excerpted from the book
It's the Media, Stupid
by John Nichols and Robert McChesney
Seven Stories Press, 2000
The people of the United States need to make media a part
of the national debate in the land where the founders guaranteed
freedom of the press because they knew democracy required rich
and diverse sources of information and ideas.
James Madison, 1822
"A popular government without popular information, or
the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy,
or perhaps both. "
Today fewer than 10 multinational media conglomerates-Time
Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, Viacom, Sony, Seagram,
AT&T/Liberty Media, Bertelsmann, and GE-dominate most of the
American mass media landscape.
The closer a story gets to examining corporate power the less
reliable our corporate media system is as a source of information
that is useful to the citizens of a democracy. And on issues like
the global capitalist economy, the corporate media are doubly
unreliable, because they rank as perhaps the foremost beneficiaries
of Wall Street-designed trade deals like NAFTA, and of the machinations
of the three multilateral agencies developed to shape the global
economy to serve corporate interests: the World Bank, the IMF
and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Moreover, almost all the
favored mainstream sources for coverage of global economic affairs
are strident advocates for a corporate-driven vision of globalization.
Thus, corporate journalists-even those low enough on the pecking
order to be dispatched to stand in the rain on a Washington street
corner-generally will find arguments against the status quo incomprehensible.
The news required for a functional democracy - the news that
empowers citizens to act in their own interest and for the good
of society-is discarded [by the corporate media] to make way for
the trivial, sensational, and salacious.
"Media is not an issue, but that's because the media
frame the topics of discussion-and, obviously, they're not going
to put that on the list of issues that have to be discussed."
In our American democracy the issue of media barely registers.
The structures of our media, the concentration of its ownership,
the role that it plays in shaping the lives of our children, in
commercializing our culture, and in warping our elections ...
Congressional approval of the  Telecommunications Act,
after only a stilted and disengaged debate, was a historic turning
point in media policy making in the United States, as it permitted
a consolidation of media and communication ownership that had
previously been unthinkable.
The problem with concentrated media is that it accentuates the
two main problems of commercial media, hypercommercialism and
denigration of public service.
We have a media system set up to serve private investors first
and foremost, not public citizens.
Those media that depend upon advertising for the lion's share
of their income-radio, TV, newspapers, magazines-are, in effect,
part of the advertising industry.
Perhaps the strongest indictment of corporate journalism is
that the preponderance of it would be compatible with an authoritarian
political regime. So it is that China has few qualms about letting
most commercial news from the United States inside its borders;
it can see that this low caliber of journalism is hardly a threat
to its rule.
The willingness or capacity of U.S. journalism to challenge elite
assumptions or to question the status quo- never especially great
in the best of times-has shriveled.
Democratic journalism should provide a ruthless accounting
of the powers-that-be and the powers-that-want-to-be, both in
government and politics and in the extremely powerful corporate
sector. Democratic journalism should also provide background information
and a full range of viewpoints on the main social and political
issues of the day.
Presidential elections, which now draw less than half of the
electorate to the polls, have become media entertainments, complete
with graphics and play-by-play reports but bereft of any suggestion
that citizens should - or could - actually play any more of a
role in this extravaganza than they do in the Super Bowl or the
... while the amount of air time allotted the Super Bowl and
the Academy Awards has increased in recent years-as prices paid
for properly placed advertising skyrockets-coverage of the most
fundamental workings of our democracy is getting squeezed.
More concentration of media ownership than ever. Declining
standards of journalism. Hypercommercialized culture and entertainment.
A declining civic life and a collapsing democracy. And no hope
on the Internet. Depressing, no?
By virtually every measure, the corporate media, telecommunication
and computer lobbies, and trade associations are among the most
powerful in the nation. The corporate media not only have piles
of money but also control access to the public, something that
Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk
"Media is not an issue, but that's because the media
frame the topics of discussion-and, obviously, they're not going
to put that on the list of issues that have to be discussed."
Tony Benn, former British Labour Party Cabinet Minister, 1970s
"Broadcasting is too important to the functioning of
a democracy for decisions to be left entirely to the broadcasters."
New Zealand Alliance Party 1999 election platform on the media
" ... a society's broadcasting media, as the most important
of all communications enterprises, should serve the public interest."
Jim Anderton, New Zealand Alliance Party 1999 campaign
"It is ... essential that significant broadcasting organizations
in both radio and television should remain in public ownership.
Since the 1980s, a global commercial media market has developed.
As a result of deregulation of national media markets, new communication
technologies, and heavy pressure from the U.S. government and
the international business community, the face of media has undergone
striking change in virtually every country on the planet...
The global media system is the province of some seventy or
eighty firms that provide the vast majority of the world's media
fare. There are two distinct tiers to this hierarchy. The first
tier is comprised of eight transnational media conglomerates AOL-Time
Warner, Disney, Bertelsmann, News Corporation, Viacom, Sony, AT&T,
and Vivendi Universal that all collect between $10 billion and
$30 billion per year in annual media-related revenues. These firms
tend to be dominant players in numerous media sectors and to do
business all across the world. The remaining sixty or seventy
firms are smaller, tend to concentrate more upon one or two media
sectors, and are more likely to be national or regional powerhouses.
