The New Year is here, and as we take stock of the state of the world and our nation, we must put media reform even higher on our priority list. The movement to fix our badly broken media system is gathering momentum, but the decisions made this year could resonate for decades to come.
The frustrations of millions were echoed in Jon Stewart's no-nonsense critique of corporate media for "hurting America," shown live on CNN's Crossfire. People are tired of the media's partisan hackery, celebrity obsession, failure to hold government accountable, narrow range of debate, unchecked commercialism, and lack of investigative journalism.
Corporate media's failures constitute what legendary journalist Bill Moyers describes as the greatest threat to our nation: "Democracy can't exist without an informed public." Most Americans don't know that the presidential candidates and allied groups shattered all campaign finance records in 2004, spending $2 billion. That's right: billion. Most of that money bought political ads from the biggest media companies ... who gave us back deplorable election coverage.
The gap between rich and poor continues to widen, and more than 45 million Americans are living without health insurance, while Congress guts the critical programs that are the fabric of our democracy. Public education, Social Security, environmental protection, affordable housing, and accessible health care are all at risk.
Most Americans don't know the consequences of our ballooning $521 billion deficit and $7.1 trillion national debt. The media are silent as Congress dishes out some $125 billion every year in corporate welfare. We aren't told that global terrorism has continued to rise each year since the attacks of 9/11, while a full 49 percent of Americans still believe that Iraq had WMDs, and 52 percent believe Saddam Hussein was actively supporting Al Qaeda.
Is it any surprise that surveys showed many Americans went to the polls lacking the facts to evaluate the most important issues of our day? There is something terribly wrong when Americans know more about Martha Stewart's prison stay than they do about the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
The good news
Millions of citizens understand that our bankrupt media system is the direct result of government policies made in the public's name but without our consent. Unprecedented numbers of citizens joined together and organized to win a number of historic victories in 2004, proving that public participation is indeed the answer to the media problem. A genuine media reform movement is gaining momentum and getting results.
In 2004, the FCC's attempts to loosen ownership limits to let Big Media get even bigger were rejected by the courts and Congress after massive public opposition. Sinclair Broadcast Group was forced to retract its brazenly biased Stolen Honor "news" program days before the election. Almost every egregious action by big media corporations - once met with muted opposition - was greeted with a swift response from an increasingly unified, bipartisan and vocal public.
But that's just the beginning. A growing number of citizens are taking action to stop media conglomerates from getting bigger; to strengthen alternative, independent and non-commercial media; to force media companies to serve the public interest; to limit advertising directed at our children; and to make access to communications affordable and universal.
All of these issues - and more - will be on the chopping block when Congress reopens the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as it is expected to do this year. The question is to what degree these crucial decisions will be shaped by informed citizen participation rather than aggressive corporate lobbying.
Free Press (www.freepress.net), the organization I founded to increase informed public participation in crucial media policy debates, will be focusing its energy in the following four areas that offer the best hope for meaningful media reform:
- Media Ownership: Blocking Consolidation, Serving the Public Interest, Fighting Commercialization. While we don't expect the FCC to lift media ownership caps in the immediate future, it's a safe bet that they will try again in the next four years. We're keeping the issue in the news, conducting research and building the legal case for ownership limits in preparation for another Bush Administration attack on the public interest. We're also working to expand the number of low-power FM radio stations available to communities nationwide.
- Community Internet: Broadband as a Nonprofit, Public Utility. This is one of the most exciting and promising opportunities for media reformers. The goal is to offer affordable broadband Internet access to residents, businesses and local governments as a basic utility - just like water, gas and electricity. New wireless technologies allow local governments to offer faster, cheaper and more reliable access than ever before. But these innovations are being fought every step of the way by the biggest telecom monopolies. We must protect the rights of local communities to determine how best to serve their own citizens.
- Public Broadcasting & Noncommercial Media: Enhanced Funding, Diversity and Accessibility. True public broadcasting in the United States - long under attack by commercial media giants and increasingly strapped for cash - is now in serious jeopardy. In 2005, Free Press will launch a national campaign to organize a broad coalition to advance proactive policies that will generate secure, long-term funding for traditional, independent and other non-commercial media - including community radio, television, expanded public access programming, student media, and local independent newspapers and Web sites.
- Cable TV: Breaking Monopoly Control of Content. Today, 70 percent of television viewers are cable subscribers. The cable franchise renewal process - an agreement between a community and its cable provider - offers a terrific opportunity to increase access to community media and broadband Internet. Yet all too often, negotiations are done quietly with little public participation.
This much is clear: Media reform will not happen without all of us getting active and bringing renewed passion and commitment to building a system that serves our families, our communities and our democracy - not just the largest media corporations.
Robert W. McChesney is the founder and president of Free Press (www.freepress.net) and the author of The Problem of the Media.