Building a Movement for Media

by Robert A. Hackett

Project Censored 2001

by Peter Phillips and Project Censored

Seven Stories Press, 2001, paper


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 media.

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.


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 issues.

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 institution-building.


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 without.

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 market.

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.


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 change?

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 the Left.

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:

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