A great chasm separates the first tier media firms and those near
the bottom of the second tier. AOL-Time Warner, for example, will
do some $35 billion in business in 2000; a firm near the bottom
like Spain's domestic giant Sogecable will do around $700 million.
The transnational media giants, as one leading media 1- analyst
notes, "are increasingly setting their sights on global expansion."
The media giants are not interested in pursuing dangerous
stories that cost a lot of time and money to pursue, promise little
financial payoff, and can antagonize governmental authorities
with whom the media barons desperately want to stay on good terms.
Most indicative of this trend has been the manner in which four
of the five largest media firms in the world have fallen over
themselves attempting to please the government of China. Disney's
and News Corp.'s campaign to please the Chinese rulers by watering
down their journalism and operations has been chronicled elsewhere.
Time Warner and Viacom entered the fray in the fall of 1999. What
these episodes make clear is that no viable system of journalism
can be expected from a system under the thumb of massive self-interested
The most visible manifestation of the rise of the global commercial
media has been not its journalism but its broader popular consumer
culture, as its fare is drenched in advertising and commercialism.
Report after report chronicles the rapid and stunning shift in
culture, especially among middle- and upper-class youth, across
the world as the commercial media system subsumes each nation's
television system. Although there is considerable debate over
whether this is a "U.S. invasion" or a broader corporate
invasion, or whether this is good or bad, there is little debate
over one point. This is a generation that is under pressure from
the media it consumes to be brazenly materialistic, selfish, depoliticized
and non-socially minded. To the extent one finds these values
problematic for a democracy, we all should be concerned. The commercial
media system is the ideological linchpin of the globalizing market
economy. Consider the case of the Czech Republic. Only a decade
ago the young generation led the "Velvet Revolution"
against the communist regime under the slogan "Truth and
love must prevail over lies and hatred." Ten years later
even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged that the Czech Republic
had turned into a demoralized morass, where "an unnerving
dash to the free market" had created a society awash with
greed, selfishness, corruption, and scams.
... the type of political culture that accompanies the rise
of the corporate media system worldwide looks to be increasingly
like that found in the United States: in the place of informed
debate or political parties organizing along the full spectrum
of opinion, there will be vacuous journalism and elections, dominated
by public relations, big money, moronic political advertising
and limited debate on tangible issues. It is a world where the
market and commercial values overwhelm notions of democracy and
civic culture, a world where depoliticization runs rampant, and
a world where the wealthy few face fewer and fewer threats of
A number of the parties that have taken the most aggressive
stances regarding media issues-as part of broader programs that
challenge corporate conglomeration and market-driven globalization-refer
to themselves as members of "The Third Left." The name
is intended to suggest an advancement from the narrowly focused
political or economic critiques historically associated with pre-Marxist
and orthodox Marxist movements toward an approach that comfortably
links feminist, green and traditional left values in a new model
of politics. Critical to the message of these red-green groupings
around the world is a determination to present a clear vision
of the more humane, sustainable, and functional society that these
parties would use political power to develop. "We work for
a society in which all people have equal worth and the same right
to a good life,' declares the program of Sweden's Left party,
which has experienced a steady growth in its electoral strength
as opinion polling has identified the party as that country's
third most popular political grouping. "We want to live in
a world where people solve conflicts by peaceful means and live
in harmony with nature. In community and cooperation a living
culture is created which strengthens people's identity and self-esteem
and provides society valuable inspiration and criticism."
In neighboring Finland, a 10-year-old Third-Left party, the
Left Alliance is now a member of the governing coalition, holding
20 parliamentary seats and two cabinet posts. Like the Left Party,
the Left Alliance promotes a radical vision based on core values
of freedom, democracy and socially and ecologically sustainable
development. "In order for real freedom to be realized, society
and its constituent parts must be democratic," its platform
declares. "A democratic society is characterized by the fact
that freedom and civil rights are not based on ownership or social
position, but on the recognition of the human dignity of all people.
In a democratic society all individuals have an equal and continuing
opportunity to develop, study, work and influence irrespective
of their social, linguistic, cultural I or ethnic background.
Real freedom for everyone is only | achieved through the strong
position and political guidance of democratically elected decision-makers
as a | counterweight to the market-oriented economic power.
An awareness of the relationship between ideologically diverse
media and real democracy is a constant among third-left parties,
as well as the green, non-socialist left, and even non-left wing
groupings that have begun to embrace media issues in countries
around the world. "From the point of view of democracy, it
is essential that all political decision-making is preceded by
a genuine and interactive discussion in which all interested parties
and even temporary coalitions are openly and impartially heard.
