In "American Aurora," historian Richard Rosenfeld tells the tale of how in
1798 Benjamin Franklin's grandson, a rabble-rousing newspaper editor named Benjamin
Bache, was imprisoned for criticizing President John Adams. It is a chilling tale
of how Franklin's warning at the Constitutional Convention that the American experiment
would eventually degenerate into despotism was too quickly proved true.
the story of Bache's imprisonment and eventual release is, as well, a story of
American redemption. And it is one that is well remembered this weekend, as activists
from across the nation gathered in Madison for the first National Conference on
Just as it was in the days of the founders, the struggle to ensure
that media serve some common good, as opposed to merely the private interests
of media owners and their powerful allies, goes to the heart of whether the United
States will be a free and functional democracy.
A media industry grounded only
in entertainment and commercial values may feed the bottom line of a few corporate
CEOs. But it will not nurture community or country. The United States needs media
firmly grounded in the civic and democratic values that are at the root of this
American experiment. Central to those values is a willingness to challenge even
the most powerful.
The founding fathers recognized this when they fought to
insert a freedom of the press guarantee in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
They wanted media that served as a watchdog over the powerful, in government and
in the private sector. And when Adams sought to constrain that watchdog function,
they fought him. Jefferson's victory over Adams in 1800 sent a powerful signal
that the new United States would welcome and encourage a free and a freewheeling
Today, however, the ability of the press to function usefully and effectively
in a democratic society is again suffering from constraint. This time, the constraint
comes not from a misguided president but from media companies and their allies
in government, who want to see the consolidation of ownership into the hands of
a few powerful corporations. They have already succeeded in some sectors: Since
the passage of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, one firm, Clear Channel,
has bought up more than 1,300 radio stations.
This year, the Federal Communications
Commission agreed to media ownership rule changes that would allow similar consolidation
of ownership in the television sector and would strike down barriers to cross-ownership
between sectors. As a result, one company could eventually own the daily newspaper,
several television stations, up to eight radio stations, the cable company and
the primary Internet site in a city.
The FCC vote caused a national outcry.
More than 2 million Americans have called on Congress to block the ownership rule
changes. And Congress is listening. The Senate has already voted to block them,
but President Bush and Republican leaders - who favor the rule changes - have
stalled a vote in the House.
Clearly, these are serious days in the struggle
to ensure that America has media that are broadly owned and competitive, that
represent all views, and that nurture and sustain democracy. There are genuine
threats to the freewheeling discussion of ideas, and the diversity and competition
that are the lifeblood of democracy.
But the outpouring of opposition to the
FCC rule changes tells us there is hope that the threat will be overcome. So too
does the success of the National Conference on Media Reform, which has brought
together activists from the labor movement, churches, community organizations
and journalism groups to forge a powerful movement to reassert the public interest
in federal decision-making on media ownership.
If America is to be a genuine
democracy, that movement must prevail.
Copyright 2003 The Capital