Rock icon Patti Smith doesn’t get much airplay these days on commercial radio. Hundreds of people who list that on a very long litany of what’s wrong with American media danced to her tunes during the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis.
The unofficial anthem of the weekend gathering could have been Smith’s own “People Have The Power.”
The umbrella of media reform is so big that many varieties of activists — those who decry what they call the “carpet-bombing” of young people by marketers, those who run all-volunteer community access television and radio stations, those who agitate for more and fairer representation of people of color, disabled people and the aging — all found room to camp under its shade. For three days more than 2,000 of them inhabited a lively campground at the conference sponsored by media scholar and critic Robert McChesney’s FreePress.
It was a gathering that included the pierced-and-tattooed to the graying. It wasn’t unusual to find circles of activists seated on the floors of the conference hotel, engaged in earnest strategizing. One thing members of this crowd had in common, besides a predilection toward left-liberal politics, was an insistence that mass media, broadly defined, treat them primarily as citizens and not consumers.
Media reform is to the next election cycle what campaign finance reform was to the last, predicted conference organizer McChesney; indeed, he’s noted that many activists frustrated by the ability of big money to wind its way around most loopholes have shifted their energies toward restoring some sense of public participation in media.
In a plenary address, FreePress co-founder John Nichols added, “Every time we tried to reverse the corrupt campaign finance process, the force that stopped us wasn’t corrupt politicians. It was big media — the TV stations that want to keep all that campaign ad money.”
Conference participants, still glowing from last year’s challenge to the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to relax caps on broadcast and newspaper ownership, talked about a shift in the zeitgeist. Instead of merely ignoring or turning off that which they don’t want to see, hear or read, said Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR), people are recognizing that something systemic is wrong with the media “and we must do something about it.
“Bad media hurts real people,” she said. “I want a democratic media because 45 million people don’t have health care and they think it’s their fault…because tens of thousands of people who have died in Iraq might be alive today” if more journalists had rigorously questioned Bush administration officials before the war.
The strategies conference participants employ in hundreds of local organizations range from establishing municipal broadband networks and low-power FM stations to ultra-portable digital equipment that allows independent media producers to report on the activism they engage in. There’s also humor: T-shirts and buttons circulating at the conference read, “Murdoch. It’s Australian for monopoly, mate,” and “What the FCC?!”
To build their movement beyond Radio Free Brattleboro, Deep Dish Television and the Louisville Eccentric Observer, conference speakers exhorted those present to reach out and engage people beyond their political comfort zone.
“I have been in a lot of ‘Christian Coalition’ churches,” said Bob McCannon of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project. “Those people are just as concerned about many of these media issues as progressives are.” In a workshop about relating media reform issues to people’s daily lives, he urged participants to deconstruct the fantasy world spun through advertising and story placement. He compared the relatively small numbers of preventable deaths by gunshots and auto accidents — incidents that get a major play on local TV news — to less-reported deaths attributable to smoking and medical mistakes in hospitals.
Shaking up the media landscape will require old-fashioned tactics like person-to-person organizing, speaking up over perceived biases and offenses and content monitoring; FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein urged participants to “hit the record button” whenever they see what looks like a government- or advertiser-issued video news release, scrutinize its contents for disclosure of its source, e-mail the station that runs it and copy him. “I’ll investigate,” the Democrat pledged. The other Democrat on the five-member commission, Michael Copps, also attended the conference.
So did Frank Blethen of The Seattle Times, the only mainstream newspaper publisher present. After a panel on media consolidation and ownership he acknowledged that this conference spoke primarily to the converted. But, he added, “it expands and energizes the choir.”
Blethen compared this year’s conference to a smaller, previous gathering on a college campus 18 months ago — and he looked ahead. Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives showed up this time, he said, but “You want to get a Senator Cantwell from Washington state and a Senator Snowe from Maine — both of them are on the Senate Commerce Committee, and they’re worried about local ownership issues. Their staffs will be inclined to encourage them to come and talk about this.”
He also encouraged the audience to challenge prevailing news industry wisdom that consolidation translates into higher profits. “For the foreseeable future,” Blethen said, “if you’re in the top three or four news organizations (in your market), you’re making money.” In the name of localism, he suggested that activists point out to their elected representatives just who owns the media properties in their cities, and “raise hell about what’s not being covered.”
Cheryl Devall, a former correspondent for National Public Radio and editor for public radio’s “Marketplace,” is assistant director of the USC Annenberg Center for the Study of Journalism & Democracy.