In addition to political decision-making, essential economic decisions
should also be as public as possible," argues the Finnish
Left Alliance platform. "The openness and public nature of
decision-making can only be guaranteed with the aid of free, pluralistic
and diversified communications. In an open society, communications
must go in all directions, which is why we need the possibility
of interactive communications in addition to the mass media. In
a democratic society the freedom of communication and the diversity
of the media represent in principle a positive direction in development,
because the fragmentation of the media and the public gives people
a wider freedom and choice than before. Advanced information technology
offers increasing possibilities for contacts and interaction between
people and different NGOs. In a world of diversifying media, society
ensures that ownership is not excessively concentrated, and that
diversity and variability as well as the accessibility of the
media and public communication services are supported by taxes
Sweden's Left party has made media reform central to its politics,
emphasizing at every turn that "Prerequisites for democracy
are freedom of speech and press freedom..." and arguing that
"in a living democracy it is necessary to have a broad and
independent choice of media. Everyone should be able to express
their opinions in one form or another. All opinions should be
able to reach the public." The Left party pushes aggressive
and innovative media reforms, including abolition of all advertising
on radio and television and a program of subsidies for print media
designed to guarantee that democracy is enriched by the broad
availability of publications expressing distinct and sometimes
The Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom (CPBF) in Great
Britain, published a political manifesto or platform of its own
in the 1997 British elections
That manifesto opens with this declaration:
"The contours of media in the next millennium- what we
see, hear, and read, how we receive it, who owns and controls
it, and how we pay for it-are not minor issues for political parties.
Indeed, to the extent that changes in our society make us ever
more reliant on the media for information and entertainment, they
are becoming more pervasive and powerful in shaping our responses
to the actual political, social, and cultural changes we are experiencing.
"The CPBF's concern is that debates about media policy,
certainly over the past decade, have been firmly directed and
influenced by a range of media corporations and lobbying groups
whose primary focus has been to ensure policies favorable to their
commercial success and growth. Also, the main political parties
have accepted that media companies should be encouraged to expand
to take advantage of the 'multimedia revolution' and compete with
the global media giants like Time Warner and Walt Disney.
"The voices of ordinary viewers and listeners, those
working in the media, and those concerned about the democratic
and cultural importance of the media have been neglected. It is
time now for our voices and arguments to have wider impact and
The manifesto, one of the most impressive document; yet produced
by the global movement for media reform, had an unexpected impact.
While Labour leaders took tea with Murdoch and other media kingpins,
the British Liberal Democrat party wrote a platform that prominently
featured several proposals developed by the Campaign for Press
and Broadcast Freedom. Traditionally a centrist group that struggled
on the periphery of the process, the Liberal Democrats scored
their best showing in the post-World War II era in the 1997 elections.
That strong performance at the polls was credited, at least in
part, to the willingness of Liberal Democrats to address issues,
such as globalization of the economy, genetic modification of
food and media monopoly, over which the old ~ Labour party would
once have claimed ownership.
In New Zealand and Australia, relatively new political parties
have worked closely with unions and activists to make media an
issue-with dramatic and instructive results. Jim Anderton's Alliance
party, which was formed in 1991 as a coalition of greens, Maori
rights campaigners and refugees from the Labour party, which was
drifting from its socialist moorings, has become a home even for
frustrated former journalists. After a 19-year career in broadcasting
in New Zealand and Australia, which culminated in her appearing
1987 to 1996 as host of a popular national talk show on Radio
Pacific and the Newstalk ZB networks, Pam Corkery stepped away
from the microphone and into the political fight over media. Elected
to the New Zealand parliament on the Alliance slate in 1996, she
became the party's spokesperson on communications, information
technology and arts and culture. Corkery's experience in radio,
television and print media, along with her passionate opposition
to privatization of public broadcasting services marked her as
the parliament's most effective advocate on media issues. She
used her platform to campaign with an energy and a focus that
shook up the debate in that country-even forcing the Labour party
to rethink its movement toward neoliberal positions on privatization
and broadcast policy.
Early on in her parliamentary career, Corkery declared the
fight to assert popular control over the media to be "at
the very least, a human rights issue." Working with Anderton
and other Alliance leaders, Corkery has helped to build a powerful
"inside-outside" movement that has seen the Alliance
raise issues of media monopoly on the floor of the parliament
and on the streets of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch with
unions, Maori and Pacific islander organizations, and grassroots
media activists. In particular, this coalition has dogged Tony
O'Reilly, the former Heinz Soup executive who began building a
media empire in Ireland and has now extended it to South Africa,
New Zealand, and other countries. After purchasing The Auckland
Herald newspaper, O'Reilly began to gobble up recently privatized
radio stations-laying off staff, cutting news operations and threatening
to break a deal to have the privatized stations buy news from
Radio New Zealand. The storm that the Alliance and New Zealand's
media unions raised over the question of whether one man should
control so much of a small nation's media led to hearings, debates,
and investigations. It reopened the whole question of privatization
and, eventually, prompted leaders of the Labour party to indicate
that they would oppose any further media privatizations.
Working closely with unions representing beleaguered Radio
New Zealand workers, the Alliance has defended the public system's
highly-regarded news gathering operations-the Kiwi equivalent
of National Public Radio news in the U.S. When leaders of the
conservative National Party, which lead the governing coalition
at the time, complained about the cost of maintaining Radio New
Zealand's news operations in the spring of 1999, Anderton angrily
replied that costs were a factor only because the government had
sold off huge portions of the Radio New Zealand network to private
interests and had then failed to position the Radio New Zealand
news operations to sell news to the new private stations- effectively
creating a no-win situation for independent news gathering in
the country. Attacking the National Party-appointed board of Radio
New Zealand for its pro-privatization stances, Anderton declared,
"The entire board should be sacked and replaced with professionals
who understand the radio industry, and who don't have a vested
interest in carving it up for their own profit."
