On the Verge in Vermont
Media reform movement nears critical mass
by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney
Extra - Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Good evening, I'm Congressman Bernie Sanders and I want to
welcome you to what I believe is the first congressional town
meeting ever organized to address the issue of corporate control
of the media."
Thus began the first of two public town meetings in late April
2002, where U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders (Vt.-Ind.) did what perhaps
no member of Congress has done before-suggested that media can
be a political issue in America. By focusing on corporate control
of the media, the severe problems it creates for self-government
and what can be done about it, the six-term congressmember opened
a new chapter in the struggle for media reform.
And he did not do so alone. The town meetings drew overflow
crowds of 200 in Montpelier on April 27 and 400 the next day in
Burlington. The crowds ran the gamut from students to seniors,
from veteran media activists to the local television station manager
to folks who said they were hearing about some of these issues
for the first time.
Sanders launched each event with a 20-minute introduction
that broke the political silence about the bias that warps American
media and politics. Noting that the 2000 presidential race was
a virtual tie and that both houses of Congress are split almost
evenly along partisan lines, Sanders asked: "Do you think
that if you came from Mars and tuned into American media you would
see this country as a nation that is closely divided politically?
No, of course not. Visitors from Mars would see this country-from
what appears in the media- as an extreme right-wing conservative
Interested, energized citizens
As the congressman's invited guests at these town meetings,
we followed up his remarks by detailing the rabidly pro-corporate
bias in the news media, the ways this bias undermines movements
for economic and social justice, and the closing of lines of information
and insight that are necessary for informed self-governance. We
stressed how corporate media have become part of a corrupt "best-government-money-can-buy"
system, in particular through their dreadful coverage of political
What we found were crowds of citizens who were not merely
interested but energized by the prospect of making media an issue.
When we explained that the current corporate media system is not
the "natural" result of the market, but is the result
of explicit government policies, folks were pulling out notepads
and taking notes. When we argued that these policies have been
made in the public's name but without the public's informed consent,
people in the crowd shouted, "That's right." When Bob
declared that "the sheer corruption of media policy-making
in Washington makes the Enron scandal look like a Sunday school
bingo game by comparison," the crowd in Montpelier broke
into loud applause.
We have been giving speeches on these issues for years now.
And we have always argued that media reform must become a major
political issue in America. But in Vermont, for the first time,
we were struck by the fact that many years of effort by groups
such as FAIR and our many allies in media-reform movements across
the country are beginning to make the prospect a reality.
It wasn't anything we said. It was what the people of Vermont
were saying. At both the Montpelier and Burlington town meetings,
the audience comment periods lasted well over an hour. The questions
and comments ranged from broad, of-the-moment issues-especially
coverage of the 'War on Terrorism" and the 2000 Florida election
debacle-to precise inquiries about the status of microradio initiatives.
Sanders, who conducts regular town meetings on crucial issues
in Vermont, was exultant about the turnout and the energy. "This
far exceeded anyone's expectations," he declared the second
night in Burlington. "I think this shows that the movement
for democratic media reform strikes a chord among the citizenry.
It is going to be a longterm process but, after these last two
days, I really think we can win it." A Sanders aide said
the event in Burlington drew the largest crowd since Gloria Steinem-a
decidedly more prominent and engaging figure than your co-authors-appeared
at one of the congressman's town meetings some years ago.
The blossoming of media activism
The Vermont town meetings are a milestone for the burgeoning
U.S. media reform movement. As recently as the late 1980s, there
was virtually no activity around structurally reforming the media
system, and little sense that change was even remotely possible.
During the 1990s, activists began to recognize the need to do
more than just critique increasingly monopolized and monotonous
media. Local groups formed across the nation to monitor the local
news media, keep commercialism out of schools and banish liquor
billboards from working-class and minority neighborhoods.
In the past several years, media activism has blossomed at
both the local and national levels. Organizations like People
for Better Television and the Cultural Environment Movement were
established to preserve viable nonprofit and noncommercial media.
