Million-Word March for Media Reform

Outside the window was the great Arch of Exploration, St. Louis's national monument honoring Thomas Jefferson and his patronage of the Lewis and Clark expedition that mapped out our continent for major change back in the early days of the 18th century.

In these early days of the 21st century, alongside the banks of the same Mississippi River, two modern day Lewis and Clarks -- one a scholar named Robert McChesney, the other a journalist called John Nichols -- invoked the unfinished promise of Jeffersonian democracy to convene a second National Conference on Media Reform to energize an emerging citizens' movement to explore how to take back our media.

The goal: To redirect the most powerful arsenal of communication technology humanity has ever known away from serving corporate interests and into the hands of our citizens and public needs.

The organizers had to close the registration early because the aptly named Millennium Hotel could not accommodate more than the 2,500 people who crammed into the 50 or more panels and plenaries to hear calls for action and plan campaigns for media change.

They came from 50 states and 10 countries. They were old and young, white and black, straight and gay, media consumers and media makers, researchers and academics, lawyers and activists. In the words of an earlier exhortation to media combat in the movie Network, they were "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." They didn't just open their windows to shout, but came to the conference to exchange ideas.

There were angry hip-hop activists demanding "media justice" and senior citizens alarmed about the current threats to PBS. There were internet savvy advocates of municipally-owned wireless systems and senior level "lions of litigation" who believe that the laws and the courts can be used to safeguard our rights.

There were unknown community media producers and some of the best-known voices of liberal left media, like radio revolutionaries Al Franken and Amy Goodman; concerned celebrities like Jim Hightower and Patti Smith; distinguished broadcasters including Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue; two outspoken FCC commissioners; several members of Congress; one Corporation for Public Broadcasting board member, and probably even a partridge in a pear tree.

At times, it had the feeling of a revival meeting, not just a rally. It was a million-word march to end media concentration and open the airwaves to more diversity of expression. And sure, there were tensions, with younger grassroots activists feeling frozen out by the grey heads and media movement vets who dominated the proceedings.

Hundreds of groups that care about media change took part -- national groups from MoveOn to Media Channel, from FAIR to Common Cause, and local groups from Chicago Media Action to Seattle's Reclaim the Media and Philadelphia's Media Tank. All gathered under the auspices of Free Press, a relatively new organization that now claims 183,000 people on its e-mail list.

The small but robust indy TV channels LinkTV and Free Speech TV, and the emerging news-oriented International World Television network were also there in a conclave of shared consciousness. Ditto for the Newspaper Guild, the National Writers Union, AFTRA and the Screen Actor's Guild. Earlier, organizations that claim to represent 20 million Americans had endorsed a citizens' Bill of Media Rights to lay out principles to guide the kind of media system that's needed.

Pacifica Radio aired Saturday night's session nationally, while C-SPAN sent its cameras to record a Sunday morning sermon by Bill Moyers (mp3 download) on the need for real journalism on PBS and a real PBS. (He glossed over its many flaws but upheld the need for a publicly-owned and responsible broadcaster in a time of so much commercialism and corporate media.) Moyers demolished the claims of new Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson that his on-air work needed to be "balanced" with new right-wing fare. "I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out for the White House," he said to continuing applause.

As one would expect, the major media downplayed the event when they played it at all. One of the speakers was so surprised by the intensity of the event that he blurted out: "I HAD NO IDEA" (that the issue was catching on).

Most of those in the room were progressive activists, even though Bob McChesney made it clear that he believes that media is everyone's issue and not just a left or partisan concern. While conservatives were conspicuous by their absence, one has the sense that an effort will be made soon to reach out to other constituencies across the partisan divide, even as there was definite uncertainty on how to do that.

One incident illustrated the tension: When McChesney asked if the goal was to replace the likes of rightist cheerleader Rush Limbaugh with liberal funnyman Al Franken of Air America, the audience cheered loudly to affirm the proposition. It was then left to McChesney to explain why that was the wrong answer and that media reform will not prevail unless more constituencies can be reached. The crowd listened quietly and then cheered this new perspective.

Who was there may be less important than what was discussed in workshops where there were a great deal of detail and analyses offered -- on how to challenge TV and radio license renewals, promote media literacy, advocate for community based wireless, use the internet for media work, petition the FCC, critique media coverage that serves the war in Iraq, and unify media reform concerns with campaigns for social justice. It was also clear that those assembled supported indy media-makers. Many films were screened, and there was a packed room for my WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception).

Still missing: an effective follow-up plan to turn all the energy in the rooms into a more coherent and effective national effort. The focus on grassroots community-based work has many strengths but also leads to a decentralized do-your-own-thingism that robs reform efforts of a national focus. Many of the attendees left St. Louis excited but not totally clear on what comes next.

My own suggestion is to take a clear and marketable umbrella approach akin to the way the right gathered all of its issues and warring factions under the banner of the Contract for America (which many progressives called a Contract on America). We need a post-partisan "Media and Democracy Act of 2005" to give us a platform to unify around. I ran this idea by FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, who thought it had promise. I will flesh it out in a subsequent column.

If there is an urgency to turn this million-word march into a movement of millions of voices, there was one timely local event that drove that home.

The National Conference on Media Reform opened on Thursday with organizer John Nichols' tribute to St. Louis as the home of journalism role model Joseph Pulitzer's flagship Post-Dispatch, which has served the city for more than 100 years. The next day, it was announced that the paper was being sold to a midwestern chain with a dubious reputation. (The paper had already declined, as a story on a neighborhood dispute over paving a driveway had more prominence than a story on the casualties in Iraq.)

While we are meeting, the media monolith is marching itself towards more concentration and dumbed-down media outlets.

The clock is ticking on Tom Jefferson's democratic vision, which belongs in the streets, not just in an arch and a museum.

For more on the conference, visit Freepress.net and Be the Media, where you can watch some of the sessions.

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