Not satisfied merely to defend the public broadcasting sector,
the Alliance has begun to work with media unions, indigenous peoples,
artists, academics and activists to develop proposals to reshape
media in New Zealand. In the fall of 1999, as the party campaigned
in national elections where it would win a strong showing, its
leaders issued a platform which promised an Alliance government
* Set "Kiwi quotas" on free-to-air radio and television,
establishing a minimum of 30 percent local content for television
and 15 percent for music radio. The regulations would include
sub-quotas designed to encourage the development of particular
types of programming, in order to maintain balance and quality,
and to steer production money to New Zealand's indigenous artists.
In announcing the plan, Alliance Party deputy leader Sandra Lee
declared, "It is the responsibility of any government to
ensure that New Zealanders have the opportunities to be creative
and to excel in the arts if they choose. As a nation, we must
then be able to share in our successes. That may mean the right
to watch free-to-air sporting events or the possibility to choose
to watch and listen to quality New Zealand programs."
* Establish a Youth Radio Network, in response to proposals
championed by New Zealand music star Neil Finn and modeled along
the lines of a similar network in Australia. "Radio is one
of the most important influences on young lives," explained
Anderton. "Young people are as entitled as other groups to
have the choice of a dedicated commercial free radio network available
to them. Surveys have revealed a widespread demand for the choice
not only for music but for the chance for young people to hear
their own news, current affairs, comedy, drama and even talk-back."
* Create and fully fund radio and television broadcast networks
and programming designed to serve ethnic minorities, and restore
Radio New Zealand International in order to provide service to
remote islands in the South Pacific where a growing portion of
New Zealand's immigrant population has roots.
* Implement rules designed to eliminate television advertising
during programs viewed by school-age children-a move that would
extend existing protections for younger children. "We protect
pre-schoolers, but primary-age children also deserve protection
from commercial bombardment because they haven't fully developed
skills to be able to distinguish commercials from programs,"
says Anderton. "Children have the right to be fully informed
and entertained without being subjected to intrusive and cynical
manipulation by commercial messages."
The notion that a diverse and independent media is vital to
democracy is not new. But it has too rarely been expressed on
a regular basis in the corridors of political and governmental
power. Once the issue is raised, however, the debate shifts. Suddenly,
questions that seem technical, obscure, complex, or inconsequential
take on a new meaning. No longer are citizens willing to cede
to industry lobbyists and their political pawns control of the
debate over ownership of the means by which a democracy discusses
Ralph Nader 1992 election campaign
"We, the citizens, own the airwaves, yet we don't control
them. The corporations that control them feed us a steady diet
of electronic junk food and it is making our democracy sick, "
... these electronic broadcasting systems are overwhelmingly
used for entertainment, advertising, and redundant news, certainly
not a fair reflection of what a serious society needs to communicate
in a complex age, locally, nationally, and globally."
In the 1960s, Gaylord Nelson was a voice in the political
wilderness, an environmentalist who was often treated by his fellow
U.S. senators as a nag on issues of clean air and clean water,
and who struggled to get serious media attention for what he felt
was the most fundamental of all issues-the sustainability of human
life on the planet. Nelson's successful effort to make the environment
an issue provides a case study in both the frustrations and the
opportunities that attend any struggle to broaden the public discourse.
And it is notable that, today, Nelson points to mounting frustration
with big media-particularly as it relates to the question of media's
role in a democracy-as the sort of issue that could well energize
citizens. When Nelson came to the United States Senate in 1963
as the former governor of a small progressive state, he imagined
that he could quickly force environmental issues onto the national
agenda. The times seemed right. Rachel Carson had published Silent
Spring, there was a mounting awareness of and concern about pollution
of America's air and water, and there were sure signs of a rising
level of civic engagement that could be turned to the task of
saving the earth.
But making an issue-even of something so fundamental as the
environment-proved to be a far more difficult task than Nelson
had expected. His hopes of convincing then-President John Kennedy,
who showed an interest in the subject, to make it a focus of his
administration were dashed by an assassin's bullet. And his attempts
to get Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, to make the environment
a priority were met with little enthusiasm. On the floor of the
Senate, and in his dealings with the federal bureaucracy, Nelson
encountered more than his share of closed doors. "People
would say to me: We've got so many other things to deal with-Vietnam,
civil rights, poverty, all these important issues- why do you
keep going on about clean air, clean water, the population explosion?"
Nelson recalled. "I had to explain to them that a focus on
the environment didn't come at the expense of those issues. But
the environment had to be an issue, there had to be space for
this issue because it simply could not wait any longer. The earth
was in danger, real danger. We couldn't put the issue off any
longer." Nelson persevered. He introduced bills, organized
hearings, spoke in more than 30 states, signed up allies, kept
lists, worked with nascent environmental groups and individual
activists. "I had the idea of trying to get the environment
on the national political agenda. It wasn't there in the 1960s,"
Nelson said. "Nobody campaigned on it. Hell, as recently
as 1968, in the Humphrey-Nixon race, neither candidate made a
single speech on the environment. They didn't think it was an
important enough issue to talk to the public about. It wasn't
seen as a 'vote-getter.' Can you imagine that? Today, no politician
would dare say that. But at the time, that was what we were up
Nelson's tireless activism left him with the impression that
the people were far ahead of the politicians, however, and in
1969-flying home from an anti-war "teach-in" on a California
campus-he hit on the notion that would in a matter of months make
the environment a front-burner issue. With a handful of allies,
he called for a national 'Earth Day" in April of 1970 on
which he said he hoped that rallies and teach-ins would be organized
to educate people about the importance of environmental issues,
and about what they could do to advance them. Run out of Nelson's
Senate office, with little more than a green symbol and a few
enthusiastic college students to power the "movement,"
Earth Day mushroomed into a national phenomenon-drawing more than
20 million people to events across the country, earning blanket
national and international media coverage, and turning the heads
of every politician in the nation, including President Richard
Nixon, who quickly signed a series of sweeping environmental protection
measures. "I wouldn't have gambled on trying to create a
grassroots movement if I didn't think there was support at the
grassroots," says Nelson. "I had been across the country.
