News & Politics

Does Media Reform Have a Chance in the Digital Age?

On the eve of the Media Reform Conference in Memphis, a new book by Jeffrey Chester documents the corporate media's behind-the-scenes efforts to transform our online media system into a powerful marketing machine. Media reformers and elected officials, please pay attention.
The timing is terrific for the New Press' publication of Jeffrey Chester's new book, Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy.

The book comes out just as a new Democratic majority in Congress is getting seated in Washington after a long absence and a large gaggle of media reformers are headed to Memphis, Tennessee, for a big gathering on January 13th and 14th. Hopefully both the Democrats and the reformers will hear Chester's very loud wake-up call about a rapidly changing digital media system that shreds consumer rights as it " uses the Internet as a personal information collection system."

My goals here are two-fold: One, provide the reader with a good sense of Chester's terrific book and what it means for our media future. And, two, challenge the media reform movement to revisit their priorities, especially their disproportionately large focus on "net neutrality."

It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to focus more attention on the content and tools of the powerful new interactive digital landscape -- a place where Chester says "brand washing" has become the new model for manipulating consumer behavior and undermining democracy -- and less attention on the delivery pipes. Here, huge media companies like Yahoo and Google are fighting that battle with us.

Making sure all citizens have access to information and the Internet is crucial, and of course we should be on the side on the content providers against the telephone and cable titans. But as has been true for decades, only scant attention and investments are being made toward building an independent media that can produce compelling content and deliver it broadly. No matter what happens with net neutrality, the same corporate media and right wing forces will be dominating our air waves, and now increasingly the Internet, while the opportunities for growing progressive media capacity essentially remain stalled.

Keeping up with Super Rapid Media Change

You would have to be living under a rock to not notice the widespread changes the digital media revolution has swept into the 21st century. There are tens of millions of bloggers. Murdoch's News Corporation and the expanding colossus Google have gobbled up mega social networking sites like My Space and YouTube, with millions of daily users, for billions of dollars. And, as the Internet becomes increasingly dominant, the "old" media forms -- network TV, newspapers, and terrestrial radio -- are feeling the vise of their shrinking audiences and advertising dollars.

So Chester's book is a helpful aid for keeping up with the rapidly changing technology world. But to really stay up-to-speed, you might also need a bunch of RSS feeds, social network updates; hourly checks of Technorati top blogs; Google alerts for breaking headlines; an instant messenger that logs into AOL, Yahoo, GoogleTalk and MSN simultaneously; and some widgets for your friends' Web sites to spread the word about what you think is important. And, of course, you will need a Crackberry so you don't miss any of it while you're driving to work in the morning. And I'm only half kidding. Technological change in our media world is happening at breakneck speed, and Congress, media reformers and aging baby boomers are all having a tough time keeping up.

What's Happening Below the Radar

The essential message of Chester's book is this: While we may know that new social networking sites are attracting huge audiences, we don't have a clue as to what is operating behind closed doors. "The ad and marketing industries have been engaged in a largely behind-the-scenes role ensuring that the federal government doesn't protect our on-line privacy." As Chester warns, "We are being shadowed online by a slew of software-driven digital gumshoes working for Madison Avenue. Our movements in cyberspace are closely tracked and analyzed."

Powerful interactive video and animated images beckon us to become emotionally involved with the advertising as talking animated ad bots float across our computer screens. "We all should be alarmed about how interactive advertising is shaping the kind of programming and content available to us in the future," Chester writes.

This scenario is not new. In the 1950s, Vance Packard authored the book Hidden Persuaders, showing how ad campaigns are designed to exploit consumer vulnerabilities. Fifty years later, Chester is on the same track: The efforts, motivations and secrecy of advertisers haven't changed -- only their venues have.

After infiltrating the corporate media world by studying trade journals and reports and attending conferences below-the-radar, Chester has learned many of the tricks of the new electronic trade. This knowledge is especially disconcerting when faced with the fact that public interest groups and progressive media makers and funders are pretty much in the dark when it comes to developing strategies for competing with the "rich" media of the future.

Chester explains, "We will soon be living in a ubiquitous and connected electronic media environment. Mobile devices will connect the vast majority of the U.S. public to the Internet, where commerce, work, and politics will be transacted. It is essential that progressives successfully stake out the mobile marketplace at this pivotal stage."

But that isn't on the agenda in Memphis where media reformers' main focus is on net neutrality, the oddly named battle cry that is trying to hold off the new monopolists -- phone and cable companies -- and their role in terms of access to the Internet. But more about that in a minute.


What's in the Book

Chester's book does two things simultaneously, which, in retrospect, might make the reader feel a little schizoid. One, he exposes the advertising and marketing industry for their efforts to seduce, manipulate and invade our privacy. But also, as a veteran activist on the frontline of media reform for the past 25 years, Chester provides a respectful loving, fresh, intimate comprehensive history of the struggles for a "democratic " media -- the lost fights, the opportunities missed, and the small victories that have kept the corporate media system from having complete carte blanch over the communication channels.

