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"Just as a diversity of food is necessary for a healthy diet, likewise a diversity of media voices is necessary for a healthy democracy."

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Remember the Media Ownership Victory of 2003

It's important that we remember everyday people can fight and win key struggles that have a huge and lasting impact on society.

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of a remarkable victory for social justice. On September 3, 2003, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia blocked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from gutting the nation's media ownership rules. This stopped the floodgates for billions of dollars of media transactions, "cocked and loaded" as the business press reported, and prevented what America saw, heard, and read, on television, radio, and in newsprint from getting much worse.

Since World War II, America limited the number and types of media a single company could own. Just as a diversity of food is necessary for a healthy diet, likewise a diversity of media voices is necessary for a healthy democracy.

But after 1980, the craze to emphasize business over the public -- "deregulation" as it was termed -- eroded those media ownership limits over the next two decades. And in June 2003, the FCC went for the gusto and voted to eliminate the remaining limits.

The result was a public outcry of historic proportions. More than three million people responded, setting an all-time FCC record by orders of magnitude. But that outcry didn't just happen: Grassroots media activists (including those at Chicago Media Action, where I volunteered) worked hard to raise awareness at a time when the major media went mute, hoping to cash in before people noticed and it would be too late.

But Congress did notice the public outcry, as did the courts, and the Third Circuit Court asked the rhetorical question: "You [at the FCC] got a million postcards. Does that matter?" The subsequent court order -- served one day before the vote went into effect -- caught many media companies flatfooted. Even some companies like Viacom and the Tribune Corporation unraveled in its wake.

It might all seem quaint today, given that the "legacy" media are now small potatoes compared to internet giants like Meta, Amazon, Alphabet, and Apple. But everyday people can fight and win these struggles, as happened with the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003, and reminders about these victories can inspire future victories to come.

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