I knew that everybody was impacted by some environmental issue.
Every industrial community had an orange cloud. Every community
had a polluted lake, a beach that was closed, a wetland that had
disappeared. All kinds of things were going wrong. Everybody felt
something was going wrong in their local area. And they noticed
that the politicians were doing nothing. This was their first
opportunity to demonstrate their interest and they demonstrated
it in spades. The politicians looked at it and said: What the
hell is this? If nothing else, politicians have to be good at
sensing what the people are concerned about and they did. It worked.
Nelson proved, as have countless other American activists
from John Brown to Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Mother Jones to Martin
Luther King Jr., that it is possible to force an issue into the
nation's political discourse- even an issue that the political
and economic elites would prefer to keep off the radar. The environmental
movement shared a damning feature with movements for media reform:
there were no powerful monied interests that would benefit by
its success. All the money was either agnostic or firmly opposed
to reform. And as Saul Alinsky has pointed out, when faced with
organized money, the only recourse is organized people. To determine
whether the environmental movement could generate enough popular
support to overcome organized money, Nelson said it had to answer
three questions affirmatively. It is therefore appropriate to
ask whether the media reform movement can do likewise.
The first question is: Does the issue at hand-in this case,
the sorry state of media in America-affect everyone in some fundamental
way? By any measure, the answer is yes.
The second question is: Is there an alternative to the status
quo, a remedy, that can and should be put in place? Looking abroad
we can see that the answer again is yes, though the exact contours
of a U.S. reform program need to be developed.
The third question is: Do people believe they have the power
to implement necessary changes and, if not, can they be made to
believe anew in their ability to use democracy to set things right?
Here the answer is "no," at present, and it is our job
to change the answer to a "yes." We do that by building
a movement on many levels and, in the course of doing so, developing
a clear platform of specific media reform proposals.
To build a media reform movement will not require starting
from scratch, but it will require a bold vision for structural
change. There has been, for example, an "inside-the-beltway"
coterie of public interest media lobbyists for decades. In the
current environment of profit 'uber alles', their influence is
too limited, they get almost no press coverage. Therefore, they
have a difficult time building popular support and are too frequently
limited to outcomes that do not threaten corporate control. Yet,
they do important and necessary work. In 1995, for example, the
Center for Media Education organized more than 80 groups representing
parents, consumers, school board members, educators, religious
communities, health professionals, and children's rights advocates
to call on the Federal Communications Commission to strengthen
federal guidelines for children's and educational programming
on commercial television stations. The groups ranged from the
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to the Consumer
Federation of America, the National Education Association, the
National School Boards Association, the National Association of
Elementary School Principals, the National PTA, the Institute
for Mental Health Initiatives, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the
United Church of Christ, and even the Indiana Extension Homemakers
Association. They delivered a simple message: Government can and
should regulate media in order to combat "trends that imperil
our nation's health, security, and future." The limits of
this type of organizing became clear when the FCC's eventual mandate
for "educational" children's programming permitted it
to be advertising-supported, hence making for a dubious victory,
if it was a victory at all. Without a movement, this is pretty
much what media reform has been reduced to.
A striking example both of what grassroots organizing can
contribute to media organizing, and also of the powerful barriers
that are thrown up against such activism, can be found in the
case of microradio broadcasting. Profound technological advances
have made it possible for non-commercial community groups to use
unoccupied parts of the FM radio spectrum to start up new radio
stations that broadcast at 100 watts or less. Hundreds of unlicensed
microbroadcasters emerged in the late l990s, providing vitality
and diverse local fare in contrast to the commercial homogeneity
of the corporate radio system. After years of relentless organizing
by a national movement, the FCC finally recognized the importance
of microradio in early 2000 and proposed regulations to legalize
it as a non-commercial activity available to community groups.
Although movement activists take issue with many of the fine points
of the FCC's new plan, approximately 700 new community stations
will result if the FCC's proposal is fully implemented. Despite
popular support, the new plan is under intense attack by commercial
broadcasters-led by the National Association of Broadcasters-who
oppose any new competition for listeners. At their bidding, a
bill was drafted to crush the new microradio licensing plan and
limit the number of new stations to a token amount: 70. At the
time of this writing, the bill has passed in the House and is
waiting for vote in the Senate, all with virtually no press coverage
A good deal of citizen outrage at media assumes the form of
boycotts and protests that intend to shame the media giants into
reforming their ways. Boycotts and protests in recent years have
concerned the high levels of infantile sexual content and violence
in primetime TV, demeaning portrayals of women, ethnic groups
and gays and lesbians, or simply the lack of cultural diversity
in entertainment programming. Likewise there has emerged, a strong
movement for media literacy, which attempts to educate schoolchildren
and adults about how the commercial media system operates so they
may be more informed consumers. With regard to journalism, there
is a "civic journalism" movement, which attempts to
have journalists reform their practices to produce fare that,
in theory, will provide information citizens will need to make
political decisions. Most of these movements are based upon real
problems, but they all shy away from structural criticism that
challenges the rule of corporate and commercial interests over
the media. They are therefore limited in what they can accomplish.
