[sixties-l] The Making of a Movement (fwd)

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Date: Mon Jan 07 2002 - 21:44:45 EST

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    Date: Thu, 03 Jan 2002 13:39:47 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The Making of a Movement

    The Making of a Movement


    January 7, 2002

    No one should be surprised by the polls showing that close to 90 percent of
    Americans are satisfied with the performance of their selected President,
    or that close to 80 percent of the citizenry applaud his Administration's
    seat-of-the-pants management of an undeclared war. After all, most
    Americans get their information from media that have pledged to give the
    American people only the President's side of the story. CNN chief Walter
    Isaacson distributed a memo effectively instructing the network's domestic
    newscasts to be sugarcoated in order to maintain popular support for the
    President and his war. Fox News anchors got into a surreal competition to
    see who could wear the largest American flag lapel pin. Dan Rather, the man
    who occupies the seat Walter Cronkite once used to tell Lyndon Johnson the
    Vietnam War was unwinnable, now says, "George Bush is the President.... he
    wants me to line up, just tell me where."
    No, we should not be surprised that a "just tell me where" press has
    managed to undermine debate at
    precisely the time America needs it most, but we should be angry. The role
    that US newsmedia have
    played in narrowing and warping the public discourse since September 11
    provides dramatic evidence of
    the severe limitations of contemporary American journalism, and this
    nation's media system, when it
    comes to nurturing a viable democratic and humane society. It is now time
    to act upon that anger to forge a broader, bolder and more politically
    engaged movement to reform American media.

