media Access Project both work the corridors
of power in Washington to win recognition of public-interest values
under extremely difficult circumstances. These groups have won
some important battles, particularly on Internet privacy issues.
In addition, local media watch groups have surfaced across
the nation. Citizens' organizations do battle to limit billboards
in public places and to combat the rise of advertising in schools-
fighting often successfully to keep Channel One ads, corporate-sponsored
texts and fast-food promotions out of classrooms and cafeterias.
Innovative lawsuits challenging the worst excesses of media monopoly
are being developed by regional groups such as Rocky Mountain
Media Watch and a national consortium of civic organizations,
lawyers and academics that has drawn support from Unitarian Universalist
organizations. Media activists in Honolulu and San Francisco have
joined with unions and community groups to prevent the closure
of daily newspapers that provided a measure of competition and
debate in those cities.
Despite all these achievements, however, the media reform
movement remains at something of a standstill. The sheer corruption
of US politics is itself a daunting obstacle. The Center for Public
Integrity in 2000 issued "Off the Record: What f Media Corporations
Don't Tell You About Their Legislative Agendas"-an alarming
expose of the huge lobbying machines employed by the largest communications
corporations and their trade associations, as well as the considerable
campaign contributions they make. According to the center, the
fifty largest media companies and four of their trade associations
spent $111.3 million between 1996 and mid-2000 to lobby Congress
and the executive branch. Between 1993 and mid-2000, the center
determined media corporations and their employees have given $75
million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office
and to the two major political parties. Regulators and politicians
tend therefore to be in the pockets of big-spending corporate
communications lobbies, and-surprise, surprise-the corporate newsmedia
rarely cover media policy debates. Notwithstanding all the good
work by media activists, the "range" of communications
policy debate in Washington still tends to run all the way from
GE to GM, to borrow a line from FAIR's Jeff Cohen.
At this very moment, for example, the FCC is considering the
elimination of the remaining restrictions on media consolidation,
including bans on cross-ownership by a single firm of TV stations
and newspapers in the same community, and limits on the number
of TV stations and cable TV systems a single corporation may own
nationwide. The corporate media lobbying superstars are putting
a full-court press on the FCC-which, with George W. Bush's imprint
now firmly on its membership, is now even more pro-corporate than
during the Clinton years. The proposed scrapping of these regulations
will increase the shareholder value of numerous media firms dramatically,
and will undoubtedly inspire a massive wave of mergers and acquisitions.
If the lessons of past ownership deregulation particularly the
1996 relaxation of radio ownership rates are any guide, we can
expect even less funding for journalism and more commercialism.
All of this takes place without scrutiny from major media, and
therefore is unknown to all but a handful of Americans.
The immensity of the economic and political barriers to democratic
action has contributed to demoralization about the prospects for
structural media reform and an understandable turn to that which
progressives can hope-to control: their own media. So it has been
that much energy has gone into the struggle over the future of
the Pacifica radio chain, which looks at long last to be heading
toward a viable resolution. The Independent Press Association
has grown dramatically to nurture scores of usually small, struggling
nonprofit periodicals, which are mostly progressive in orientation.
And dozens of local Independent Media Centers have mushroomed
on the Internet over the past two years. These Indy Media Centers
take advantage of new technology to provide dissident and alternative
news stories and commentary; some, by focusing on local issues,
have become a genuine alternative to established media at a level
where that alternative can and does shift the dialogue. We have
seen the positive impact of the IMC movement firsthand- in Seattle,
in Washington, at the 2000 Democratic and Republican national
conventions, at the three lamentable presidential debates later
that year, during the Florida recount and in the aftermath of
September 11 in New York and other cities. It is vital that this
and other alternative media movements grow in scope and professionalism.
Yet, as important as this work is, there are inherent limits
to what can be done with independent media, even with access to
the Internet. Too often, the alternative media remain on the margins,
seeming to confirm that the dominant structures are the natural
domain of the massive media conglomerates that supposedly "give
the people what they want."
The trouble with this disconnect between an engaged and vital
alternative media and a disengaged and stenographic dominant media
is that it suggests a natural order in which corporate media have
mastered the marketplace on the basis of their wit and wisdom.
In fact, our media system is not predominantly the result of free-market
competition. Huge promotional budgets and continual rehashing
of tried and true formulas play their role in drawing viewers,
listeners and readers to dominant print and broadcast media. But
their dominance is still made possible, in large part, by explicit
government policies and subsidies that permit the creation of
large and profitable conglomerates. When the government grants
free monopoly rights to TV spectrum, for example, it is not setting
the terms of competition; it is picking the winner of the competition.
Such policies amount to an annual grant of corporate welfare that
economist Dean Baker values in the tens of billions of dollars.
These- decisions have been made in the public's name, but without
the public's informed consent. We must not accept such massive
subsidies for wealthy corporations, nor should we content ourselves
with the "freedom" to forge an alternative that occupies
the margins. Our task is to return "informed consent"
to media policy-making and to generate a diverse media system
that serves our democratic needs.