As with the "inside-the-beltway" lobbying groups mentioned
above, these efforts need to be supercharged by a popular media
reform movement that puts the media giants and their commercial
logic on the hot seat.
... There is no way around it: Structural media reform is
mandatory if we are serious about addressing the crisis of democracy
in the United States. We are not alone in this conviction. During
the l990s, a grassroots media reform movement went from virtual
nonexistence to becoming a notable force on the margins of the
political landscape. This burgeoning media reform movement takes
place on several complementary levels, all of which need to be
cultivated. For example, grassroots groups have been formed in
numerous communities around the nation to work on media issues.
Sometimes, as in Baltimore and Chicago, these groups organize
to get billboards generally promoting alcoholic beverages removed
from working-class, usually minority residential neighborhoods.
At other times they work to monitor the content of the local commercial
media and to support the efforts to establish nonprofit community
media and/or microradio stations. The most impressive operation
may be Denver's Rocky Mountain Media Watch, which does expert
analysis of local media and gives people the tools to become media
activists. Likewise, local activists organize to see that cable
companies fulfill their obligations for public access channels
to the hilt, and many activists have been active in producing
Local media activism is the foundation of the media reform
movement, and there is much that can be done at the local level.
As the Christian Coalition recognized a decade ago, an effective
national political movement has as much to do with school board
races as contests for presidential nominations. This is even more
true when the issue is media reform, since local government has
the ability to make some fundamental decisions about the media
that we and our children consume.
Imagine the impact of a thousand school board candidacies
in which a commitment to implement a critical media literacy curriculum
was a part of the agenda. Imagine the impact of a thousand city
council candidacies in which a commitment of full municipal funding
for quality community access programming on cable was a feature
of the platform. Imagine a thousand local media activist groups,
meeting in neighborhoods and small towns, in church basements
and union halls, adopting and adapting models for organizing already
developed by Fairness ~ Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Imagine
ten thousand letter writers penning regular challenges to local
media that fail to cover the broad diversity of issues in their
communities. And imagine if these local letter writers were linked-through
the Internet, phone trees, and direct mail-so that they could
marshal their energy to exercise grassroots pressure on the broadcast
networks and the Congress. This is the sort of daily, "in-your-life"
activism that many Americans are already involved in, and that
many, many more are ready to embrace.
Absent for far too long and to far too great an extent from
media reform activism have been the cause's natural allies, organizations
that should be sympathetic to media reform and that have been
active in other nations... groups representing organized labor,
teachers, librarians, civil libertarians, artists, religious affiliations,
and civil rights. There has been some movement in this regard.
For example, the National Organization for Women, many disability
rights groups, as well as a number of gay and lesbian organizations,
have developed effective and influential critiques of mainstream
media coverage of issues concerning their communities - and, increasingly,
of the media structures that maintain stereotypes. Both the NAACP
and the Rainbow/PUSH Action Network have targeted media as a central
focus for their activities - organizing forums, sending leaders
to testify before Congress and raising tough questions about federal
policies regarding minority ownership of broadcast outlets. The
United Church of Christ has been doing good work for years. Likewise,
media workers' unions have been warming up to media reform as
their members have seen the disastrous implications for their
work that result from concentrated corporate control and hypercommercialism.
Other professional groups are entering the fray. The American
Academy of Pediatrics went so far as to formally resolve in 1999
that commercial television was a public health hazard for children.
But these efforts need to be expanded exponentially and these
groups have to be brought together to strategize and maximize
their effect. Solo ventures, however well organized and well intended,
cannot begin to address the issues raised by media conglomeration
Considering the scope of the issues at stake, some might even
suggest that a united front would be insufficient to take on the
media conglomerates, their lobbyists and the politicians they
have bought. But we believe such a united front could accomplish
a great deal.
Even in these days of right-wing Congressional hegemony, it
is important to be mindful of the fact that progressive religious
denominations, consumer groups, student organizations, civil rights
and women's rights organizations, critics of the drug war and
the prison-industrial complex, the labor movement, and farm groups
provide a powerful grassroots base from which to pressure for
change. If there is a single lesson that came out of "the
Battle in Seattle," where progressive forces coalesced to
take on the forces of corporate capital embodied by the World
Trade Organization, it is that the old slogan, "the people
united will never be defeated" has more validity even than
many on the left have believed.
It is clear that an energized core of progressive reformers-linked
through the Internet, phone trees, and direct mail-can have a
powerful influence during debates over media regulation issues
that regularly come before the FCC or Congress. Had some coherent
organization been in place just five years ago, it might well
have derailed the atrocious 1996 Telecommunications Act-just as
energized coalitions of labor, farm, and environmental groups
halted "fast-track" trade expansion and the Multilateral
Agreement on Investment. The Telecommunications Act slid through
Congress largely because the groups that have been effected by
that law were for the most part unaware of the Congressional deliberations
in the months and years leading up to its passage.