The first six chapters of Chester's book tell a detailed history of the struggle to hold off the voracious appetites of the media conglomerates and the hand-and-glove cooperation from the Bush appointees on the FCC -- in particular Michael Powel (son of Colin), who was at the helm of the FCC during a key period. Chapter 6 tells of the titanic struggle to slow down ownership concentration, eventually lost to Powell's delivering the goods to the industry he then went to work for.

In these fights there have been heroes -- hard working creative, brave souls fighting the good fight. But these fights have been fundamentally David and Goliath struggles. And Chester, with his historian's hat on, can track a long trajectory going back more than 70 years, where every new media development has promised to make the world better, to strengthen community and empower people, and every promise has failed. Every decade the corporate media system has gotten more powerful, and more immune to change, and the media reform movement less able to stop the runaway train. Which brings us back to the question of net neutrality and the priorities of the media reform movement.

What Does This All Mean for Media Reformers?

This coming weekend, hundreds of media reformers and independent media makers will descend on Memphis, Tennessee, for the third Media Reform Conference sponsored by Free Press, a media advocacy organization. Huge changes have taken place since the last reform gathering 18 months ago in St. Louis, where new technologies and the Internet barely scratched the surface of the conference organizers' consciousness. This time the planners are playing catch up, weaving in blogs, new media and citizen journalism to their panel line-ups, and scrambling to come to grips with how much the media world has been and continues to be transformed. Yet, after reading Chester's book, one wonders if the reformers are up to speed.

The media reformers collecting in Tennessee are feeling their oats. The new Democratic Congress in D.C., could provide new legislative openings. The significant grass roots public participation at FCC hearings across the country has been very encouraging. And the recent temporary victory on the question of Net Neutrality has many celebrating.

But is net neutrality something that should lead to our feeling optimistic and celebratory about the media future? Are reformers being strategic when they invest their political capital in this particular quest, which does nothing to change the status quo?

The net neutrality victory, in essence, is AT&T's recent agreement to "allow its customers unfettered access to data and services over high speed Internet connections for the next two years in partial exchange for FCC approval of its purchase of Bell South for $85 billion. Under current law, the broadband providers have the right to charge premiums to various high traffic customers, like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google. Along with media activists, these companies have been waging a strong battle for net neutrality too -- to save themselves a bunch of money. Many fear that a tiered system of Internet access would result in parts of the population being treated like second class citizens -- although different levels of service is a concept well-known to everyone before they switched over from dial-up to the now ubiquitous DSL and cable high-speed lines and paid a premium.

For reformers, the language included in the agreement is significant because it appears to validate the notion of "net neutrality" as a workable concept -- something the big media companies had refused to acknowledge. Jonathon Adelstein, one of the Democratic commissioners on the FCC, told the New York Times that "it is going to set the terms of debate going forward," while his Democratic colleague Michael Copps described the agreement as "a step that will preserve and encourage the truly transformative openness and power of the Internet."

If only Copps fantasy were true. Unfortunately, like many media reform efforts over the past decade, net neutrality may be missing the forest through the trees.

While net neutrality has an important goal of trying to protect us from future damage, it lacks the capability of fixing the myriad problems that already exist. And the company buyout that was approved in partial trade for net neutrality is an abomination, allowing AT&T, (really SBC before they bought AT&T) one of only three remaining regional phone companies from the original break up of AT&T back in 1984, to dominate 22 states, 67.5 million phone lines, 11.5 million broadband users. The deal also gives AT&T, a company with 300,000 employees, total control over Cingular Wireless, the country's largest mobile phone company with 58 million cell phone users.

Even net neutrality's victory was lucky quirk: One of the Republican majority on the FCC withdrew, forcing a 2-2 tie and compelling AT&T to have to deal with the two liberal Democratic members of the FCC. The vote happened at in an end-of-the-year rush to wrap things up for accounting purposes and to please their investors. The AT&T deal is only for two years, or until Congress acts on the issue, and does not include any of the other broadband companies. In addition, the FCC will continue with a Republican majority at least for the next two years.

But perhaps the main point is that there are the major players fighting in this struggle -- Amazon, E Bay, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo -- all with a major vested interest in keeping the playing field even. Must we spend most of our political capital and time and energy when it will have no effect on the crucial issues of the day - Iraq, health care, global warming, economic justice and fairness. The past election has given us some hope and created some new opportunities, However, without far stronger megaphones refuting the corporate and right wing messages, our success on these crucial issues may well be undermined.

The Media Reform Alternative
So what is the media reform alternative? Chester concludes that it is not the "rear guard efforts to make our old media accountable as possible," that is crucial. But rather that "the focus of our advocacy must be on ensuring that the digital media system meaningfully serve us as citizens and active participants in a democracy."

At this point, Chester said in an interview, "Only via a market intervention in our media system can we hope to make long-term progress in trying to change the attitude of the public about key issues. Let's face it, there are unlikely to be meaningful new public policies on media ownership. Even if so-called network neutrality passes Congress under the Democrats, it will not open up distribution of our content on cell phones or interactive cable TV's, for example," and it is cable that dominates access to the Internet and has no requirements of universal service like phone providers have.

"We will likely also see more consolidation of ownership, with newspapers, TV stations, and major online properties in fewer hands," Chester continues. "Consequently, we must employ a strategy that doesn't depend primarily on public interest media policies to ensure the public has access to diverse, independent, and in-depth sources of information."

In other words, we have to invest in and make our own media at a level far broader and more sophisticated than we have now, or progressives will find ourselves even further behind than we were in the old media world.

Ironically, not until the Internet exploded with millions of blogs, bottom-up social networking, and millions of videos uploaded and down loaded every day, has media become more democratic -- and none of that is a consequence of media reform. The only future solution is to harness the power of the Internet in the service of social change, and not wait for what's not likely to happen.

Media Makers and Media Reformers -- A Personal View

Historically, there has been a disconnect between policy reformers and progressive media makers. Many media reformers have insisted that media reform needs to come first, before we can have media to compete with the corporations. The result: Little energy has been invested in growing progressive media. When Free Press argues in conference promotional materials that we "can't have change without first reforming our media system," then we are in big trouble. If we wait to reform the media system, we will be failing in our challenge to change our world with our own media efforts. And even if there were unlikely victories that opened up more space for public interest content, without the capacity to make compelling media, and the resources and skills to market and deliver the content to large audiences, it wouldn't much matter.

We have to keep in mind, there will be no viable media reform that will change the things that progressives hate most about the media -- the right wing slant, the rabid talk radio jocks, Fox News and its White House echo machine, the pervasive takeovers of airwaves by radical Christian broadcasters, the failure of corporate media to explore weapons of Mass Destruction and challenge Bush's war machine, and on and on. Corporate media will serve corporate interests, and no amount of media reform is going to change that. These are questions of politics and influence and the only way to mobilize people is with more powerful progressive media.

On a personal note, a decade ago I was a staunch media reformer and created the two popular Media & Democracy congresses in 1997 and '98. But while we were clamoring and are still clamoring for policy changes, the ground was shifting -- new media platforms, technological advances -- and frankly, the media ownership concentration critique became less and less useful, as opportunities opened up to reach larger audiences with new methods. It became more and more obvious that it was up to us to seize those media opportunities.

My conclusion, back in 1998 was that the only way we were going to move forward is to invest whole heartedly in new media, which is when I started AlterNet.org., which is now more successful than imagined, with more than 2 million visitors a month, while modestly funded. And there are other major success stories. Amy Goodman and Democracy Now have shown that you can make money and maintain your political principles, as the show is seen in a huge number of markets, and Amy is the most popular progressive in America (with some competition from Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky).

In terms of new media, The Huffington Post, raising private money, is now one of the most popular sites on the web with its energetic mix of news, blogging, and video, and is experimenting with some of the web 2.0 strategies that are necessary for future success in the social networking world. Other sites like Raw Story, Truth Out, Common Dreams are lively and anti corporate at their core. Meanwhile, blogs like the Daily Kos, My DD, Crooks and Liars, Fire Dog Lake, and even AlterNet's PEEK are enlivening things, spreading truth and holding the system accountable far more than in the past.

Still despite some progress and improvements, the bottom line is this: the progressive media line up is not remotely sufficient for the task ahead. The capacity, for example, to make consistent compelling video and television, with the exception of a small creative operation like Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, and Michael Moore's larger footprint, is very underdeveloped.

The basic problem is a lack of faith and a lack of money. So far, there are no major capitalists or philanthropists, among liberal and democratic multi-millionaires and billionaires, who are willing to invest in a serious way in independent media. No one individual or group trusts progressive media or feels confident in the progressive audience of 30-40 million to think it could be profitable, or even come close to breaking even over the long haul. No one individual or group is yet willing to invest enough money to make sure there is one independent media company powerful enough to make and distribute television, to answer the conservative media frames and the corporate cover-ups, and to consistently put out messages for a better world.

In the face of our relatively puny media power, it behooves media reformers to use their resources and efforts to help convince funders, and investors that we need to build powerful media outside of the big media conglomerates. If we want to stop the next war, get single payer health care, stop global warming, redistribute the enormous wealth gathered at the top of the economic ladder, then we had better change our attitudes about making progressive media. That is media reform. And until that time comes, independent media makers will be doing the best we can.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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