    The base from which such a movement could spring has already been built.
    Indeed, the current crisis
    comes at a critical moment for media reform politics. Since the middle
    1980s, when inept and disingenuous reporting on US interventions in Central
    America provoked tens of thousands of Americans to question the role media
    were playing in manufacturing consent, media activism has had a small but
    respectable place on the progressive agenda. The critique has gone well
    beyond complaints about shoddy journalism to broad expressions of concern
    about hypercommercial, corporate-directed culture and the corruption of
    communications policy-making by special-interest lobbies and pliable
    Crucial organizations such as Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the
    Institute for Public Accuracy, the MediaChannel, Media Alliance and the
    Media Education Foundation have emerged over the past two decades. Acting
    as mainstream media watchdogs while pointing engaged Americans toward
    valuable alternative fare, these groups have raised awareness that any
    democratic reform in the United States must include media reform. Although
    it is hardly universal even among progressives, there is increasing
    recognition that media reform can no longer be dismissed as a "dependent
    variable" that will fall into place once the more important struggles have
    been won. People are beginning to understand that unless we make headway
    with the media, the more important struggles will never be won.
    On the advocacy front, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and
    People for Better TV are pushing to improve public broadcasting and to
    tighten regulation of commercial broadcasting. Commercial Alert organizes
    campaigns against the commercialization of culture, from sports and museums
    to literature and media. The Center for Digital Democracy and the Media
    Access Project both work the corridors of power in Washington to win
    recognition of public-interest values under extremely difficult
    circumstances. These groups have won some important battles, particularly
    on Internet privacy issues.
    In addition, local media watch groups have surfaced across the nation.
    Citizens' organizations do battle to limit billboards in public places and
    to combat the rise of advertising in schools, fighting often successfully
    to keep Channel One ads, corporate-sponsored texts and fast-food promotions
    out of classrooms and cafeterias. Innovative lawsuits challenging the worst
    excesses of media monopoly are being developed by regional groups such as
    Rocky Mountain Media Watch and a national consortium of civic
    organizations, lawyers and academics that has drawn support from Unitarian
    Universalist organizations. Media activists in Honolulu and San Francisco
    have joined with unions and community groups to prevent the closure of
    daily newspapers that provided a measure of competition and debate in those
    Despite all these achievements, however, the media reform movement remains
    at something of a standstill. The sheer corruption of US politics is itself
    a daunting obstacle. The Center for Public Integrity in 2000 issued "Off
    the Record: What Media Corporations Don't Tell You About Their Legislative
    Agendas"an alarming expos of the huge lobbying machines employed by the
    largest communications corporations and their trade associations, as well
    as the considerable campaign contributions they make. According to the
    center, the fifty largest media companies and four of their trade
    associations spent $111.3 million between 1996 and mid-2000 to lobby
    Congress and the executive branch. Between 1993 and mid-2000, the center
    determined, media corporations and their employees have given $75 million
    in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office and to the two
    major political parties. Regulators and politicians tend therefore to be in
    the pockets of big-spending corporate communications lobbies, and,
    surprise, surprise, the corporate newsmedia rarely cover media policy
    debates. Notwithstanding all the good work by media activists, the "range"
    of communications policy debate in Washington still tends to run all the
    way from GE to GM, to borrow a line from FAIR's Jeff Cohen.
    At this very moment, for example, the FCC is considering the elimination of
    the remaining restrictions on media consolidation, including bans on
    cross-ownership by a single firm of TV stations and newspapers in the same
    community, and limits on the number of TV stations and cable TV systems a
    single corporation may own nationwide. The corporate media lobbying
    superstars are putting a full-court press on the FCC, which, with George W.
    Bush's imprint now firmly on its membership, is now even more pro-corporate
    than during the Clinton years. The proposed scrapping of these regulations
    will increase the shareholder value of numerous media firms dramatically,
    and will undoubtedly inspire a massive wave of mergers and acquisitions. If
    the lessons of past ownership deregulation, particularly the 1996
    relaxation of radio ownership rules, are any guide, we can expect even less
    funding for journalism and more commercialism. All of this takes place
    without scrutiny from major media, and therefore is unknown to all but a
    handful of Americans.
    The immensity of the economic and political barriers to democratic action
    has contributed
    to demoralization about the prospects for structural media reform and an
    understandable turn to that which progressives can hope to control: their
    own media. So it has been that much energy has gone into the struggle over
    the future of the Pacifica radio chain, which looks at long last to be
    heading toward a viable resolution. The Independent Press Association has
    grown dramatically to nurture scores of usually small, struggling nonprofit
    periodicals, which are mostly progressive in orientation. And dozens of
    local Independent Media Centers have mushroomed on the Internet over the
    past two years. These Indy Media Centers take advantage of new technology
    to provide dissident and alternative news stories and commentary; some, by
    focusing on local issues, have become a genuine alternative to established
    media at a level where that alternative can and does shift the dialogue. We
    have seen the positive impact of the IMC movement firsthand, in Seattle, in
    Washington, at the 2000 Democratic and Republican national conventions, at
    the three lamentable presidential debates later that year, during the
    Florida recount and in the aftermath of September 11 in New York and other
    cities. It is vital that this and other alternative media movements grow in
    scope and professionalism.
    Yet, as important as this work is, there are inherent limits to what can be
    done with independent media,
    even with access to the Internet. Too often, the alternative media remain
    on the margins, seeming to confirm that the dominant structures are the
    natural domain of the massive media conglomerates that
    supposedly "give the people what they want."
    The trouble with this disconnect between an engaged and vital alternative
    media and a disengaged and
    stenographic dominant media is that it suggests a natural order in which
    corporate media have mastered the marketplace on the basis of their wit and
    wisdom. In fact, our media system is not predominantly the result of
    free-market competition.
    Huge promotional budgets and continual rehashing of tried and true formulas
    play their role in drawing viewers, listeners and readers to dominant print
    and broadcast media. But their dominance is still made possible, in large
    part, by explicit government policies and subsidies that permit the
    creation of large and profitable conglomerates. When the government grants
    free monopoly rights to TV spectrum, for example, it is not setting the
    terms of competition; it is picking the winner of the competition. Such
    policies amount to an annual grant of corporate welfare that economist Dean
    Baker values in the tens of billions of dollars. These decisions have been
    made in the public's name, but without the public's informed consent. We
    must not accept such massive subsidies for wealthy corporations, nor should
    we content ourselves with the "freedom" to forge an alternative that
    occupies the margins. Our task is to return "informed consent" to media
    policy-making and to generate a diverse media system that serves our
    democratic needs.
    In our view, what's needed to begin the job is now crystal clear, a
    national media reform coalition that can play quarterback for the media
    reform movement. The necessity argument takes two forms.
    First, the immense job of organizing media reform requires that our scarce
    resources be used efficiently, and that the various components of a media
    reform movement cooperate strategically. The problem is that the whole of
    the current media reform movement is significantly less than the sum of its
    parts. Isolated and impoverished, groups are forced to defend against new
    corporate initiatives rather than advance positive reform proposals. When
    they do get around to proposing reforms, activists have occasionally worked
    on competing agendas; such schisms dissipate energy, squander resources and
    guarantee defeat. More important, they are avoidable. Organizers of this
    new coalition could begin by convening a gathering of all the groups now
    struggling for reform, as well as the foundations and nonprofits willing to
    support their work. "All the issues we talk about are interlinked. We are
    fighting against a lot of the same corporations. The corporations, while
    they supposedly compete with one another, actually work together very well
    when it comes to lobbying," explains Jeffrey Chester of the Center for
    Digital Democracy. "We need to link up the activists and start to work
    together as well as the corporations do for the other side." Will every
    possible member organization get on the same media reform page? No. But
    after years of working with these groups in various settings, we have no
    doubt that most will.
    Second, a coherent, focused and well-coordinated movement will be needed to
    launch a massive outreach effort to popularize the issue. That outreach
    can, and should, be guided by Saul Alinsky's maxim that the only way to
    beat organized money is with organized people. If the media reform movement
    stays within the Beltway, we know that we will always lose. Yet, so far,
    outreach beyond the core community of media activists has been done on a
    piecemeal basis by various reform groups and critics with very limited
    budgets. The results have, by and large, been predictably disappointing. As
    a result, says Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., "the case for media reform
    is not being heard in Washington now. It is not easy to make the case heard
    for any reform these days. That's why we need to do more. I hear people
    everywhere around the country complaining about the media, but we have yet
    to figure out how to translate those complaints into some kind of activist
    agenda that can begin to move Congress. There has to be more pressure from
    outside Washington for specific reforms. Members have to start hearing in
    their home districts that people want specific reforms of the media."
    That will only happen if a concerted campaign organized around core
    democratic values takes the message of media reform to every college and
    university, every union hall, every convention and every church, synagogue
    and mosque in the land. To build a mass movement, the new coalition must
    link up with organized groups that currently engage in little activity in
    the way of media reform but that are seriously hampered by the current
    media system. Organized labor, educators, progressive religious groups,
    journalists, artists, feminists, environmental organizations and civil
    rights groups are obvious candidates.
    These groups will not simply fall into place as coalition partners,
    however. Media corporations do not just lobby Congress; they lobby a lot of
    the groups that suffer under the current system. Some of those groups have
    been bought off by contributions from foundations associated with AOL,
    Verizon and other communications conglomerates; others, particularly large
    sections of organized labor, have been convinced that they have a vested
    interest in maintaining a status quo that consistently kicks them in the
    teeth. Building a broad coalition will require a tremendous amount of
    education and old-fashioned organizing that will inevitably involve
    pressure from the grassroots on major institutions and unions in order to
    get the national leadership of those organizations to engage.
    Movement-building will require that able organizers like Chester, Cohen,
    FAIR's Janine Jackson and Media Alliance executive director Jeff Perlstein,
    who have already been engaged in the struggle, be provided with the
    resources to travel, organize and educate.
    All the organizing in the world won't amount to a hill of beans, however,
    unless there is something tangible to fight for, and to win. That's why we
    need reform proposals that can be advocated, promoted and discussed. Media
    reform needs its equivalent of the Voting Rights Act or the Equal Rights
    Amendment, simple, basic reforms that grassroots activists can understand,
    embrace and advocate in union halls, church basements and school
    assemblies. And there has to be legislation to give the activism a sense of
    focus and possibility.
    Fortunately, there are several members of Congress who are already engaged
    on these issues: Senator
    Fritz Hollings has emerged as a thoughtful critic of many of the excesses
    of media monopolies; Senator
    John McCain has questioned the giveaway of public airwaves to
    communications conglomerates; Representative John Conyers Jr., the ranking
    Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has
    been outspoken in criticizing the loss of diversity in media ownership and
    the failure of the FCC to battle
    monopolization and homogenization; Representative Louise Slaughter has
    introduced legislation mandating free airtime for political candidates;
    Senator Paul Wellstone has expressed an interest in legislation that would
    reassert standards for children's programming and perhaps adopt the
    approaches of other countries that regulate advertising directed at young
    children; and Jesse Jackson Jr. has expressed a willingness to introduce
    legislation aimed at broadening access to diverse media, along with a wide
    range of other media reform proposals. If an organized movement demands it,
    there are people in Congress with the courage and the awareness to provide
    it with a legislative focus.