In a similar fashion, media reformers need to work hand-in-hand
with closely related campaigns to challenge corporate influence,
particularly efforts to make schools advertising and commercial-free
zones and movements to address the political campaign spending
crisis that is destroying the integrity of electoral democracy
in the United States. Both of these issues are first cousins to
media reform. The commercialization of schools is being pushed
by the same forces that benefit from the corporate media system,
while the corporate media-primary recipients of campaign spending
in the form of TV political ads-are the leading lobby that opposes
any and all campaign finance reform.
In reaching out to new groups and, ultimately, to the general
public, media reformers will discover something exhilarating:
This is an issue that cuts across the political spectrum. So-called
conservatives share progressives' dismay at the morally bankrupt
commercial carpet-bombing of children and, indeed, all of us.
So-called conservatives do not like trash journalism and despise
TV political ads. Polling has suggested that there is virtually
no difference in the attitudes of progressives and conservatives
regarding these issues. Many business people are appalled at the
corruption and unfairness of a system that lets corporate media
giants get favorable regulations and subsidies behind closed doors
in Washington. It is striking that the legion of conservative
media critics-you know, the ones that have been complaining about
the "liberal" media for the past 30 years- have pretty
much backed away from that theme in recent years. The right wing
dominance of the talking head jobs in our media along with the
corporate commercial clobbering of journalism have made that argument
nonsensical, except to the Limbaughs and Ollie Norths of the world,
who incongruously equate Wall Street's favorite son Bill Clinton
with Eugene Debs and Che Guevara. Instead the right-wing media
critics now play a tune similar to that of childrens' rights activists,
emphasizing the asinine excesses of commercially driven culture.
But conservative critics, in the end, are handcuffed by their
allegiance to the maintenance of corporate and commercial rule,
so they are incapable of providing real explanations for, and
real solutions to, the problems they describe.
So it will be a progressive media reform movement that realizes
the endless potential of an issue that can engage and energize
Ultimately, however, viable media reform cannot succeed as
a "single issue" cause, no matter how many organizations
coalesce to support it. The issue is too abstract, our society
is too depoliticized, and the forces arrayed against it are too
powerful. What is necessary, in the end, is for media reform to
be advanced as part of a progressive platform for democratic reform
across society. The foundation of a broader progressive platform
will be the demand for social justice and an attack upon social
inequality and the moral stench of a society operated purely along
commercial lines. In the United States today, the richest one
percent of the population has as much money to spend as the poorest
100 million Americans, double the ratio for just 20 years earlier.
The political system reinforces this inequality by being, as is
now roundly acknowledged, a plaything for big business where the
interests of the balance of society have been pushed to the margins
if not forgotten. The corporate media system reinforces this inequality
and rule of the market and limits the possibility of democratic
reform. In sum, media reform is inexorably intertwined with broader
democratic reform; they rise and fall together.
Hence we return to the point that emerged forcefully in the
analysis of media reform around the world: the importance of political
parties to provide necessary leadership and to force the issue
into the political arena. In the United States, both the Republican
and Democratic Parties, with only a few prominent exceptions,
have been and are in the pay of the corporate media and communication
giants. It is unlikely that any breakthroughs can be expected
there until much spadework is done. The logical place to begin
that spadework ought to be the small parties and factions of the
left in America, the New Party, the Greens, the Labor Party, Democratic
Socialists of America, Americans for Democratic Action, and U.S.
Action. In our view, all of these groups need to incorporate media
reform issues into their forms and their visions. Ideally, these
organizations, which have remarkably similar stances on a host
of issues, might adopt a shared vision-perhaps as a step toward
building the sort of labor, left, green, feminist, people of color
coalitions seen in New Zealand's Alliance Party, Iceland's Alliance,
and other Third Left groupings. In Wisconsin, already, the Greens
and New Party activists are working together on joint projects.
In Washington, D.C., the Greens have merged with the D.C. Statehood
Sadly, however, these new left parties have dropped the ball
concerning media so far, with only one or two exceptions. As U.S.
Rep. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is the only socialist
member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and who has made
media reform a central issue for over a decade has noted: "this
is an issue that is absolutely vital to democracy, and that only
the left can address. The New Party, the Green Party, the Labor
Party, progressive Democrats should be all over this issue. But,
for most of the left, it's not even on the agenda." This
has to change, and change soon, both for the sake of media reform
and for the sake of these parties and progressive politics in
the United States. It is difficult for us to imagine a better
place to build trust and cooperation across these left groupings
than with a shared response to media, which has been so devastatingly
dismissive of third-party initiatives, save those of billionaire
hot dogs Ross Perot and Donald Trump.
Who would contribute to the shaping of a progressive media
reform platform. Ideally, it would be shaped as similar platforms
in Sweden, Finland, Canada, and other lands have been. Local and
national groups working on media reform would participate. There
would also be significant input from media unions, such as the
Newspaper Guild, the National Writers Union, and the American
Federation of Television and Radio Artists. We believe these groups
could get the ball rolling by coming together in support of a
set of basic principles not unlike those advanced by Britain's
Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom.
