Media Reformers Rally in D.C.

FCC Protest
Inja Coates, director of Media Tank in Philadelphia, helped organize the Angels of The Public Interest demonstration at the FCC in Washington last week

"We're here to launch a campaign to build a movement for media democracy."

So declared Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, in front of the Federal Communications Commission's headquarters last week. Chester was speaking to the "Angels of the Public Interest," a group of media reform protesters who derived their name from a speech given by FCC chair Michael Powell: "The night after I was sworn in, I waited for a visit from an angel of the public interest. I waited all night, but she did not come." The message from the protesters -- we've been here all the time, you just weren't listening.

Powell is probably not quaking in his boots at Chester's bold statement, as there were only about 65 media activists on hand, many of them grassroots media producers videotaping the event for broadcast on the Web and on public access stations back home.

But the demostration -- featuring, yes, protesters in angel garb and the Billionaires for More Media Mergers -- served as something of a pep rally for the would-be leaders of a mass movement for media democracy. The organizers, from a variety of media reform groups and a growing number of Independent Media Centers, impressed themselves by pulling it off in just a month's time via e-mail and the Web.

The organizers had been planning a larger Earth-Day-style week of workshops, protests and celebrations for October centered around media democracy. But because the courts and the FCC are rapidly removing restrictions on corporate media ownership, the activists decided to act now.

In February, for example, a U.S. Court of Appeals handed Powell an easy chance to strike down some media ownership regulations by sending them back to the FCC for review. Activists expect Powell to push the deregulation through, which will likely consolidate the broadcast television industry. And just a couple of weeks ago, the FCC declared that broadband Internet service is an "information service," rather then a "telecommunications service," which may prevent Internet Service Providers from having equal access to cable Internet networks. Activists describe the problem this way: Just like you're out of luck now if you want the Food Network and your cable company won't provide it, so too might you be left hanging if you want to log on to a Web site and the cable network running your service doesn't offer it.

"It's not just old media being deregulated," Chester told the gathering. "The Internet is being hijacked."

Media scholar and activist Dee Dee Halleck warned that the Internet is emerging from the utopian "democratic and participatory" moment enjoyed by all new media early in their evolution. Now, Halleck argued, corporations are moving in to parcel up the Internet frontier.

Of course, the recent FCC rulings are only the latest affront to those fighting for democratic media. They follow many others -- made easier by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- that give greater control over the flow of information to fewer and fewer corporations.

A widespread movement is the only way to stop the speculators from speculating and make the regulators regulate, activists say.

Asked for a response to the activists' concerns about the withering away of the FCC's public interest mission, Brian Marriott, an FCC spokesman, seemed to confirm the activists' worst fears.

"We respect what they were saying," he said, "but I think what [the protesters] need to understand is that the chairman has said that one of his major priorities is reexamining the foundations of our entire media regulations."

The organizers of the March 22 demonstration laid out some very broad and ambitious demands, such as, "The FCC shall serve the public interest by promoting the creative, widespread use of interactive technologies in such a way that these technologies are open to all and do not further create new sources of social fragmentation." The protesters also called on the agency to dismantle "the monopolistic concentration of media and communication systems." They also want the FCC to ban "advertising during children's television programs" and to "support the taxation of all advertising aimed at adults."

To build a true movement to achieve all this and more, participants in last week's action say they know they need to make their issues relevant to grassroots activists and labor unions to recruit more troops to their cause.

They have their work cut out for them. Virtually all of the 72 groups that endorsed the action focus primarily on media issues. One exception, and maybe a model for other groups, was the National Organization of Women. Terry O'Neill of NOW made the connection between rapidly growing media monopolies and the locking out of diverse voices on TV and elsewhere in the media.

The message to progressives active on all issues needs to be, "Before you make any social change you have to change the media," said Pete Tridish of Prometheus Radio, an organization that helped to win radio licenses for some small-power stations but lost a battle to win licenses for small stations in large urban markets.

Peter Hart, of media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, agrees. "[We need to] connect with those people and make media [reform] a part of their strategy," he said.

Aliza Dichter, a media educator and activist who is also an editor at, said organizers now need to develop working groups and concrete projects for activists to work on. She also stressed the importance of "outreach to labor and to civil rights groups, to journalism organizations, to educators, to people who are our natural allies once they understand what the issues are." A week of media democracy activities is still on tap for October.

Meanwhile, at the protest, Chester urged Powell to come out of his headquarters for a series of debates on media policy over the public airwaves. Marriott's response: "There are procedures within the FCC to have public comment and that's the legal way to do things within the system." So to get that to happen, a higher wattage of people power may be in order.

"We can have a Seattle of the media some day," said Priya Reddy, a videographer and anti-globalization activist who goes by the name "War Cry."

Tridish is on the same page, but thinks such a day may come soon. "The media movement is about to get much, much bigger," he said.

Jordan Moss is the editor of the Norwood News, a Bronx community newspaper.

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