    Ultimately, we believe, the movement's legislative agenda must include
    proposals to:

     Apply existing antimonopoly laws to the media and, where necessary,
    expand the reach of those laws to restrict ownership of radio stations to
    one or two per owner. Legislators should also consider steps to address
    monopolization of TV-station ownership and move to break the lock of
    newspaper chains on entire regions.
     Initiate a formal, federally funded study and hearings to identify
    reasonable media ownership regulations across all sectors.
     Establish a full tier of low-power, noncommercial radio and television
    stations across the nation.
     Revamp and invest in public broadcasting to eliminate commercial
    pressures, reduce immediate political pressures and serve communities
    without significant disposable incomes.
     Allow every taxpayer a $200 tax credit to apply to any nonprofit medium,
    as long as it meets IRS criteria.
     Lower mailing costs for nonprofit and significantly noncommercial
     Eliminate political candidate advertising as a condition of a broadcast
    license, or require that if a station runs a paid political ad by a
    candidate it must run free ads of similar length from all the other
    candidates on the ballot immediately afterward.
     Reduce or eliminate TV advertising directed at children under 12.
     Decommercialize local TV news with regulations that require stations to
    grant journalists an hour daily of commercial-free news time, and set
    budget guidelines for those newscasts based on a percentage of the
    station's revenues.