In our view, what's needed to begin the job is now crystal
clear-a national media reform coalition that can play quarterback
for them movement. The necessity argument takes two forms.
First, the immense job of organizing media reform requires
that our scarce resources be used efficiently, and that the various
components of a media reform movement cooperate strategically.
The problem is that the whole of the current media reform movement
is significantly less than the sum of its parts. Isolated and
impoverished, groups are forced to defend against new corporate
initiatives rather than advance positive reform proposals. When
they do get around to proposing reforms, activists have occasionally
worked on competing agendas; such schisms dissipate energy, squander
resources and guarantee defeat. More important, they are avoidable.
Organizers of this new coalition could begin by convening a gathering
of all the groups now struggling for reform, as well as the foundations
and nonprofits willing to support their work. "All the issues
we talk about are interlinked. We are fighting against a lot of
the same corporations. The corporations, while they supposedly
compete with one another, actually work together very well when
it comes to lobbying," explains Jeffrey Chester of the Center
for Digital Democracy. "We need to link up the activists
and start to work together as well as the corporations do for
the other side." Will every possible member organization
get on the same media reform page? No. But after years of working
with these groups in various settings, we have no doubt that most
Second, a coherent, focused and well-coordinated movement
will be needed to launch a massive outreach effort to popularize
the issue. That outreach can, and should, be guided by Saul Alinsky's
maxim that the only way to beat organized money is with organized
people. If the media reform movement stays within the Beltway,
we know that we will always lose. Yet, so far, outreach beyond
the core community of media activists has been done on a piecemeal
basis by various reform groups and critics with very limited budgets.
The results have, by and large, been predictably disappointing.
As a result, says Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., "the
case for media reform is not being heard in Washington now. It
is not easy to make the case heard for any reform these days.
That's why we need to do more. I hear people everywhere around
the country complaining about the media, but we have yet to figure
out how to translate those complaints into some kind of activist
agenda that can begin to move Congress. There has to be more pressure
from outside Washington for specific reforms. Members have to
start hearing in their home districts that people want specific
reforms of the media."
That will only happen if a concerted campaign organized around
core democratic values takes the message of media reform to every
college and university, every union hall, every convention and
every church, synagogue and mosque in the land. To build a mass
movement, the new coalition must link up with organized groups
that currently engage in little activity in the way of media reform
but that are seriously hampered by the current media system. Organized
labor, educators, progressive religious groups, journalists, artists,
feminists, environmental organizations and civil rights groups
are obvious candidates.
These groups will not simply fall into place as coalition
partners, however. Media corporations do not just lobby Congress;
they lobby a lot of the groups that suffer under the current system.
Some of those groups have been bought off by contributions from
foundations associated with AOL, Verizon and other communications
conglomerates; others-particularly large sections of organized
labor-have been convinced that they have a vested interest in
maintaining a status quo that consistently kicks them in the teeth.
Building a broad coalition will require a tremendous amount of
education and old-fashioned organizing that will inevitably involve
pressure from the grassroots on major institutions and unions
in order to get the national leadership of those organizations
to engage. Movement-building will require that able organizers
like Chester, Cohen, FAIR's Janine Jackson and Media Alliance
executive director Jeff Perlstein- who have already been engaged
in the struggle-be provided with the resources to travel, organize
All the organizing in the world won't amount to a hill of beans,
however, unless there is something tangible to fight for, and
to win. That's why we need reform proposals that can be advocated,
promoted and discussed. Media reform needs its equivalent of the
Voting Rights Act or the Equal Rights Amendment-simple, basic
reforms that grassroots activists can understand, embrace and
advocate in union halls, church basements and school assemblies.
And there has to be legislation to give the activism a sense of
focus and possibility.
Fortunately, there are several members of Congress who are
already engaged on these issues: Senator Fritz Hollings has emerged
as a thoughtful critic of many of the excesses of media monopolies;
Senator John McCain has questioned the giveaway of public airwaves
to communications conglomerates; Representative John Conyers Jr.,
the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has been
outspoken in criticizing the loss of diversity in media ownership
and the failure of the FCC to battle monopolization and homogenization;
Representative Louise Slaughter has introduced legislation mandating
free airtime for political candidates; Senator Paul Wellstone
has expressed an interest in legislation that would reassert standards
for children's programming and perhaps adopt the approaches of
other countries that regulate advertising directed at young children;
and Jesse Jackson Jr. has expressed a willingness to introduce
legislation aimed at broadening access to diverse media, along
with a wide range of other media reform proposals. If an organize
movement demands it, there are people in Congress with the courage
and the awareness to provide it with a legislative focus.
Ultimately, we believe, the movement's legislative agenda
must include proposals to:
* Apply existing antimonopoly laws to the media and, where
necessary, expand the reach of those laws to restrict ownership
of radio stations to one or two per owner. Legislators should
also consider steps to address monopolization of TV-station ownership
and move to break the lock of newspaper chains on entire regions.
