Missouri morphed into the "Show Media" state as the 2005 National Conference on Media Reform got underway Friday in downtown St. Louis. The war in Iraq, this week's public protests and deaths in Afghanistan (remember, that's the war with the 'good' ending) over the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, are inspiring many media writers, producers, and activists to paint the media as a symbiotic cog in that wheel we call the Military Industrial Complex. This time we're not along for the ride. Those who view media as a movement (and this is not yet a critical mass) know it as (1) a political economy few of cooperative capital interests that shut out public participation in deference to their sponsors; (2) a form of information apartheid that forces the masses into information servitude in the form of a mindless peanut gallery of submissives driven to distraction and/or addiction to irrelevant entertainment dribble; and (3) coated in news values that are generally pro-war (war is good for business and thus good for media), anti-humanistic, and anti-global. News media owners are genuinely scared that global civic masses will gain an awareness of how the media system operates against their public interest and health, which is why we need to approach media reform as a global public health and education campaign.
When you survey the media landscape in a holistic fashion as this conference forces one to do, you come away with only one conclusion: absolute certainty that the corporate media system is on life support and this dying patient's struggle is progressive media's opportunity to distribute alternative medicine. Consider the following "points of light" in the media landscape:
- Whose media is it, anyway? Media owners are out of touch with their media consumers and this cuts across partisan lines and political ideologies. News values are top-down, eyeballs are leaving traditional media (newspaper readership is down as is network news viewership) and opportunity exists to create new media in the vacuum of profit bleeding going on presently in the corporate press. So far though, too many of us are ceding the language of media content, distribution, and policy to the elite few, not working harder to inform the discouraged and disgusted marginalized many who, given the proper tools, are ready to take up arms against a system that dis-informs and infotains more than it informs and educates. If we take back ownership by creating our own media, building alliances across political lines, and organizing our own ninja investigative journalists, then we'll look back in nostalgic bliss at a time when profit ruled over public information.
- Where's the fun anymore? Mainstream media journalists are bemoaning the demise of that period in journalism history in the '60s and '70s when the profession used to be fun and informative. Now it's neither. Because the bloom is off the rose for most journalists, it is imperative that indy media journalists make alliance with their corporate media insiders who are ready to jump ship. The time to view all corporate media journalists as "the other side" or "the enemy" is over. Many journalists who got into the journalist profession for the right reasons and would like to do the right stories cannot. Investigative reporting has dried up altogether or shows up in fits and starts. It costs too much at a time when newsroom staffs are being decimated, earns too little in an era when double digit profiteering in news returns is expected by owners, and isn't in public demand, or so say media owners. The embedded media message of this conference is that this is our time, our fun, and our case to make that the public both wants and needs democratic, accountable, and critical media that genuflect to neither corporate nor government gods.
- Outrage alone is futile. Robert Greenwald, Hollywood film director-turned public interest media maestro (Outfoxed), when you see/hear/read something in the media, you shouldn't be satisfied by forwarding your post to a friend. We all need to vent over what we object to, but what he learned from working inside the Hollywood media machine is that sponsorship is everything. He has been in meetings with bigwig sponsors who gnash their teeth over 7 letters from angry viewers. Greenwald says that we must take the media reform fight to the corporate sponsors. It can take just a handful of letters to get sponsors worried about continuing to carry a program, so continue to write your letters to the editor and voice your opposition against media coverage but more important, voice your opposition to media underwriters and advertisers. My advice: Send a letter to a sponsor the next time you are beginning to rage against the media machine with a friend over a coffee. Brent Bozell and the Parents Television Council have done this to great effect, which is why they dominate the media content conversation in America today and note very prominently on their website that "Advertisers, along with network executives, are the key decision-makers in Hollywood, and they decide what options you'll have in television programming."
- Know your media history. With props to Juan Gonzalez, he said that media democracy in America has a two-hundred-year history. The flowers of today's media reform movement bloomed from the seedling struggles of the people of the United States, many of whom were native peoples and new immigrants in search of a voice for their community. How many of us were aware that the first Chinese language newspaper began in the immigrant communities of America, not China? These media facts have been so forgotten that it inspires this writer to think we need A People's Media History of the United States with foreword by Howard Zinn. As one who teaches mass communications history and philosophy in the United States, the students are hungry for knowing this history but don't know it because our journalism and communication schools aren't teaching it. Very few schools offer independent media or media from a populist perspective. Popular majors are public relations, advertising, and other sponsored-media approaches to communication. Many of my media major students sit in class very cynical in their attitudes toward today's corporate media landscape (who cares about Dan Rather and Memogate), but if given the proper media history they may actually see beyond Jon Stewart and the Daily Show and view the media system as something other than just to ridicule or to discuss in a late-night television monologue.
It's been said often that war is too serious to be left to generals alone. The same applies to the dominant corporate media system now under challenge. Media reform is too serious to leave to its present owners. These owners, like many generals, perpetuate zero-sum thinking of winners and losers, with those who own and sponsor the media viewed as winners and those who consume the media as losers. I'm convinced now that the media reform movement is not fighting a lost cause. Corporate media has lost too many battles (credibility, public trust, substance) to win this media war.