News & Politics

Mainstreaming the Media Movement

In order to succeed, media reformers must reach out to conservatives rather than mobilize the usual liberal constituencies.
The University of Wisconsin has a long history as a center of dissident culture and alternative perspectives. In the '50s it was an oasis of free thought in a state that sent Joe McCarthy to the Senate. In the '60s, new left intellectuals published "Studies on the Left" and mounted some of the era's largest anti-war protests.

So it not surprising that a major media reform congress will be hosted at the university's Madison campus this weekend. The timing could not be better; the demand for media reform has risen to a level never before seen in American public discourse.

0Few of us in the media reform movement foresaw that ownership issues would touch such a deep nerve or galvanize such a widespread response. The popular outcry against a proposed Federal Communications Commission rule change mobilized nearly three million Americans opposed to the further dismantling of media ownership rules. Capitol Hill observers say this issue has been the second most discussed item by constituents in 2003, trailing only the war on Iraq.

This is the new phase of the popular campaign for media reform, and a sign that the historical concerns of those attending this weekend's conference have crossed political divides to capture the interest of many. The challenge now before those in Madison is how to reach this politically diverse population and further engage them in the reform movement.

Reflecting the Masses

The conference brings together an impressive array of media activists, professionals and educators. Thousands are expected to hear Bill Moyers' keynote address and participate in panels, cultural events and screenings. Media historian Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, who launched the organization Free Press, deserve praise for leading this event. The Media Education Foundation has provided organizing muscle. The list of speakers includes the two Democratic FCC commissioners, several members of Congress, media analysts, journalists and activist musicians.

Upon scanning the full list, though, we can't help but notice that the bulk of those attending represent one part of the political spectrum -- the slice occupied by progressives, Democrats, and left-leaning independents. Yet, ironically, the largest single constituency (more than 300,000) to resist the FCC rule change was organized by an icon of the right, the National Rifle Association. The NRA feared that the change would usher Big Media's alleged anti-gun agenda into local media markets. Others on the right equated Big Media with Big Government and responded with conviction against the change. Who at this weekend's conference is speaking to their concerns? More to the point, how are we including those beyond our established constituents to sound a unified call for media reform?

The last six months have seen traditional foes often speaking a common language on the media. In this respect, the battle has been joined, but it has not yet been won. It now falls upon reformers to reach out and include more Americans, whether conservative or liberal, in the campaign.

This is most critical now as we head into an election year. Despite expressions of congressional disapproval with FCC actions, lobbyists of moneyed media corporations can throw their weight around to get their way. The Bush administration has already warned that it will veto any substantive media reform bills. By mobilizing a broader base in 2004, we can exert deeper pressure upon politician-candidates seeking to champion a popular (and multi-partisan) cause.

Testing Mainstream Waters

In our tactics, we should learn from an unlikely model: Fox News. Some activists tend to pick on easy targets like Fox and let the rest of the networks off the hook. It might be more useful to understand how Fox built its brand and audience, and consider lessons learned from their marketing achievements.

We are not calling for anyone to emulate Fox demagoguery and bullying in the name of "fairness and balance." What is more important is to understand how they have been able to reach a new audience that may have been ignored by other media outlets. It is also important to understand how they have positioned themselves, however bogus their claims may be, as critics of bias and challengers to the status quo.

"If we are serious about democracy, we will need to reform the media system structurally," says McChesney. "This reform will have to be part of a broad movement to democratize all the core institutions of society." The conference organizer's stated aims are to: strengthen grassroots and DC-based coalitions; develop unified plans for immediate and long-term reforms; and generate policies and strategies that will structurally improve the media system.

This is an ambitious agenda. Can it be realized? Of course. But it will take the kind of commitment, financing, and strategy that is often missing in a movement that is more comfortable being critics of Big Media than competitors for their mass demographic.

Too often, our laments echo through the movement without reaching the audience beyond. It is much easier to cling to alternative media outlets that take our side than carry the fight on to popular radio talk shows, local TV and radio outlets and the "letters to the editor" pages of our newspapers. We need to engage the mainstream, not retreat from it.

We need a new and more comprehensive strategy that goes beyond defining what we dislike. We need to create a strategy that helps the public define what they want -- as in more diverse news, better political coverage and more access to media outlets. We need to put our energy and resources into sustaining independent media outlets that help us all reach more readers, listeners and viewers. We need to build bridges among journalists of all stripes.

Making Media Work for Democracy

We are now facing a new election cycle. We know that the media helped hand the election to Bush in 2000 by failing to devote equal airtime to discussions of political issues and information on voter registration and lesser-known candidates. In a study of media coverage, the Norman Lear Center, a MediaChannel affiliate, revealed that the amount of election-centered discourse provided by the typical local station during the height of the 2000 presidential primary season was just 39 seconds each night -- far short of the five-minute standard advocated by a 1998 presidential advisory commission headed by then Vice President Al Gore.

The net effect of media neglect was the election of image over substance, the victory of the sound bite over meaningful political discourse.

How are we planning to make media work for democracy this time around? Organizations that are focusing on this issue -- including, Common Cause, MediaReform.Net, Media Tenor,, the Alliance for Better Campaigns and the Center for Media and Public Affairs -- are preparing special coverage to help people understand how all politics has become media politics in the 2004 election.

But to challenge a system that has become a "mediaocracy" (rule, in effect, by the media), we need to come up with more citizen activist and monitoring projects that expose the abuses and conflicts of interest within the media system and advocate election coverage that better serves the public interest.

We hope some of these issues will be raised in Madison. We hope that we can find ways to work together and get beyond the rhetoric and recycling of old ideas to reach the new audience that has risen to support media reform.

We have all been to conferences with noble ideas but inadequate performance. We hope Madison will be different. On to Wisconsin!

News Dissector Danny Schechter writes a daily blog for He will be speaking in Madison and showing a preview of his most recent project, a film-in-progress based on his book "Weapons of Mass Deception." Timothy Karr is the Executive Director of
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