Second Thought: Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Reclaiming the Mess Media

A reform movement
gains steam.


Can you trust this newspaper? Are you reading it because you figure the daily paper, 99 percent of the radio stations, and all of commercial tv are in thrall to big business and Big Brother?
If so, you’d have felt right at home in St. Louis recently. Concerned academics, journalists, and activists met there earlier this month to strategize about how to change the structure of U.S. mass media. This wasn’t a wild-eyed bunch from the fringe — national news program hosts, a member of Congress, and Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps were among the more than 2,400 participants.
The folks at the National Conference for Media Reform were worried about media consolidation, unquestioning news media coverage of the war in Iraq, and the lack of coverage of minority issues. They were looking for ways to re-establish trust, root out corruption, and replace the mainstream with a rich mixture of divergent voices. And they talked about issues that are hitting home in Texas right now — like legislation to close off the possibility of cities providing cheap or free internet access to their citizens.
Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, an award-winning independent news program that airs on more than 300 radio and tv stations plus the internet, said public sentiment against the war in Iraq and dissent among the U.S. military have been deliberately under-reported by the mainstream press because their corporate bosses are in bed with the politicians in Washington, D.C. Mainstream coverage of the peace movement and the people in Iraq affected by the war is conspicuously absent, she said.
“What if we saw just one of the babies lying dead on the ground or women with their legs blown off. ... Where are the pictures? Just imagine if we saw the images,” she said. “We need a media that is un-embedded. We are supposed to be the check and the balance.”
U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, a Democrat whose district includes Hollywood, said that one reason Americans get so few versions of the news — on Iraq or anything else — is the trend toward media ownership consolidation. “With about 75 percent of the prime-time network programming and 80 percent of the cable programming controlled by six media conglomerates, there is really no difference between having 600 channels or six channels,” she said. “Programming decisions are made by the same executives, and original programs are replaced by syndicated re-runs.”
Watson said television programming has gotten bad and is getting worse because executives focus on the bottom line and churn out cheap, easily sensationalized shows like American Idol and Survivor. “I kind of call that the dumbing-down of America,” she said. “Even news magazines like Prime Time Live choose to report on reality tv shows rather than reporting on the actual news. ...Where is the choice? Watch a reality show or watch a news program about a reality show.”
FCC Commissioner Copps said he is worried about the state of the airwaves. He cited the lack of minority issues covered in news and the way that mass media so often depicts minorities as being major problems. At the conference itself, more than a third of the panelists were people of color, and scholarships were offered to attract a more diverse group of participants. Still, only a small percentage of those present were non-white.
Panelists talked about how community-owned wireless internet could help to build critical community infrastructure, delivering digital access to people who can’t afford the high rates charged by the phone and cable companies or who are outside of such companies’ service areas.
In a very near future, high-definition television, telephone service, radio, and the internet could all be reliably piped into homes, cars, and portable devices through a single wireless service provider. The cable and telephone companies are banking on that destiny. Municipal wireless networks are an alternative, by which local governments offer low-cost or free use of high-speed internet as a public utility rather than a private luxury. But — surprise — bills banning municipal wireless have been recently passed in 11 states and are being considered in a dozen more, including Texas.
In Austin, House Bill 789 passed the Texas House on March 23 with an amendment limiting public broadband services. HB 789 revises Texas telecommunications law, banning municipalities from providing internet service to local residents unless it is free or unless the community is working in partnership with a private company. The Senate has yet to consider the bill.
“Media reform is necessary because it is what’s needed to have viable democracy, and viable democracy is what’s needed to have social justice and human happiness,” event founder Robert McChesney said.
The National Conference for Media Reform wants to be part of the solution. It’s the highest-profile convention of its kind in the U.S., drawing more media reform activists into a single space than any other single event.
But organizers are struggling to bring more people of color to the event and to wrangle many different projects under the same banner of media reform. Like the Democrats in 2004, the activists have a common enemy, though this time it’s the corporate media instead of G.W.B. Likewise, the media reformers are a splintered group of self-interests, still developing a coherent message. They’ll have to question their own motives along the way to ensure that their organization is as democratic, just, and open as the movement they’re trying to build.

Freelance writer Steve Novotni publishes a Cincinnati urban arts and issues web site, the Independent Eye, at

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