January 23, 2007

Media at the tipping point? Time to demand programming that isn’t ‘so damned bad so damned often’

The Louisville Media Reform group: sent a contingent to Memphis. From left: Victoria Strange, Mark McKinley, John Wilborn, Carol Smith, Anita Solomon, Ira Grupper and Cherise Williams.This huge Memphis ballroom is full, more than 3,000 people, representing every state and nearly every cause you might imagine. Many are activists who wear their passions on their sleeves, or on dozens of buttons (my favorite: What the FCC?). All of this excitement seems to surprise organizers from Free Press, a nonpartisan national organization, who say the size of the audience alone is sufficient to proclaim media reform a “movement” at its “tipping point.”The confab has all the appearances of a typical business conference, except for the legions of folks with laptop computers here, presumably blogging away as one motivational speaker after another says something to elicit a standing ovation. The crowd consists of advocates, students, academics, public officials, journalists, entrepreneurs, creative content producers and a lot of passionate media critics. There are few suits, and the crowd looks more appropriate for a rock show, which it will in fact see on Friday night when the North Mississippi Allstars play an inspired set.At times it’s more like a good old southern revival, especially when Jesse Jackson or rap/hip-hop journalist Davey D implores the crowd like a Baptist preacher on Sunday morning. The significance of being in Memphis on the eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday is a thread that runs through the remarks of speakers ranging from journalist Bill Moyers to activist Van Jones, founder of something called the Ella Baker Center for Civil Rights. Jones links King and media reform, saying, “The brother had a dream. We need to be able to have a movement that stands for that.”This movement is a loosely combined effort on the part of these activists to spark and influence national debate on media, with the emphasis on creating a more competitive and more public interest-oriented system, giving voice to those ignored by the mainstream media and telling the stories MSM miss or won’t tell. If a good movement needs an enemy to thrive, there are plenty of candidates, starting with the Bush administration, the Fox News Network, talk radio and cable TV talk shows, where conservatives seemingly dominate the discussion and control American political thought.Moyers, who worked in the Lyndon B. Johnson White House and then for Newsday, CBS and PBS, is a heroic figure in this crowd, and his speech here is a highlight. He warns about “poobahs of punditry, people who agree the world is flat without looking to see for themselves,” and says, “Everything you see or hear is determined by executives whose interest is in raising share prices. In-depth coverage of anything is as scarce as sex, violence and voyeurism is pervasive.”Those alternative voices are heard here, however, in an environment as open to differing points of view as Fox News is closed to them. The conference serves as a lightning rod for the A to Z of the disenfranchised.David Brock: was a conservative journalist in the 1990s who later disavowed the right, where he said “what was valued was the ability to lie unflinchingly.” He now heads Media Matters for America.There’s a basketball court-sized exhibit hall on an adjacent floor, where you can pick up literature from more than 50 organizations that, by and large, want only to make you aware that they exist, or to get your e-mail address. The Prometheus Radio Project, for example, is here to help groups apply for low-power radio licenses in their hometowns. TheRealNews.com is a new Canadian organization that will soon begin producing daily video newscasts available primarily online — it will accept no advertising, government funding or corporate money, only donations.There are no Bush loyalists here, no one who supports the Iraq War. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Congressman running as an anti-war advocate, makes a surprise appearance to a thunderous ovation. He plans to hold hearings in Congress on media ownership as head of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee and wants to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters to air both sides of issues, an idea scrapped by the FCC in 1987 with the support of President Ronald Reagan.If the audience seems one-sided, that’s hard to refute. No one — at least no one willing to admit it — represents Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp. and NBC/GE, the five corporations that control the big four networks (70 percent of the primetime television market share), and most cable channels, as well as vast holdings in radio, publishing, movie studios, music, Internet and other sectors. Maybe they realize they’d be like pigs at a barbecue.Writing afterward, Dan Gillmor, who spoke on the panel “Citizen Journalism: Making an Impact in the New Media Landscape,” noted the disparity. “Too bad the people who also want change but from a different political position aren’t part of it,” wrote Gillmor, who heads an organization called the Center for Citizen Media. “If they were, this event would be even more interesting.”David Brock is a particularly interesting figure in this context. A conservative journalist in the 1990s, he later disavowed the right and now heads Media Matters for America, a media watchdog organization that frequently blasts conservative media. At a panel titled “Watchdogging the Media,” he said he learned from the inside about conservatives’ media goals. “In that movement, what was valued was the ability to lie unflinchingly. Two years ago, I decided that I was going to fight the media machine that I was in every day, and hold the media accountable and fight for an honest media.”Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, is another exception. A registered independent who’s active on the corporate media issue, he gave a stirring speech at the event. So did Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.Actor Danny Glover was among several celebrities who spoke at the conference.For many, though, the highlight of the entire weekend was the questioning by legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas of an extremely good George W. Bush impersonator, a skit that would not have been out of place on “Saturday Night Live.” When Thomas asked the faux Bush why he favored a bigger media, he said, “We live in the biggest country in the world and one of the most powerful. That means we have to have a media that’s as big as this beautiful country. If we lived in Canada or France, we would have a smaller media.” FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps are in Memphis, and they’re afforded something like rock-star status. In 2003, the FCC attempted to loosen the rules of media ownership, but the courts stopped it. The FCC is reconsidering the rules, sparking a wave of meetings and hearings across the country. It is this legislation that most alarms the media reform movement.Adelstein speaks at Friday night’s party and later joins the North Mississippi Allstars on stage, playing a mean harmonica. Copps, in a speech that sounds more like a political stump speech, suggests an “American Media Contract” that would read: “We, the American people have given broadcasters free use of the nation’s most valuable spectrum, and we expect something in return.” He appeals to Americans to take action, and among his initiatives is one “right” to “programming that isn’t so damned bad so damned often.” Echoing Adelstein, Copps predicts public support will make the media reform agenda take hold in Washington. But the FCC is set up against it. There are five commissioners, two from each party, and a fifth commissioner who is a member of the President’s party. The former chair, Michael Powell (son of Colin), attempted in 2003 to push through a measure that would have allowed one entity to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the daily newspaper and cable system in a single market. The backlash sent the proposal back to the FCC for review, and now that Democrats control Congress, it seems unlikely that Powell’s successor, Kevin Martin, will push for such radical change in ownership rules.That doesn’t make it less urgent at the Media Reform Conference. Calling up Memphis’ unfortunate history as the site of the King murder, Moyers compares mainstream media to southern plantation owners. “This is the moment freedom begins. The moment you realize someone else has been writing your story. It’s time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself.” Actress Geena Davis: was among several celebrities who spoke at the conference. Davis commissioned a study that shows children’s programming overwhelmingly features males in lead roles.At least two dozen folks here are from Louisville, mostly activists traveling on their own dime, passionate about one cause or another but united in opposition to big media ownership, corporate control of the Internet and the stifling lack of diversity in media.Mark McKinley is the facilitator of the Louisville Media Reform Group, which attracts about 20 people to its monthly meetings and sends its e-mail newsletter to about 350 subscribers — hardly an army. McKinley attended the most recent Media Reform Conference, which was held in St. Louis in 2005; attendance that year was estimated at 2,200. “This event knocked my socks off,” he said. “People make a connection between what they see in media and what they see in their communities. They’re recognizing that stories are not being told, so folks are stepping up and trying to affect the decisions in these organizations.”In Louisville, McKinley said the group has been active in monitoring the actions of Insight Cable and pushing for independent programming on public radio station WFPL-FM, and recently organized a trip to Nashville to attend a Federal Communications Corporation hearing on media ownership. This past weekend, it sponsored a daylong “Reclaim the Media” event, another attempt to raise awareness of media issues and to raise money for the group’s pet project, the creation of a low-power FM radio station.Four members of the Jefferson County Teachers Association attended the Memphis conference as well. Brent McKim, president of the organization, said they want to learn more about engaging media in a positive way. He was interested in a panel on writing op-ed pieces, and also in using new forms of media, such as blogs. “We wanted to learn what is being done in media,” he said. “We have a group of members interested in public discussion of public education.” Perhaps more typical of attendees was Bill Bornschein, a St. Xavier High School teacher who drove to Memphis because, he told me, “I just like this stuff.” Attica Scott, a coordinator with Kentucky Jobs with Justice, which advocates for labor-related causes, said she was energized by a panel on Labor and Media. She’s developing an action plan to “help people understand labor issues and get the message out in alternative and mainstream media.” Scott, an African American, also saw the conference as a motivator to get more people of color involved.Amy Goodman host of “Democracy Now,” said the media miss important stories every day.The changes in the media landscape couldn’t be clearer in Louisville, where every major television station is controlled by an out-of-town ownership group, commercial radio is dominated by Clear Channel, and the largest daily newspaper is part of a huge national chain that seems more focused on profits than journalism.The result? Budgets for news production have been cut across the board, investigative reporting is nearly non-existent, and pursuit of bottom-line profits trumps the telling of stories.The Courier-Journal newsroom, with its Gannett-driven emphasis on the bottom line, has eliminated bureaus around the state. Gannett’s new emphasis on time-sensitive online posting has curtailed the C-J’s investigative reporting mission, with reporters being told that speed trumps depth. Our local TV news product is consumed with chasing crime and weather, and seems to lack the will to investigate or uncover stories that require reporters to dig deeper than what they discover at a crime scene. The concept of covering a beat is lost as reporters are spread thin.In radio, Clear Channel cut about a dozen jobs in November, including several in its news operation. The traditional leader in local news, WHAS-AM, has cut its newscast hours and now leads each hour with a national update from Fox News. The station with a mantle full of Peabody Awards now struggles to send its time-starved staff to cover even the most basic local news stories, much less forward-looking investigative pieces or documentaries.The issues in Memphis are real. If the ongoing concentration of media ownership continues, it is possible that someday one single entity could control a given market’s television, radio and newspaper outlets. What does that portend for a range of choices?Corporations are now trying to gain control of the Internet, and if they do, they may create a revenue source based on a pay-for-play model that determines how quickly Web sites are delivered to surfers. The SavetheInternet.com organization is devoted to preserving “Net Neutrality.”Whether such a scenario ultimately materializes, of course, is the key question. Judging by the turnout in Memphis, and the enthusiasm and focus there, it won’t happen in a vacuum. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com