3,500 Turn Out to Decry Corporate Media Values

The consequences of growing corporate control of mass media were underscored as never before at the fourth National Conference for Media Reform, held June 6-8 in Minneapolis. Some 3,500 people heard Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and others hammer major news outlets for suggesting that scientists seriously disagree on whether global warming is caused by human activity. Other speakers argued that more diversity in media ownership—and therefore of coverage—would hasten the end of war in Iraq and enhance organized labor's attempts to reduce economic inequality.

No surprise, then, that Amy Goodman, host of the national daily radio and TV news show “Democracy Now!” was one of the event’s most popular speakers. Not only has “Democracy Now!” consistently produced programs critical of the war, but it is produced by the Pacifica Foundation, a nonprofit organization that rejects advertising and NPR-style corporate “underwriting.”

Also new to this year’s conference was discussion of so-called “net neutrality,” the principle that has prevented cable and phone companies from censoring or giving preferential treatment to some Web sites over others. But that principle is now in danger, according to several speakers. Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois professor and co-founder of Free Press, the Massachusetts-based group that organized the conference, urged support for the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a bill now before Congress that would protect Net neutrality.

The gathering featured a mix of technical, hands-on advice on such topics as how to petition the FCC to revoke a TV or radio station’s license for not broadcasting enough local news, as well as energizing and inspiring speeches on how stronger news media could advance democracy.

“We cannot have democracy with consolidated, corporate media ownership,” said Congressman Keith Ellison during the opening session. Ellison is the first Muslim member of Congress and the first black congressman from Minnesota. “The corporate media won’t tell us that campaign contributions are legalized bribes,” he said.

David Sirota, an author and syndicated weekly columnist, noted that many papers are replacing full-time staff reporters with freelancers. He also spoke about the importance of local politics. “The most destructive thing the corporate media do is tell us presidential politics in the only place we can make change,” he said in a room packed with several hundred people.

And Mark Lloyd, a former NBC and CNN journalist who now works for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said pressure from ordinary people can change the media. “The opportunities that let me, as a black man, become a journalist were created by social movements—people who were protesting the media,” he said. “FCC rules brought people of color into TV.”

Echoing Lessig’s comments on how the major media misinformed the public on the science of climate change, Amy Goodman cited a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that found that in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the country’s biggest news outlets quoted just three people supporting peace—and 390 in favor of going to war. “That’s not mainstream media. That’s extremist media,” Goodman said. “The press is supposed to be the check and balance on the government.”

Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-seat Federal Communications Commission, predicted that Barack Obama will be elected president and that Democrats will gain congressional seats in November—resulting in an FCC that will deny license renewals to TV and radio stations that don’t broadcast enough local news. “Now we rubber-stamp their requests without any public interest review,” he groused.

The FCC’s other Democrat, Jonathan Adelstein, chimed in with the observation that big media companies are “having a conniption” over FCC efforts to require TV and radio stations to post lists on the Internet of their programming that serves the public interest. Such lists could help the public evaluate whether broadcasting licenses should be renewed. “We need your help with that, and with our efforts to enforce anti-propaganda laws, and to require clear labeling of thinly disguised video news releases that are being aired as news,” Adelstein said.

Congressman Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, used his speech to urge support for a bill he’s sponsoring that would dramatically increase the number of radio stations in the U.S. and ensure that the new stations stay in local hands and do not get gobbled up by big companies. “Fewer and fewer people are controlling more and more of what Americans see and hear on TV and the radio,” he said. “This issue goes to the core of our democracy.”

Other speakers included Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, journalists Dan Rather and Bill Moyers, and outgoing Guild president Linda Foley. (Rather’s and Moyers’s speeches are at www.freepress.net.) Local Guild members organized a party at a restaurant during the conference to thank Foley for her years of service to the union.

Some of the loudest applause of the weekend went to Van Jones, founder and president of Green for All, a nonprofit group in California that last year helped pass the federal Green Jobs Act. The act provides funding to hire 35,000 people to weatherize homes and do other jobs to reduce environmental pollution. Jones, who is African-American, spoke of the need to include people of color in the environmental movement—and of the role media can play in doing that. “We cannot drill and burn our way out of the energy problem anymore,” he added.

Aside from the education that events like the media reform conference provide, the biggest benefit is their networking opportunities. “My favorite thing about the conference is the inspiration from seeing how many like-minded people are here,” explained Paul Davies, a Minneapolis video editor. “As a consumer of media, you can forget that there is a progressive movement and that it’s gaining.”

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