Media & Democracy Congress: Beating Big Media

This is an age of increasing -- and an increasingly dangerous -- concentration of media ownership. Whether it's Gannett or Knight-Ridder gobbling up more community papers, Disney buying ABC from Capital Cities or Westinghouse taking over CBS, Time-Warner merging with Turner Broadcasting or alternative papers selling out to chains, the number of independent voices to provide information is dwindling fast. The growing media monopoly poses the threat of both homogenized news and corporate censorship.To further expose -- and seek solutions to -- the problem, the San Francisco-based Institute for Alternative Journalism (IAJ) will sponsor the Media and Democracy Congress in San Francisco from Feb. 29 through March 3. According to IAJ executive director Don Hazen, the scheduled plenary sessions, workshops, and round tables will present an unprecedented opportunity for media activists and academics, journalists, and policy makers to collaborate on ways to protect public-interest journalism and strengthen the voices of independent media."This is a leadership conference, and the timing is perfect," Hazen says. "We have this major telecom bill, which will increase the concentration of media monopolists, on top of a tidal wave of mergers. It's hard for people to understand, because the media monopolists are the ones providing the information about their telecommunication plans and the mergers. All of that reinforces the need for having as many alternative media and political voices as possible, and this conference is attracting a lot of the best thinkers to come up with the best ways to make sure that happens."The congress's 32 organizational cosponsors represent the broad range of the American Left. Groups participating include the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Center for Democratic Renewal, Center for Media Education, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Free Speech, the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Institute for Global Communications, Making Contact, Media Alliance San Francisco, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Radio Project, National Writers Union, Political Research Associates, Progressive Media Project, Public Media Center, Voyager, We Do the Work, and Working Assets.They're joined by media outlets such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the '90s Channel, Globalvision, In These Times, Independent Television Service, Mother Jones, The Nation, Pacifica Radio, the Progressive Review, Third Force magazine, UNPLUG, and the Utne Reader.The dozens of speakers and panelists scheduled to attend reflect that diversity. Populist radio commentator Jim Hightower will be a moderator and give the opening address. Other participants include authors Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, and Katha Pollitt. Panel members will include representatives of YO! (Youth Outlook), (FAIR) Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, Harvard University, the Center for Third World Organizing, the Native American Journalists Association, Dyke TV, and Dan Perkins (a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow).The topics that will be addressed also run the gamut. From how class and gender are represented in the media to how to find funding for independent media voices, the discussions promise to combine theory and practice to battle encroaching corporatization.Journalist, author, and former UC-Berkeley journalism school dean Ben Bagdikian warned of the dangers of media consolidation in his now classic book The Media Monopoly. He'll appear at the congress, and he stresses its importance."This meeting of minds is necessary, because we'll have opinions that aren't frequently heard in metropolitan papers and are never heard on television gathering to take stock of their publications, their communities, and the future of news in general," said Bagdikian. "It's particularly important now, because one of the problems of big media is it concentrates on what's good for the large economic powers in this country. Now, with megamergers bigger than ever before and the mainstream press more and more limiting what we see and hear, it's very important that these community voices get together and figure out how to fight back."

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