Freeing the Media

Listen closely at dinner time: that phone ringing or that person knocking at your door may not be peddling a new long distance phone carrier, or a new protection plan for your gold card. That annoying interruption may instead be a concerned citizen trying to stop the attacks on senior citizen's health care, or the felling of the last of the great old growth trees.This voice, out of place as it may feel, represents a human-scale version of a choice on an issue of our day. It doesn't come from a multi-media marketing campaign, or out of a public relations focus group. It's a small voice, and even though deep-down you may want to hear it, it never seems to fit between the commercials.The single most significant challenge faced by human-scale organizations seeking public policy change is this isolated, apathetic and disempowered public. Voices of human beings always seem to be drowned out by a sea of orchestrated noise; the knock on the door never seems as significant as the drone of a network news anchor, or the headlines of the latest celebrity trial or catastrophe.Thomas Jefferson said, "Information is the currency of democracy." Democracy requires active citizens just as much as tyranny prefers spectators. In fact, the only business protected by the U.S. Constitution is the press. The logic is simple enough; only a strong and free press can tell us how people with power are using that power. But what happens when the press is owned by the powerful?The state of modern communications in the United Stated is dominated by the profit motive, and the concentration of ownership is growing as corporations like Disney, General Electric, and Westinghouse swallow broadcast media channels all across the spectrum. A media system that serves advertisers and shareholders above all other interests runs counter to the aims of democracy. Ratings make money, and violence and entertainment "sell" better than public service. The recent national Telecommunications Act of 1996 contributed to these negative trends by reducing public interest requirements for media companies dramatically.Established consumer groups have long been advocates of public utility reform, but rarely have they taken on the private domination of public airwaves. For pragmatic reasons, established public interest groups rely on what little media coverage they do get for visibility. Given the current power structure, the last thing any sane non-profit director would take on would be the media establishment.This is precisely what a new campaign by the Alliance for Community Media is planning to do. The campaign comes in response to the acceleration of media monopolization resulting from the Telecommunications Act. Right now, we're down to 10 major corporate conglomerates dominating all that you see, read and hear. Media activists have long been pushing the idea that first amendment struggles in an information age must include issues of media access.To re-kindle public discourse, a forum, an actual space for communication, must first be created. The Alliance is pushing proposed legislation called the Telecommunications Access Act to accomplish this. The proposed legislation would require media systems that use public airwaves or rights-of-way (broadcasters, satellite, cable and phone based services) to set aside significant space for educational, public and governmental use.Imagine a commercial-free weekly TV program, produced by community groups and volunteers, simulcast on radio and on the internet, where a town meeting format would not be subject to the ratings litmus. No need for a Ken Schramm or Jerry Springer to shock or titillate. Community groups would select the topics democratically, and would promote the program through schools, general outreach, and on existing media channels.This is not an impossible achievement. The Manhattan Neighborhood Network is producing such a program on New York's public access channels. Through funding arrangements secured by municipal governments when cable companies wanted to dig up city streets, community-curated television is paid for by the folks making money using public land.The Telecommunications Access Act, if adopted, could make such models available to cities of every scale and size. Such community-based media would enable citizens to not only participate in the realm of public discourse as spectators, but to create their own media as well.If successfully implemented, and promoted, grassroots organizations would need to rely much less heavily on invasive, phone solicitations or the stray comment on the nightly news. The original mandate for public media -- giving voice to the voiceless -- would be much closer in reach.This isn't the only tenable media campaign being organized.Independent media makers are forging local, regional, and even international alliances and networks in an effort to build real alternatives to corporate-dominated communications. Seattle's Independent Media Coalition was the first, and similar forums have also been created in Chicago, Toronto, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston. The 1997 Media and Democracy Congress in New York City will host some 400 organizations dedicated to confronting the problems of growing media monopoliesMicro-radio conferences, satellite networks, internet and print consortiums are paving the way for a media system independent of corporate power. The job of re-invigorating a vital and vibrant civic life is not an easy one, but democratizing our media is an essential first step.

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