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Commentary

The Media Democracy Movement Goes To Madison

By Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Madison became the epicenter of the media democracy movement for three chilly days on November 7-9, when 1,400 educators, activists, and other concerned citizens gathered to discuss the declining state of America's mass media and how they could unite to change it.

The Federal Communications Commission's highly publicized 3-2 June vote to endorse six major media-ownership rule changes was the primary impetus behind the conference. An unprecedented three million Americans have called, faxed, and emailed the FCC and Congress to protest the new rules - and the latter is listening.1 In July, the House voted 400-21 to reject the provision that would enable a single network to control television stations reaching 45% of all American households, and Senators are expected to cast their ballots on the matter any day now.2

If there is a battle cry of this burgeoning movement, it is that mega corporations like Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation are guided by commercial values instead of democratic ones, and that independent and alternative voices are being stifled in the process. Certainly, there might be a greater number of media offerings today than ever before, but quantity is no substitute for true diversity.

"We've got hundreds of TV channels now, but nothing to watch," quipped conference panelist Juan Gonzalez, the co-host of the progressive radio show "Democracy Now" and president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

According to Gonzalez, three pillars constitute the media democracy movement: the independent press, the public, and media workers. After applauding the work of indy media and the general public in the fight against media consolidation, he called on his colleagues to get more involved.

"There are probably 285,000 workers in the mass media today who act as the gatekeepers of 290 million people's access to information," he said. "Many are dissatisfied with their working conditions, but they are either unaware of this movement or are too afraid to organize and complain to their big boss corporation. Meanwhile, their managers are salivating about how many media outlets they can buy. As media workers, we need to bring about this change from the inside."3

Among the oft-cited dangers of media consolidation are its tendency to homogenize news and information, silence dissenting voices, and suppress information that the owners of media corporations might find embarrassing - all of which are major free expression concerns. Examples abound, such as when ABC News vetoed a 20/20 story investigating accounts of pedophilia and lax security at a theme park of its parent corporation, Disney.4 Conference presenters also pointed to the mainstream media's dearth of coverage of the international peace movement in the months leading up to the war in Iraq - and its biased reporting during the war. According to the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, television viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war speaker as one who was anti-war on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, Fox's Special Report with Brit Hume, and PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer between March 20 and April 9, 2003. And the bulk of those anti-war sources were foreigners: among American speakers, the ratio was 25 times as many pro- as anti-war speakers.5

The high turnout at the conference was proof that the media democracy movement is growing, thanks largely to old-fashioned grassroots organizing. Chastising FCC Chairman Michael Powell for not soliciting enough public comment on media ownership policy, Commissioner Michael Copps embarked on his own shoestring tour across the country prior to the June vote, holding standing room-only town hall meetings and forging alliances with groups as diverse as the conservative National Rifle Association and the progressive MoveOn.org. This unusual coalition organized the massive citizens' protest against the FCC ruling.
"There is so much shared concern on the right and the left about concentrated media, the decline in the quality of journalism, and its effect on public life, the vast majority of Americans are sympathetic to what we're doing," said Robert McChesney, author of eight books on media and politics and one of the conference's chief organizers.6

The bulk of the conference attendees and presenters, however, were politically left of center, middle-aged, and white. In a powerful impromptu speech at the closing session, a young and diverse group of activists reminded attendees that simply overturning the FCC's verdict through "media reform" is not enough. Mainstream media have to be held accountable, they said, for their stereotypical depictions of people of color; and independent media, youth media, and especially ethnic media have to be widely funded and supported to ensure that a plurality of voices are heard.

"The term 'media reform' implies that the system once worked. But even before this era of consolidation, media was based on a culture of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy," said Malkia Cyril, director of the Oakland-based Youth Media Council at the closing session. "[People of color] are not seeking to reclaim media democracy, because we were never belonged to it. We are trying to bring this democracy about through media justice."7

November 14, 2003

Stephanie Elizondo Griest moderated two "Campus and Youth Activism" panels at the National Media Reform Conference, at which Youth Free Expression Network (www.ncac.org/yfen) speaker Mizgon Zahir presented.

NOTES

1. Free Press: http://www.mediareform.net/callcongress.

2. Leon Lazarus, "Scholars, activists protest media consolidation at Wisconsin rally," Chicago Tribune, Nov. 9, 2003, available from
http://www.centredaily.com/mld/centredaily/news/7223297.htm

3. Juan Gonzalez, speaking at the "Case Study: Media Coverage of Media Reform" landscape session at the National Conference on Media Reform, Nov. 7, 2003 (Stephanie Elizondo Griest notes).

4. Lawrie Mifflin, "An ABC News Reporter Tests the Boundaries of Investigating Disney and Finds Them," New York Times, Oct. 19, 1998.

5. Steve Rendall & Tara Broughel, "Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent," Extra!, May/June 2003, available from http://www.fair.org/extra/0305/warstudy.html.

6. Leon Lazarus, "Scholars, activists protest media consolidation at Wisconsin rally," Chicago Tribune, Nov. 9, 2003, available from http://www.centredaily.com/mld/centredaily/news/7223297.htm.

7. Stephanie Elizondo Griest notes.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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