There is every reason to believe that these groups could ultimately
agree on an agenda that calls for basic reforms, such as:
* Expansion of funding for traditional public-service broadcasting
with an eye toward making it fully non-commercial and democratically
accountable. In particular, substantial new funding should be
provided for the development of news and public affairs programming
that will fill the gap created by the collapse of serious newsgathering
by the networks and their local affiliates.
* Development of non-commercial, community-run, public-access
television and radio systems that are distinct from public-service
broadcasting and that are deeply rooted in local communities.
As part of this initiative, the federal government should remove
barriers to the development of microradio initiatives. Seed money,
similar to that provided by government and foundations for economic
development in low-income and minority communities, should be
targeted toward groups seeking to develop microradio.
* Setting far stricter standards for commercial broadcasters
in exchange for granting them broadcast licenses. For example,
why not ban or strictly limit advertising on childrens' programs
and on news broadcasts ? Why not take a percentage of the broadcasters'
revenues and set it aside for creative people and journalists
to control time set aside for children's shows and newscasts?
Why not make a condition of receiving a broadcast license that
the broadcaster will not carry any paid political advertising
during electoral campaigns? And that they will provide free time
to all, liberally defined, viable candidates ?
* Creation of a broad initiative to limit advertising in general,
using regulation and taxation to prevent commercial saturation.
* Reassertion of anti-trust protections in order to limit
the amount of media that can be owned by one firm. Why not, for
example, limit radio stations to one per owner? The benefits of
concentrated ownership accrue entirely to owners, not to the public.
Make it government policy to encourage diversity of ownership
and diversity of editorial opinions, as was intended by the First
Amendment. There should, as well, be a reassertion of traditional
restrictions on cross-ownership of media within particular communities
* Renewing the commitment of the United States government
to develop incentives aimed at encouraging and protecting minority
ownership of broadcast and cable outlets.
* Promotion of newspaper and magazine competition through
the use of tax deductions or subsidies. One approach might allow
taxpayers to deduct the cost of a limited number of newspaper
and magazine subscriptions-as some professionals and academics
now do. Such an initiative would boost the circulations of publications
from across the ideological spectrum, but would be particularly
helpful to publications that target low-income, working-class,
and elderly citizens, as well as students. Significantly lowered
postal fees for nonprofit publications that have minimal advertising
might also be appropriate.
* Strengthen the position of media unions by encouraging the
development of a stronger role for workers in determining the
editorial content of news publications and broadcast news. As
in European countries, union protections in the U.S. should be
strengthened in order to assure that working journalists are free
to perform their duties with an eye toward serving the public
* Develop a new national program of subsidies for film and
cultural production, particularly by members of ethnic and racial
minority groups, women, low-income citizens, and others who frequently
have a hard time finding market support for their artistic expressions.
* Use tax breaks and subsidies to promote creation of publishing
and production cooperatives and other arts and culture vehicles
designed to provide non-commercial outlets for writers and artists
to bring meaningful, controversial, and substantive work to mass
audiences. One proposal put forth by economist Dean Baker would
let any American redirect $150 from their tax payments to any
nonprofit medium of their choice. This could funnel as much as
$25 billion into nonprofit media and create a very healthy competition
among new and revitalized outlets for democratic and cultural
expression. All this could be done without any government official
gumming up the works.
In combination, these proposals would go a long way toward
creating a strong democratic sector on the rapidly commercializing
Internet, as every medium today has a web component almost by
definition. By the same token, media reformers must demand that
there be formal hearings and public deliberations on the future
of digital communication systems. At present the crucial technical
decisions are being made quietly behind closed doors to the benefit
of the corporate community. That has to be stopped.
Just as media reform should be a part of the agenda of the
parties of the left, so it also must have a place in whatever
battles may be waged to alter the direction of the Democratic
party. The party is in flux today. Pulled adrift from its populist
and New Deal moorings, it has been remade at the national level
by the Democratic Leadership Council, a neoliberal grouping that
has sought to create a Democratic party that is "good for
business" or, as the Reverand Jesse Jackson puts it, "Democrats
for the Leisure Class." At the grassroots, however, the Democratic
party remains a more progressive entity. Some progressive Democrats
are already willing to push the topic of media reform ahead in
their party and on Capitol Hill. U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN),
one of the few members of Congress who regularly addresses media
issues, puts it well when he says, "There's no question that
we have to start talking in a serious way about media, about media
mergers and monopolies, about the balance between public and commercial
television, about how we can encourage more diversity in ownership
and in content. There's no question that we ought to be talking
about the role that media plays in a democracy where most people
don't vote. There's no question of any of this."
... a media reform movement with clear goals and a clear strategy
for achieving them will be a fundamental building block of a broad
crusade for democratic renewal in America-a bold, powerful and
ultimately successful initiative that has the potential to make
this nation's promise for democracy real. It will be a movement
that takes an issue too long neglected and pushes that concern
to the center of the national debate. It will be a movement that
gives us an answer to the powers-that-be who seek constantly to
divert us from issues of consequence. It will be a movement that
empowers us to respond to their distractions and deceits by laughing
in their faces and saying: "It's the media, stupid."