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Synthesis/Regeneration 36   (Winter 2005)

Are Your Core Issues Held Hostage
by the Corporate Media?

by Nancy Doyle

White House press releases and consumer trivia—these are the tools we’re given to make some of the most important decisions governing the world today. Not vigorous debate, not minority viewpoints, but: which is the best barbeque grill? What are rock stars’ four favorite hotels? Which basketball celebrity injured his knee? This is the problem with the media.

The media are important because we are making decisions in this country that matter a lot, not only to us, but to people all around the world—people who don’t want to get killed, for whom the policies of the United States of America mean very literally life and death.

This came into clear focus in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. We watched every day as the administration tested its latest pitch for war and reporters dutifully wrote them down. No questions asked.

We have all heard the statistics since: that 72% still believe that there were WMDs in Iraq that 75% believe Iraq was providing substantial support for Al Qaeda. In this election season, we’ve seen the powerful impact of self-censorship, withholding information or refraining from engaging in issues deemed too “political.”

More and more, Americans sense there’s something not right. In a 2003 survey, almost a third of respondents called news organizations immoral, up from 13% in 1985. Seven in ten people said news outlets were often influenced by powerful people and organizations.

People sense that our media system is failing in its job of supporting a functioning democracy.

People sense that our media system is failing in its job of supporting a functioning democracy. What they don’t know is how this happened. They assume that the media, like gravity, simply exists. There’s nothing that’s been done to create our media system that can’t be undone. It’s only and purely a matter of organized people dismantling a system built secretly by media corporations wanting to get bigger.

How we got here

Our policy approach to media in this country was put on paper in the late 1920s when people were trying to figure out what to with this new medium called radio. Commercial broadcasters wanted it, but many warned that freedom of the press was impossible as long as broadcasting was under what intellectual John Dewey called “concentrated capitalistic control.”

In a nod to citizens’ ownership of the airwaves, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate them according to the “public interest.” Policy was heavily influenced by commercial broadcasters who made sure that radio policy primarily supported a commercialization of the medium.

In decades since, corporate interests have remained at the reins. Consolidation sped up under Reagan and the first George Bush. In the corporate- giveaway Telecommunications Act of 1996, the term “public interest” appeared 112 times.

Because early makers of media policy never said what they meant by the term “public interest,” there’s been room for interpretation. The current chair of the FCC, Colin Powell’s son Michael, has decided it means the FCC helps the media industry make lots of money. In a 2001 speech, Powell addressed the delicate question himself, saying:

I am committed to building policy that is centered around market economics . . . Market systems, far from being the bane of consumers, have unquestionably produced more consumer welfare than any other economic model devised by mankind. Thus, if you are truly committed to serving the public interest, bet on a winner and bet on market policy.

It’s an old story—this “capturing” of a federal agency for corporate benefit. According to the Center for Public Integrity, in the last eight years FCC commissioners and staff have received almost $2.8 million in travel and entertainment expenses, mainly from the telecommunications and broadcast industries it’s supposed to regulate. They received 330 trips to Las Vegas alone.

Both media policy in Congress and the FCC’s implementation of that policy overwhelmingly favor Big Media corporations at the expense of the people and our democratic system. That means corporate consolidation, fluff news, stifled independent voices, rubber-stamping of the status quo—trends that few citizens want to see continue.

Taking back the media

Change number one: Advocate for a national media policy that truly serves the public interest.

The seeds of success have already been sown. In 2003, when Powell and the FCC were trying to push through rule changes that would take another great leap towards commercialization and concentration, the American people caught wind of it and responded. An estimated 2.3 million comments and petition signatures poured into Washington, almost every one passionately opposed to these rule changes.

It isn’t easy to inspire our legislators, because Big Media is essentially the only road to voters. Whether they’re buying campaign ads or hoping for favorable coverage, legislators are reluctant to compromise their relationship with Big Media.

That being said, there’s nothing like a critical mass of angry constituents to get their attention. Under constituent pressure, Congress voted overwhelmingly to block the FCC’s new rule changes. It was more evidence that only organized people can remake a system that organized money has corrupted.

Change number two: Build a mass movement.

The network of organizations and citizens demanding reform is growing but still relatively small and disconnected. We must reach beyond the usual suspects to engage our parents, our brothers and sisters, co-workers and friends.

This isn’t easy. It’s hard to believe there’s a crisis threatening our democracy when you haven’t seen anything about it on TV. We need to raise awareness, person to person, of the damage done every day by our current media system.

This includes shining a light on the gap between what people see on TV and the reality of this world. A friend of mine went to Haiti two months before the coup happened and was alarmed by the newspapers’ narrative on Haiti. He said, “What the newspaper is writing—it isn’t true! That’s not what happened at all!” He witnessed a US-backed overthrow of an elected leader but read about a people rising up in their own rebellion.

Each person who is shocked in this way will never see or hear news the same way again.

The Green Party is uniquely positioned to raise the media issue.

In building a mass movement, we’ll find perhaps surprising allies among reporters. Seven out of ten reporters say that the buyouts of news organizations by big corporations have a negative effect on journalism. When asked about coverage of the 2004 campaigns, nearly three-quarters graded it C, D, or F. They said the news media was sidetracked by trivial issues, too reactive, and focused too much on the inside baseball that doesn’t really matter to voters.

A reporter who worked in radio for many years once told me, “We’d like to do better reporting, but we can’t.” He said he wants to dig deep but he only has time to call one source. And it’s the same source he called for the last five stories he’s done on this issue. He knows that’s not good journalism, but it’s out of his hands. Budgets are cut to increase profits and journalism suffers.

The media is simply the way we talk to one another on a large scale. Every progressive group that has seen their issue abandoned by the corporate media has a stake in media reform. By reaching to every group and citizen that knows we need real, diverse national dialogue, we can remake our media system.

The Green Party is uniquely positioned to raise the media issue. The two Big Parties are so reliant on the existing system that they are unable to take leadership on this issue. As Greens, we are in touch with the unheard voices and invisible issues. We can make media reform central to our campaign platforms, our legislative agendas, and our direct action efforts.

We know the places where our nation has fallen short of its ideals. We want to bring all citizens to these places so we can create solutions. Author Danny Schecter said, “We cannot even talk about changing America without confronting and remaking media power.”

Change number three: Support our public and independent media.

We need media that’s relieved of commercial pressures. Independent media is often non-profit and community-based and makes truth-telling its primary goal.

Working together, we can create policies that promote independent media and fully fund our public media sources. We can also claim our own right to participate in our civic dialogue, challenging the assumption that only the contributions of media professionals or elite “experts” are legitimate.

Change number four: Demand accountability from the corporate media.

Most media businesses have long since abandoned any pretense of serving the public interest. Network executives state with increasing candor that it’s a ratings game, nothing more.

In this environment, we can no more ask NBC to give us substantive news than we can ask McDonald’s to serve nutritious meals. It’s a business. Big Media provides what the market demands

It could be argued that making citizen demands of a corporation only charged with serving its own bottom line is misguided. Increasingly, we have no other option. What if McDonald’s had bought out every restaurant and grocery store in town? Local media monopolies have done just that. The president of national newspaper chain Knight-Ridder boasted that no Knight-Ridder newspaper is subject to any competition in its geographic market. Good for business, but bad for democracy.

Nancy Doyle is founder of the “Free Media Greens,” a media reform caucus of the Green Party of Minnesota which can be visited on-line at http://www.mngreens.org/

[2 feb 05]

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