    We know from experience that many of these ideas are popular with
    Americans, when they get a chance to hear about them. Moreover, the
    enthusiasm tends to cross the political spectrum. Much of our optimism
    regarding a media reform movement is based on our research that shows how
    assiduously the corporate media lobbies work to keep their operations in
    Washington out of public view. They suspect the same thing we do: When
    people hear about the corruption of communications policy-making, they will
    be appalled. When people understand that it is their democratic right to
    reform this system, millions of them will be inclined to exercise that right.
    What media policy-making needs is to be bathed in democracy. The coalition
    we envision will have its similarities to the civil rights movement or the
    women's movement, as it should, since access to information ought to be
    seen as a fundamental human right. It will stand outside political parties and
    encourage all of them to take up the mantle of democratic media reform,
    much as Britain's impressive Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom
    has done. Although its initial funding may well come from large grants,
    this reform coalition ultimately must be broad-based and member-funded,
    like Greenpeace or, dare we say it, the National Rifle Association.
    Activists must feel a sense of ownership
    and attachment to a citizen lobby if it is to have real impact. We
    understand that success will depend, over the long term, upon a
    rejuvenation of popular politics and, accordingly, a decrease in corporate
    political and economic power. At the same time, we are certain that a
    movement that expands the range of legitimate debate will ultimately change
    not just the debate but the current system. "I am convinced that when
    people start talking about these big issues, these fundamental issues, when
    they start to understand that they have the power as citizens in a
    democracy to take on the powers that be and change how things are done,
    then change becomes inevitable," says Jackson. "The challenge, of course,
    is to get people to recognize that they have that power."
    Even before it gets down to the serious business of reforming existing
    media systems, the coalition we propose can lead an organized resistance to
    corporate welfare schemes like the proposed FCC deregulation. And it might
    even be able to prevent the complete corporatization of the Internet [see
    Jeffrey Chester and Gary O. Larson, "Something Old, Something New," in this
    issue]. The key is to have a network of informed organizations and
    individuals who are already up to speed on media issues and can swing into
    action on short notice. Currently that network does not exist. The heroic
    public-interest groups that now lead the fight to oppose corporate
    domination of FCC policies find themselves without sufficient popular
    awareness or support, and therefore without the leverage they need to
    prevail. The movement we propose will be all about increasing leverage over
    the FCC and Congress in the near term, with an eye toward structural reform
    down the road.
    But is it really possible that such a coalition can take shape in the
    months and years to come and begin to shift the debate? History tells us
    that the possibility is real. At times of popular political resurgence
    throughout the twentieth century, media activism surfaced as a significant
    force. It was most intense in the Progressive Era, when the rise of the
    modern capitalist media system was met with sustained Progressive and
    radical criticism from the likes of Upton Sinclair, Eugene Victor Debs and
    Robert La Follette. In the 1930s a heterogeneous movement arose to battle
    commercial broadcasting, and a feisty consumer movement organized to limit
    advertising in our society. In the postwar years, the Congress of
    Industrial Organizations attempted to establish a national FM radio
    network, one of the first casualties of the war on independent labor and
    the left that marked that period. In the 1960s and '70s the underground
    press provided vital underpinning for the civil rights, antiwar and
    feminist movements.
    In short, we are building on a long tradition. And there is considerable
    momentum at present to coalesce. In November some thirty-five media
    activists from all over the nation met for a day in New York to begin
    coordinating some of their activities on a range of issues, from local and
    national policy matters to creating alternative media. Leading media
    scholars and educators are forming a new national progressive media
    literacy organization, one that will remain independent of the media
    conglomerates that bankroll existing groups. We are excited by speculation
    that Bill Moyers, who has done so much to drum up funding for reform
    initiatives, will in 2002 use his considerable influence to convince
    progressive foundations to make a genuine commitment to this fundamental
    democratic initiative.
    The bottom line is clear. Until reformers come together, until we create a
    formal campaign to democratize our communications policy-making and to
    blast open our media system, we will continue to see special issues of The
    Nation like this one lamenting our situation. We need no more proof than
    the current moment to tell us that the time to build a broad coalition for
    media reform has arrived.

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