The University of Wisconsin has had a long history as a center of dissident culture and alternative perspectives. In the 50's it was an oasis of free thought in a state that sent Joe McCarthy to the Senate. In the 60's new left intellectuals published "Studies on the Left" and mounted some of the era's largest anti-war protests.
And so it not surprising that a major media reform congress will be hosted on the university's Madison campus this weekend. The timing could not be better; the need for media reform has risen in American public discourse to a level never before seen.
Few of us in the media reform movement thought that ownership issues would have touched such a deep nerve or galvanized such a widespread response. The popular outcry against a proposed Federal Communications Commission rule change mobilized nearly three million Americans opposed to further dismantling of media ownership rules. Capitol Hill observers say this issue has been the second most discussed item by constituents in 2003, trailing only the war on Iraq. This is the new face of the popular campaign for media reform, and a sign that the historical concerns of those attending this weekend's conference have crossed political divides to capture the interest of many.
The challenge now before those in Madison is how to reach this politically diverse population and further engage them in the reform movement.
REFLECTING THE MASSES
The conference brings together an impressive array of media activists, professionals and educators. Thousands are expected to hear Bill Moyers' keynote address and participate in panels, cultural events and screenings. Media historian Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, who launched the organization Free Press, deserve praise for leading this event. The Media Education Foundation has provided organizing muscle. The list of speakers includes the two Democratic FCC commissioners, several members of Congress, media analysts, journalists and activist musicians.
Upon scanning the full list, though, we can't help but notice that the bulk of those attending hail from one region of America's political landscape -- occupied by progressives, Democrats and left-leaning independents. Yet, ironically, the largest single constituency (more than 300,000) to respond against the FCC rule change was organized by an icon of the right, the National Rifle Association. The NRA feared that the change would usher Big Media's alleged anti-gun agenda into local media markets. Others on the right equated Big Media with Big Government and responded with understandable conviction against the change.
Who at this weekend's conference is speaking to their concerns? More to the point, how are we including those beyond our established constituents to sound a unified call for media reform?
The last six months have seen traditional foes often speaking a common language on the media. In this respect, the battle has been joined, but it has not yet been won. It now falls upon reformers to reach out and include more Americans, whether conservative or liberal, in the campaign.
This is most critical now as we head into an election year. Despite expressions of congressional disapproval with the FCC actions, the lobbyists and the moneyed media corporations can throw their weight around to get their way. The Bush Administration has already warned that it will veto any real media reform bills. By mobilizing a broader base in 2004, we can exert deeper pressure upon politician-candidates seeking to champion a popular (and multi-partisan) cause.
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For tactics, there is an unlikely model: Fox News. Some activists tend to pick on easy targets like Fox and let the rest of the networks off the hook. It might be more useful to understand how Fox built its brand and audience and consider lessons learned from their marketing achievements. We are not calling for anyone to emulate Fox demagoguery and bullying in the name of "fairness and balance." What is more important is to understand how they have been able to reach a new audience that may have been ignored by other media outlets. It is also important to understand how they have positioned themselves, however bogus, as critics of bias and challengers to the status quo.
"If we are serious about democracy, we will need to reform the media system structurally," says McChesney. "This reform will have to be part of a broad movement to democratize all the core institutions of society." The conference organizer's stated aims are to: strengthen grassroots and DC-based coalitions; develop unified plans for immediate and long-term reforms; and generate policies and strategies that will structurally improve the media system.
This is an ambitious agenda. Can it be realized? Of course. But that will take the kind of commitment, financing, and strategy that is often missing in a movement that is more comfortable being critics of Big Media than competitors for their mass demographic.
Too often, our laments echo through the movement without reaching the audience beyond. It is much easier to cling to alternative media outlets that take our side than carry the fight on to popular radio talk shows, local TV and radio outlets and the letters columns of our newspapers. We need to engage the mainstream, not retreat from it.
We need a new and more comprehensive strategy that goes beyond defining what we dislike. We need to create strategy that helps the public define what they want -- like more diverse news, better political coverage and more access to media outlets. We need to put our energy and resources into sustaining independent media outlets that help us all reach more readers, listeners and viewers. We need to build bridges among journalists of all stripes.
MAKING MEDIA WORK FOR DEMOCRACY
We are now facing a new election cycle. We know that the media helped hand the election to Bush in 2000 by failing to devote equal airtime to discussions of political issues, information on voter registration and portrayals of lesser-known candidates. In a study of media coverage, the Norman Lear Center, a MediaChannel affiliate, revealed that the amount of election-centered discourse provided by the typical local station during the height of the 2000 presidential primary season was just 39 seconds a night -- far short of the five-minute standard advocated by a 1998 presidential advisory commission headed by then Vice President Al Gore. The net effect of media neglect was the election of image over substance, the victory of the sound bite over meaningful political discourse.
How are we planning this time around to make media work FOR democracy? Organizations that are focusing on this issue -- including MoveOn.org, Common Cause, MediaReform.Net, Media Tenor, MediaChannel.org, the Alliance for Better Campaigns and the Center for Media and Public Affairs -- are preparing special coverage to help people understand how all politics has become media politics in the 2004 election.
But to challenge a system that has become a "mediaocracy" (rule, in effect, by the media) we need to come up with more monitoring and citizen activist projects that expose the abuses and conflicts of interest within the media system and advocate election coverage that better serves the public interest.
We hope some of these issues will be raised in Madison. We hope that we can find ways to work together and get beyond the rhetoric and recycling of old ideas to reach the new audience that has risen to support of media reform.
We have all been to conferences with noble ideas but inadequate performance. We hope Madison will be different. On Wisconsin!