excerpted from the book

It's the Media, Stupid

by John Nichols and Robert McChesney

Seven Stories Press, 2000

p 11
Ralph Nader

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.

Alan Schroeder

"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 [1996] 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 Academy Awards.

... 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 politicians covet.


Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV

"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 commercial organizations.

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 political challenge.


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 wherever necessary."

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 unpopular views.


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 influence..."

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 from
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 would:

* 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 fundamental questions.


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, " Nader declared.

... 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 against."

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 or debate.

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 microradio services.

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 and commercialization.

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 broad-even unlikely-coalitions.

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 Party.

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 interest.

* 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."

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