The Low Power FM movement organized to force the government to
license hundreds of new noncommercial and nonprofit community
radio stations. The Indymedia movement, using the Internet to
launch a "people's journalism," has spread like kudzu
since the Seattle WTO protests in 1999.
Recent political developments have only poured gasoline on
the media reform fire. On the one hand, the press coverage of
the War on Terrorism has been so lacking in credibility and content
that citizens across the U.S. have turned to foreign media for
information, while dismissing their own television, radio and
print media as virtually indistinguishable from that of the authoritarian
regimes George W. Bush so loudly condemns. On the heels of the
appalling coverage of the 2000 presidential election-in which
the news media managed to miss the story that Gore actually won-the
failure of U.S. media to cover terrorism, a war, assaults on basic
civil liberties and the Enron scandal with even a modicum of seriousness
or balance has caused an evergrowing number of Americans to question
the corporate media structures that produce such anti-democratic
The mounting skepticism and the rising awareness of the need
for a grassroots-based, nationally focused media reform movement
comes none too soon. With strong support from broadcast lobbies
and big media companies, the Bush administration is building momentum-at
the Federal Communications Commission and in the court system-to
relax or eliminate the important remaining ownership restrictions
on media conglomerates. If these changes are enacted-with barely
a shred of news media coverage-the United States will witness
a tidal wave of media consolidation. What has happened to radio
since its deregulation in l996 - content-free homogenization in
combination with hypercommercialism-will serve as a model for
all media. In March, concerns about this "deregulation"-which
is really regulation of the rest of us to serve the interests
of the largest media firms- spawned the first-ever public demonstration
outside the FCC headquarters in Washington.
It was a small demonstration, but a big indication that what
the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said about civil rights could
also prove to be true about media reform: "The moral arc
of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
For years the conventional wisdom was that media reform-like
campaign finance reform-was too abstract an issue to get people
off their duffs and into action. Over the years, we have argued
that media reform has always had more potential as an issue. Because
while the corruption of our politics by big money interests ultimately
affects all our lives, people experience media every day, for
hour after hour, to an extent that permeates almost every aspect
of their lives. And people complain about media, loudly and vigorously,
virtually every day. The challenge has always been to turn those
complaints into action.
Needed: specific proposals
As the Vermont town meetings revealed, when people have an
opportunity to address media as a political issue, they respond
with passion and intelligence. Moreover, they quickly recognize
that this is an issue that cuts across the political spectrum.
It is probably safe to say that most of the people who came to
the town meetings in April were progressives, but we know from
our conversations following the meetings that there were plenty
of moderates and conservatives in the crowds. That should come
no surprise. No more than leftists do sincere conservatives
want their children's brains marinated in advertising; they do
not want political campaigns to be centered entirely around expensive,
inaccurate and insulting political advertising, and they do not
want America's democratic discourse reduced to poll-tested soundbites
and arguments about which television anchor is wearing the biggest
In Vermont, we found broad agreement on what a genuine media-reform
movement needs: several explicit proposals to organize around.
People want to get serious about these issues, but they are properly
wary about pouring their energies into projects that lack an endgame
strategy for success. Sanders has already drafted legislation
to freeze postal rates for small-circulation and nonprofit publications,
and is working on several other fronts. Numerous other members
of Congress-including Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.-Minn.), Sen. Fritz
Hollings (D.-S.C.), Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D.-III.) and Rep.
John Conyers (D.-Mich.)-have begun working on media matters. All
signs indicate a range of legislation will emerge in the next
few years. Then the hard work of organizing public support can
commence in earnest.
No one doubts that the organizing will be hard. But the Vermont
town meetings provided a powerful indication that the masses may
be ready for the movement. Indeed, when Sanders recognized the
last questioner late that Sunday night, the man who rose did not
have a question at all. Instead, he turned to the crowd and asked
whether folks wanted to get together a few days later to start
building the movement in Montpelier. As the hands flew up, we
thought to ourselves: As Montpelier goes, so goes the nation.
John Nichols and Robert ~ McChesney are the co-authors of
Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate
Media, to be published this fall by Seven Stories Press.