Jake Highton, a University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor attending the third annual National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, wandered into the lounge at the Marriott, the conference’s host hotel. Spotting Bill Moyers working on his convention speech, Highton chatted with him for a few moments.
“I expressed my skepticism that not much could be done about it, and his answer was, ‘Yes, I agree with you, but we can’t stop fighting,'” Highton said.
“It” is media reform, an ink blot of a term that means different things to different critics. Generally, it refers to the need to increase the number of voices in public debate, in part by breaking up the concentration of ownership of vast swaths of media by a very few corporations.
The conference’s cofounder, John Nichols, said that the reform of the nation’s corporate, mainstream media is fast becoming a major political and civil rights issue. More than 3,500 journalists and activists from around the nation joined Nichols, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Jane Fonda and many other progressive luminaries in Memphis on Martin Luther King Day weekend for the event to discuss ways to change the way media does business in America.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposals before it that would go in exactly the opposite direction from what the media reform movement wants. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants to allow large corporations to own more broadcasting outlets. Gannett, the massive conglomerate that owns the Reno Gazette-Journal, is leading the charge for Martin’s proposals, which include eliminating (1) a rule that prevents companies from owning a TV or radio station and the principal daily newspaper in the same area and (2) local ownership caps limiting corporations from owning more than one TV station in most markets (or two in larger markets). Similar proposals were defeated in 2003 after the media reform movement was able to flood Washington, D.C., with more than 2 million objections, prompting Congress to step in.
Defining the problem
At the Memphis conference, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said the shrinking number of companies that own an increasing number of media outlets are almost all operated by white men. Minorities may represent more than 30 percent of our population, but they own just over 3 percent of all broadcast television licenses.
Defining the problem
“That is woefully deficient, and we need to explore remedies to ensure that the distribution of licenses to use the public’s airwaves more adequately reflects American society today,” he said.
Markey said ownership that is diverse and local is essential for balanced news coverage. He is one of several members of Congress to attend the conference. Others— Congressmen Steve Cohen, (D-Tenn.) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.)—said they were exploring the possibilities of rolling back the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the airwaves and allowed for the growth of mega-media companies such as Clear Channel, which now owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide, including a few in Nevada. Hinchey added that he’d like to see a return to the fairness doctrine, which required equal time for divergent political views until it was cut in the 1980s.
“This is one of the top priorities for me, and it should be the top priority for everyone,” he said. However, many journalists oppose the doctrine on the grounds that allowing government to decide content breaches the First Amendment.
If Moyers felt the fatalism he expressed to Highton, it was not in evidence in his remarks to the convention.
“My fellow lambs,” he said, “it’s good to be in Memphis and find you well-armed with passion for democracy, readiness for action and courage for the next round in the fight for a free and independent press. I salute the conviction that brought you here. I cherish the spirit that fills this hall and the camaraderie we share today. All too often the greatest obstacle to reform is the reform movement itself. Factions rise, fences are built, jealousies mount—and the cause all believe in is lost in the shattered fragments of what was once a clear and compelling vision. … By avoiding contentious factionalism, you have created a strong movement.”
Jesse Jackson described the American political landscape as an uneven playing field—one in which the conservative side has the referee and the scoreboard keeper in their pocket.
“In the media, when too few people own too much media, it undermines every promise democracy ever made,” Jackson said. “When GE owns NBC and makes a profit from the war, the president of Viacom, which owns CBS, can endorse Bush from Japan and be rather blatant as to why he did it … it undermines the integrity of the process.”
Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center—which deals with the portrayal of Asian Americans in the arts—said that persons with her ethnic background don’t have a channel through which they can be heard in popular culture. On the rare occasions that Asians are represented in film or television, she said, they’re sidekicks, sexless neighbors next door and ethnic props, but never lead characters.
“One of the challenges we have is the issue of getting our own stories on the air,” Narasaki said.
She said that’s a real problem, especially for young viewers who are seeking their identity. It’s one that her organization is addressing by working to lobby networks in conjunction with other people of color.
U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, elected as an independent in Vermont, said that he was among the congressional opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 and held press conferences that were never seen. The mainstream media has failed the U.S. people grotesquely, he said, and is as responsible for the Iraq quagmire as President Bush.
The plight of the working poor never sees the light of day in the national media, Sanders said. The business news is always that of the corporate interests and never from the point of view of labor.
“You are the only person that can’t find a job, that can’t earn a living wage—it’s your fault,” he said, describing the tone of this limited coverage of the poor. “Somebody is supplying us with a mirror, and we want that mirror to reflect the lives of ordinary people.”
Sanders said the media plays the “fair and balanced” card when it presents a debate over global warming. The only problem is, there is no debate among scientists, he said.
Amy Goodman, host of the daily global news program Democracy Now, said that amidst all that’s wrong with America’s media, there have been significant success stories. In one instance, in Marin County, activists tried to get the Democracy Now program on their local public access station, which was provided through the Comcast cable network. Comcast made the process all but impossible, she said, and the activists finally went to their local government and examined the franchise agreement—the contract between the local community and the cable provider that allows the cable lines to be placed in the public right-of-way in exchange for public access to the cable audience. It was discovered that the franchise agreement called for a $3 million public access studio—which is finally being built in the Marin community.
“The point of public access TV is for people to make their own media in their own community,” Goodman said. It’s the small battles won in local communities that will incrementally move media into the hands of the people, she said.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the cost of stories that aren’t told are too often paid for by the wages of war.
Riekhoff said mainstream journalists rarely present the Iraqi people’s side of the conflict. As for embedded journalists, he says, “You can’t criticize me if I’m covering your ass.”
Delegates were drawn heavily from new media such as blogs. And while the conference tended to be for the young, there were plenty of others concerned about what has happened to the media. Highton, who is 76, ran into a retired pal from his newspaper days.
“Patrick Sloyan, he’s an old newspaper guy. He was a friend of mine from Baltimore days. I worked for the Evening Sun; he worked for the rival Hearst paper.”
The Hearst Baltimore News American suspended publication in 1986, the Evening Sun in 1995, reducing the media’s voices by two.