* Initiate a formal, federally funded study and hearings to
identify reasonable media ownership regulations across all sectors.
* Establish a full tier of low-power, noncommercial radio
and television stations across the nation.
* Revamp and invest in public broadcasting to eliminate commercial
pressures, reduce immediate political pressures and serve communities
without significant disposable incomes.
* Allow every taxpayer a $200 tax credit to apply to any nonprofit
medium, as long as it meets IRS criteria.
* Lower mailing costs for nonprofit and significantly noncommercial
* Eliminate political candidate advertising as a condition
of a broadcast license, or require that if a station runs a paid
political ad by a candidate it must run free ads of similar length
from all the other candidates on the ballot immediately afterward.
* Reduce or eliminate TV advertising directed at children
* Decommercialize local TV news with regulations that require
stations to grant journalists an hour daily of commercial-free
news time, and set budget guidelines for those newscasts based
on a percentage of the station's revenues.
We know from experience that many of these ideas are popular
with Americans-when they get a chance to hear about them. Moreover,
the enthusiasm tends to cross the political spectrum. Much of
our optimism regarding a media reform movement is based on our
research that shows how assiduously the corporate media lobbies
work to keep their operations in Washington out of public view.
They suspect the same thing we do: When people hear about the
corruption of communications policy-making, they will be appalled.
When people understand that it is their democratic right to reform
this system, millions of them will be inclined to exercise that
What media policy-making needs is to be bathed in democracy.
The coalition we envision will have its similarities to the civil
rights movement or the women's movement-as it should, since access
to information ought to be seen as a fundamental human right.
It will stand outside political parties and encourage all of them
to take up the mantle of democratic media reform, much as Britain's
impressive Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom has done.
Although its initial funding may well come from large grants,
this reform coalition ultimately must be broad-based and member-funded
like Greenpeace or, dare we say it, the National Rifle Association.
Activists must feel a sense of ownership and attachment to a citizen
lobby if it is to have real impact. We understand that success
will depend, over the long term, upon a rejuvenation of popular
politics and, accordingly, a decrease in corporate political and
economic power. At the same time, we are certain that a movement
that expands the range of legitimate debate will ultimately change
not just the debate but the current system. "I am convinced
that when people start talking about these big issues, these fundamental
issues, when they dart to understand that they have the power
as citizens in a democracy to take on the powers that be and change
how things are done, then change becomes inevitable," says
Jackson. "The challenge, of course, is to get people to recognize
that they have that power."
Even before it gets down to the serious business of reforming
existing media systems, the coalition we propose can lead an organized
resistance to corporate welfare schemes like the proposed FCC
deregulation. And it might even be able to prevent the complete
corporatization of the Internet. The key is to have a network
of informed organizations and individuals who are already up to
speed on media issues and can swing into action on short notice.
Currently that network does not exist. The heroic public-interest
groups that now lead the fight to oppose corporate domination
of FCC policies find themselves without sufficient popular awareness
or support, and therefore without the leverage they need to prevail.
The movement we propose will be all about increasing leverage
over the FCC and Congress in the near term, with an eye toward
structural reform down the road.
But is it really possible that such a coalition can take shape
in the months and years to come and begin to shift the debate?
History tells us that the possibility is real. At times of popular
political resurgence throughout the twentieth century, media activism
surfaced as a significant force. It was most intense in the Progressive
Era, when the rise of the modern capitalist media system was met
with sustained Progressive and radical criticism from the likes
of Upton Sinclair, Eugene Victor Debs and Robert La Follette.
In the 1930s a heterogeneous movement arose to battle commercial
broadcasting, and a feisty consumer movement organized to limit
advertising in our society. In the postwar years, the Congress
of Industrial Organizations attempted to establish a national
FM radio network, one of the first casualties of the war on independent
labor and the left that marked that period. In the 1 960s and
'70s the underground press provided vital underpinning for the
civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements.
In short, we are building on a long tradition. And there is
considerable momentum at present to coalesce. In November some
thirty-five media activists from all over the nation met for a
day in New York to begin coordinating some of their activities
on a range of issues, from local and national policy matters to
creating alternative media. Leading media scholars and educators
are forming a new national progressive media literacy organization,
one that will remain independent of the media conglomerates that
bankroll existing groups. We are excited by speculation that Bill
Moyers, who has done so much to drum up funding for reform initiatives,
will in 2002 use his considerable influence to convince progressive
foundations to make a genuine commitment to this fundamental democratic
The bottom line is clear. Until reformers come together, until
we create a formal campaign to democratize our communications
policy-making and to blast open our media system, we will continue
to see special issues of The Nation like this one lamenting our
situation. We need no more proof than the current moment to tell
us that the time to build a broad coalition for media
reform has arrived.
Robert W. McChesney, who teaches at the University of Illinois
at Urbana, Champaign, is the author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy,
(The New Press), and co-editor of Monthly Review. John Nichols
is The Nation's Washington correspondent and the author of Jews
for Buchanan. Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American
Presidency? (The New Press). Together, they are the authors of
It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories).