What a time those great old Wisconsin rabble-rousers Victor Berger and Robert M. La Follette would have in Madison this weekend. When the first National Conference on Media Reform convenes, with more than a thousand activists from across the country in attendance, it will herald the formation of a mass movement that Berger and La Follette called for more than three quarters of a century ago.
During the dark days of World War I, Berger and La Follette were among the handful of members of Congress challenging the military adventurism of President Woodrow Wilson and the profiteering of the munitions merchants who so enthusiastically supported the dispatch of American youths to foreign battlefields. Berger, the Socialist congressman from Milwaukee, and La Follette, the state's progressive Republican senator, boldly challenged the politicians and the profiteers who equated support for the war with patriotism.
But they also recognized that those politicians and profiteers would never have succeeded in luring America into a war between feuding European monarchs without the willing acquiescence of the media. Berger and La Follette battled what both men referred to as "the kept press" - newspapers and magazines that were little more than cheerleaders for the militarists of their day.
On June 20, 1917, barely two months after the U.S. entry into the war, Berger wrote a column for the Milwaukee Leader under the headline: "Why We Are in This War." In it, he attacked the "capitalist press - the kept prostitute of the capitalist system" for publishing the Wilson administration's "lies" about the necessity of war. Berger vented his fury at the vast majority of newspapers, which failed to ask basic questions when, as he put it, "Our plutocracy and its government in Washington is now establishing an absolute autocracy in our country with the slogan: 'War necessitates autocracy.' "
As a result of Berger's expression of dissent from the journalistic order of the day, the postmaster general revoked the Leader's second-class mailing privileges. But the people of Milwaukee reacted differently: They elected Berger to the House of Representatives.
The same voters backed La Follette as he rose again and again in the Senate to condemn so-called journalists who directed venom at the members of Congress who dared to question the need for war. "Six members of the Senate and 50 members of the House voted against the declaration of war. Immediately there was let loose upon those senators and representatives a flood of invective and abuse from newspapers and individuals who had been clamoring for war, unequaled, I believe, in the history of civilized society," declared La Follette, who held a stack of newspaper clippings aloft as he spoke.
Perhaps La Follette would adjust his assessment if he were around today to witness Fox's celebrity journalists as they cheer on another misguided president and another misguided war. But it is not just Fox that practices stenography to power rather than journalism. The demonization of dissent - and, more frequently, the dismissal of dissenters - played a significant role in making it possible for President Bush to launch his invasion of Iraq.
It is a fury at that demonization and dismissal that has fueled the current movement for media reform. Yes, of course, there are other concerns that draw citizens to demand more diverse and democratic media. But when the media have so abandoned their role as questioner and challenger of those in power that they actually attack citizens who display the courage to ask questions and pose challenges, then the case for reform has been made.
Just remember that Bill Moyers, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Al Franken, Ralph Nader, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein and the other reformers who gather in Madison this weekend will not be the first to make this case. They are part of a tradition with roots that stretch back to the founding of this country - when that freedom of the press protection was placed in the Bill of Rights not to protect media magnates but to defend democracy. And, this weekend, they will renew the call of Robert La Follette and Victor Berger for media that serve the great many, as opposed to the powerful few.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times