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This Is What Media Looks Like

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Issue: 42 Section: Accounts Geography: USA Memphis, Tennessee Topics: media

January 31, 2007

This Is What Media Looks Like

A positive agenda for media reform in the USA

by Steve Anderson

Rev. Jesse Jackson is interviewed by Pacifica Radio Network after speaking at the National Conference for Media Reform.

Photo: Stephanie Sturgis

At the 2005 National Conference for Media Reform, media reformers were preparing for what they called “the perfect storm.” It was a reference to then-upcoming crucial decisions facing the FCC and Congress about future of the media--specifically the future of the Internet. Activists at the 2005 conference expected the powerful telecommunications lobby to aggressively push these decisions to their favour, while the public (rallied by media reform groups and independent media) would continue to mobilize thousands of citizens to counter their influence. Conference organizer Robert McChesney called it “a moment of danger and a moment of spectacular opportunity.”

The perfect storm has arrived. It was in evidence with the explosive atmosphere of the 2007 National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) that took place in Memphis, Tennessee from January 12 to 14. Media activists, educators, journalists, policymakers and concerned citizens from many countries--and nearly every state in the US--attended the conference, which aimed to move media issues to the forefront of public discourse in the United States.

Extensive growth and Celebration

Conference organizers estimate this year’s conference attendance at 3,500, up from 2,500 in 2005 and 1,700 in 2003. Organizers also estimated an increase of 3,000 more people watching major conference presentations online and many thousands more watched video coverage uploaded to Youtube. NCMR speakers included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Moyers, Phil Donahue, Amy Goodman, Danny Glover, John Stauber, Helen Thomas, Jane Fonda, Geena Davis and many others.

The ranks of a growing media reform movement swelled recently with the fashionable issue of Net neutrality. Telecommunications companies have sought to gain the power to give preferential treatment to some internet sites over others. The ensuing battle galvanized many citizens who had previously not been involved in media issues, creating one of the most successful grassroots campaigns in recent US history.

Many conference speakers celebrated the recent success in securing Net neutrality for two years, while encouraging reformers to stay vigilant on the issue. As keynote speaker Bill Moyers put it, “What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable. If we are not diligent, then it will happen to the Internet, [creating] a media plantation for the 21st century dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have controlled the media for the last 50 years.”

“This is the great gift of the digital revolution and you must never let them take it away from you,” said Moyers. The veteran broadcaster also took the opportunity to put his detractors on notice, announcing that he would be hosting a new news show on PBS in the coming months.

Other speakers celebrated the growth of key independent media outlets such as LinkTV, Democracy Now! and the up-and-coming The Real News. Touted as the “largest public media collaboration in the US,” Democracy Now! broadcasts on 500 radio and television stations, reaching an audience some estimate in the millions, surpassing many so-called “mainstream” outlets. The Real News expects to begin airing regular newscasts in March.

The demise of the Independent Press Association (IPA) served as a counterpoint to these success stories. The IPA advocated and provided resources for independent magazines. IPA’s collapse has hurt many independent magazines and was a factor in the recent closing of some magazines, most notably Clamor.

A Positive Agenda

One of the major themes of the conference was the move away from merely defending against media deregulation, towards advocating policy that will advance media democracy.

“After years of fighting to prevent further consolidation of media ownership and the dumbing down of our airwaves, the movement is ready to pursue reforms that will transform American media,” Robert McChesney, president and co-founder of Free Press, told attendees. The SavetheInternet.com Coalition (Founded by FreePress; the conference organizer) unveiled the “Internet Freedom Declaration of 2007” which sets forth its plan not only for winning Net Neutrality in Congress, but establishing faster, universal and affordable broadband for everyone. The declaration calls for “World Class Quality through Competition,” “An Open and Neutral Network,” and “Universal Affordable Access.” The declaration is hailed as seizing control of the terms of debate, shifting the agenda from defending against further media deregulation, to demanding a truly public media infrastructure.

Even before the declaration was unveiled, Senators Byron Dorgan (a Democrat from South Dakota) and Olympia Snowe (a Republican from Maine) announced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007, which would protect Net neutrality.

Reformers energized

In addition to recent media reform success and the burgeoning positive agenda, conference attendees also railed against dismal coverage in the corporate media. Robert McChesney summarized this situation well in his address.

“We need to battle the ever-increasing commercialization of our media. We need to fight thinly disguised payola fuelling homogenized corporate music that leaves no room for local and independent artists; we need to fight video news releases masquerading as news, with PR agents pushing agendas that squeeze out real news coverage and local community concerns; we need to fight product placements turning news and entertainment shows alike into undisclosed commercials; and we need to fight rapacious advertisers preying on the unsuspecting minds of our young children,” McChesney told an energized crowd.

Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman put it more concisely, telling activists about the need to stop a media system that produces “the lies that cost lives.”

At the closing of the conference, support for media reform was higher than every before in recent memory, and the record number of attendees left energized to work for a democratic media system.

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