Maurice Hinchey is one of the few Democrats in office who really seems to get the true scope of the ongoing Republican assault on public media.
"There's no question that there has been a creeping conservative coup at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," says Hinchey, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 after serving 18 years in the New York State Assembly. "The insidious, aggressive assault by right-wing radicals aimed at taking over pubic broadcasting is doing terrible damage."
After years of quiescence, of late even senior officials of PBS and the FCC have begun to protest publicly, decrying the ongoing power grab in such mainstream mouthpieces as The Washington Post and The New York Times. But given the scale of the attacks, and their blatantly partisan nature, just complaining about the situation -- even on Page One of The New York Times -- won't accomplish much.
That's why Hinchey's newest effort -- the "Future of American Media Caucus" -- is so welcome and necessary.
Hinchey and five other MOCs (four other Democrats plus independent Bernie Sanders) recently asked colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join them so that "reasoned debate, expert analysis and diverse points of view can come together to address critical media policy issues."
In an April 27 "Dear Colleague" letter headlined "Help Shape the Future of American Media!" Hinchey noted, "We live in a time of dynamic change in the American media industry. Less than a decade since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, rapid technological advances and a reshaped media industry have fundamentally changed the way we receive news and entertainment."
With the FCC and Congress again considering how to modernize our nation's media policies and laws -- the Telecommunications Act is coming up for review and reinstatement in the current session -- "it is vital that all points of view are represented," as Hinchey's call to arms states.
This is especially true since the 1996 Act was one of the greatest bipartisan giveaways and sellouts ever, when politicians right, left and center lined up at a corporate feeding trough in return for billions in federal giveaways.
"We need to correct many problems that are currently in the Act, and we're going to have a huge fight on our hands to do so," says Hinchey, an unabashed liberal who enlisted in the Navy after high school and then worked for two years as a laborer in a cement plant before putting himself through college working as a night-shift toll collector. (He was also one of the first and most outspoken opponents of the war in Iraq.)
When reminded that the industry handout, er, legislation was signed into law midway through Bill Clinton's presidency, Hinchey responded, "Clinton should have vetoed it, but at least he was able to mitigate some problems in the original legislation." That legislation, of course, emanated from a Congress dominated then, as now, by Republicans.
Media matters have only gotten worse since 1996, and there is no need in this space to detail (again!) the long list of depredations. Instead, let's look to the future along with Hinchey and his cohorts.
"The decisions we make today will shape the American media industry for years to come, and it is critical that Members and staff are informed about what is at stake for their districts and for the nation as a whole," his caucus invitation said. "For this reason, we have formed the Future of American Media (FAM) Caucus to provide a venue where reasoned debate, expert analysis and diverse points of view can come together to address critical media policy issues."
The FAM Caucus was formerly known as the "Media Reform Caucus." I asked Hinchey to explain the name change.
"We felt we needed to broaden the perspective away from just media reform," he told me on the eve of yet another Media Reform Convention (in St Louis this week end) "Media reform is no longer enough. I truly believe the entire future of American media is now in jeopardy because of the political manipulation that has been going on -- here in Congress, in the White House, at the FCC, and elsewhere."
Citing "continuing consolidation and deregulation, shills in the White House press room, government-paid commentators and columnists, taxpayer-funded propaganda disguised as news" and other issues, Hinchey says he fears the "whole American communications system is in danger of being taken over by radicals." He is therefore reaching out to any Member of Congress who "believes in an accountable, diverse and independent media."
The FAM Caucus "neither endorses nor opposes any particular industry stakeholder." Instead, says Hinchey, "Our goal is to educate Members and staff about media issues before Congress and to ensure that all parties - especially the American public - have a chance to participate in the debate over media policy.
Toward that end, the FAM Caucus will host a series of briefings on contemporary media issues. The first, "The Future of American Media and the Role of Congress," takes place May 12, and features Michael Copps of the FCC, Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, and Peter Pistch of Intel Corporation. Future briefings will cover a wide range of media issues including ownership, digital television, VoIP, low-power FM radio, public interest obligations, and other topics, with Bill Moyers offering his views on the current state of the media industry on May 24.
Hinchey is no fool, and well aware that Moyers is a particular bete noir to the very conservatives who staged the successful communications coup so threatening to our democratic system. Given Hinchey's forthright observation that there are "radical neo-conservatives in control of the House of Representatives," and despite his appeal to bipartisanship, his "FAM" values are best understood as a full frontal political riposte to the neocons and their ilk.
Finally, although deeply concerned about policy issues that affect the private sector, Hinchey says the latest attack on the public media system is especially troubling. "Our country is in deep, deep trouble, and the American people rely on PBS and NPR to get reliable information -- not right-wing propaganda," he concludes. "All we can do is to bring the issues to public attention. The more citizens find out, the more they will become concerned."