Asked his opinion of western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied he thought it would be a good idea.
You could say the same of media reform. A good idea, far more easily said than done.
But hang on. There's a growing populist movement out there, working to achieve the goal of a more responsive, independent and accessible media. Over the weekend, 3500 advocates, an empowered array of women and men of all ages from across the country, came to Memphis, Tennessee, to attend the third National Conference for Media Reform. They made for a committed and impressive, ruly mob.
(The event was sponsored and organized by Free Press, the national organization promoting "diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications.")
Admittedly, there was a certain, liberal "Kumbaya" quotient at play in the crowd, and sprinkled here and there, a tiny Whitman's Sampler of cranks.
What's more, as diverse a group as it was, truth be told, they were largely white, an irony on this weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday, in the very city of his assassination. The Lorraine Motel, on the balcony of which the civil rights leader was gunned down in April 1968, is just a few blocks from the conference site. It's now the National Civil Rights Museum. You can stand behind a Plexiglas barrier and look into the space where King lived his last moments -- see the unmade bed, pots and cups of coffee and the half-eaten room service meal.
But words written by King a year before his death, read aloud at the conference's opening session, rang true: "Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power." That's the challenge faced by the media reformers, organizing to confront the increasing consolidation of media power by a handful of giant corporations, oligopolies such as Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, General Electric and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., purveyor of fine Fox network products.
You might think there are far more important issues than media reform -- Iraq, terrorism, health care, hunger and homelessness, the collapse of the American middle class, education, globalization, the environment, even ethics and campaign finance reform. But think -- without a free, fair and unfettered media telling all sides of every story, none of these issues gets the full debate and discussion so vital to a democratic society. Local, national and global problems, as well as their potential solutions, go unremarked.
Part of the answer is to make your own media, electronic samizdat rendered with increasing ease in the universe of the Internet, camcorders, low power radio and television stations.
"This is the moment freedom begins," the conference's keynoter Bill Moyers said, "the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it's time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself...
"This is the great gift of the digital revolution, and you must never let them take it away from you."
That's what the issue known as "net neutrality" is all about, or as Moyers prefers calling it, protecting equal access to the Internet ("Neutrality sounds like Switzerland to me," he said.).
In the recent, $80 billion merger of AT&T and BellSouth, AT&T agreed to adhere to the principle of net neutrality -- not giving preferential treatment for Internet broadband access to the highest bidder -- for two years. That, according to the two Democratic members of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Michael Copps and Jonathan Edelstein, both of whom were in Memphis, will allow time for Congress and the public to rally support for federal legislation ensuring continued net neutrality and affordable, if not free, broadband access for all.
But net neutrality's just one of the battles. In 2003, the infant media reform movement managed to drum up support that beat back the FCC's attempt to give big media more power, relaxing even further regulations on how many newspapers and radio and TV stations one company could own in a single market. Congress and the FCC were flooded with more than three million protests from across the political spectrum. Folks from the Christian right and Common Cause sang this particular "Kumbaya" in perfect harmony.
This year, perhaps as soon as early summer, there will be another attempt at an expansion of media consolidation that would allow a company to own a newspaper, three television and eight radio stations in the same market (if digital TV conversion is completed in 2009, the number could expand to as many as 18 television channels). Once again, the media reform troops are rallying.
The movement is an encouraging, even thrilling, progressive effort to hold the hunger of big media at bay, to keep the people informed and educated, to encourage all of us to take part in the affairs of the republic that shape our destinies.
Moyers quoted Benjamin Franklin, who purportedly said, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."
Martin Luther King's hero Gandhi put it a tad more pacifically. His familiar words are emblazoned on a banner at the civil rights museum in Memphis: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers