Delivered to the National Media Reform Conference
January 12, 2007
It has long been said (ostensibly by Benjamin Franklin, but we can’t be sure) that “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
My fellow lambs:
It’s good to be in Memphis and find you well-armed with passion for democracy, readiness for action, and courage for the next round in the fight for a free and independent press.
I salute the conviction that brought you here. I cherish the spirit that fills this hall and the camaraderie we share today. All too often the greatest obstacle to reform is the reform movement itself. Factions rise, fences are built, jealousies mount – and the cause all believe in is lost in the shattered fragments of what was once a clear and compelling vision.
Reformers, in fact, too often remind me of Baptists. I speak as a Baptist. I know Baptists.
One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge when another fellow runs up to him, crying: “Stop. Stop. Stop. Don’t do it.”
The man on the bridge looks down and asks, “Why not?”
“Well, there’s much to live for.”
“Well, your faith. Are you religious?”
“Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me, too. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist?”
“Me, too. Are you original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1820, or Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1912?”
Whereupon the second fellow turned red in the face, shouted, “Die, you heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.”
That sounds like reformers, doesn’t it?
By avoiding contentious factionalism, you have created a strong movement. I will confess to you that I was skeptical when Bob McChesney and John Nichols first raised the issue of media consolidation a few years ago. I was sympathetic but skeptical. The challenge of actually doing something about this issue – beyond simply bemoaning its impact on democracy – was daunting. How could we hope to come up with an effective response to an inexorable force?
It seemed inexorable because over the previous two decades a series of mega-media mergers had swept the country, each deal even bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspaper industry is extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike. Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest and most powerful media conglomerates in the world – Goliaths whose handful of owners controlled, commodified and monetized everyone, and everything, in sight.
Call it the plantation mentality in its modern incarnation. Here in Memphis they know all about that mentality. Even in 1968 the Civil Rights movement was still battling the “plantation mentality” based on race, gender, and power that permeated Southern culture long before and even after the groundbreaking legislation of the mid-1960s. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker’s heart – “I am a man” – voiced the long suppressed outrage of a people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality was a phenomenon deeply insulated in the American experience early on, and it permeated and corrupted our course as a nation. The journalist of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, had envisioned this new republic as “a community of occupations,” prospering “by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole.” But that vision was repeatedly betrayed, so that less than a century after Thomas Paine’s death, Theodore Roosevelt, bolting a Republican party whose bosses had stolen the nomination from him, declared:
It is not to be wondered at that our opponents have been very bitter, for the lineup in this crisis is one that cuts deep to the foundations of government. Our democracy is now put to a vital test, for the conflict is between human rights on the one side and on the other special privilege asserted as a property right. The parting of the ways has come.
Today, a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt’s death, those words ring just as true. America is socially divided and politically benighted. Inequality and poverty grow steadily along with risk and debt. Many working families cannot make ends meet with two people working, let alone if one stays home to care for children or aging parents. Young people without privilege and wealth struggle to get a footing. Seniors enjoy less and less security for a lifetime’s work. We are racially segregated in every meaningful sense except the letter of the law. And survivors of segregation and immigration toil for pennies on the dollar compared to those they serve.
None of this is accidental. Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow – not someone known for extreme political statements – characterizes what is happening as nothing less than elite plunder: “The redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.” Indeed, nearly all of the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20% of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top 1% of households captured more than 50% of all gains in financial wealth. These households hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American Revolution. Of the early American democratic creeds, the anti-Federalist warning that government naturally works to “fortify the conspiracies of the rich” proved especially prophetic. So it is this that we confront today. America’s choice between two fundamentally different economic visions. As Norton Garfinkle writes in his new book The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth, the historic vision of the American Dream is that continuing economic growth and political stability can be achieved by supporting income growth and the economic security of middle-class families without restricting the ability of successful businessmen to gain wealth. The counter belief is that providing maximum financial rewards to the most successful is the way to maintain high economic growth. The choice cannot be avoided: What kind of economy do we seek, and what kind of nation do we wish to be? Do we want to be a country in which the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer?” Or do we want to be a country committed to an economy that provides for the common good, offers upward mobility, supports a middle-class standard of living, and provides generous opportunity for all? In Garfinkle’s words, “When the richest nation in the world has to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to pay its bill, when its middle-class citizens sit on a mountain of debt to maintain their living standards, when the nation’s economy has difficulty producing secure jobs or enough jobs of any kind, something is amiss.”
You bet something is amiss. And it goes to the core of why we are here in Memphis for this conference. We are talking about a force– media– that cuts deep to the foundation of democracy. When Teddy Roosevelt dissected the “real masters of the reactionary forces” in his time, he concluded that they “directly or indirectly control the majority of the great daily newspapers that are against us.” Those newspapers – the dominant media of the day– “choked” (his word) the channels of information ordinary people needed to understand what was being done to them.
And today? Two basic pillars of American society – shared economic prosperity and a public sector capable of serving the common good – are crumbling. The third basic pillar of American democracy – an independent press– is under sustained attack, and the channels of information are choked.
A few huge corporations now dominate the media landscape in America. Almost all the networks carried by most cable systems are owned by one of the major media conglomerates. Two thirds of today’s newspaper markets are monopolies. As ownership gets more and more concentrated, fewer and fewer independent sources of information have survived in the marketplace. And those few significant alternatives that do survive, such as PBS and NPR, are under growing financial and political pressure to reduce critical news content and shift their focus in a “mainstream” direction, which means being more attentive to the establishment than to the bleak realities of powerlessness that shape the lives of ordinary people.
What does today’s media system mean for the notion of the “informed public” cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the company’s share price. More insidiously, this small group of elites determines what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth news coverage of anything, let alone of the problems people face day-to-day, is as scarce as sex, violence, and voyeurism are pervasive. Successful business model or not, by democratic standards, this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form – which Barry Diller happily describes as oligopoly– media growth has one clear consequence: there is more information and easier access to it, but it’s more narrow in content and perspective, so that what we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top.
The pioneering communications scholar Murray Edelman wrote that “Opinions about public policy do not spring immaculately or automatically into people’s minds; they are always placed there by the interpretations of those who can most consistently get their claims and manufactured cues publicized widely.” For years the media marketplace for “opinions about public policy” has been dominated by a highly-disciplined, thoroughly-networked ideological “noise machine,” to use David Brock’s term. Permeated with slogans concocted by big corporations, their lobbyists and their think-tank subsidiaries, public discourse has effectively changed how American values are perceived. Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people’s lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers who speak of the “death tax,” the “ownership society,” the “culture of life,” the “liberal assault” on God and family, “compassionate conservation,” “weak on terrorism,” the “end of history,” the “clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a “surge” – as if it were a current of electricity charging through a wire instead of blood spurting from a soldier’s ruptured veins. We have all the Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth.
So it is, that “limited government” has little to do with the constitution or local autonomy any more; now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. “Family values” now means imposing a sectarian definition on everyone else. “Religious freedom” now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And “patriotism” now means blind support for failed leaders. It’s what happens when an interlocking media system filters, through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints that people consume in their daily lives.
By no stretch of the imagination can we say the dominant institutions of today’s media are guardians of democracy. Despite the profusion of new information “platforms” on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretive, are contracting rather than expanding. I’m old fashioned in this, a hangover from my days as a cub reporter and later a publisher. I agree with Michael Schudson, one of our leading scholars of communication, who writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review that “while all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media.” But newspapers are purposely dumbing down, driven down – says Schudson– by “Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, seems determined to eviscerate newspapers.” Meanwhile, despite some initial promise following the shock of 9/11, television has returned to its tabloid ways, chasing celebrity and murders – preferably both at the same time– while wallowing in triviality, banality and a self-referential view.
Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It has been verified by history: from the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge had been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest.
The suppression of parliamentary dissent during Charles I’s “eleven years tyranny” in England (1629-1640) rested largely on government censorship operating through strict licensing laws for the publication of books. The Federalists’ infamous Sedition Act of 1798 likewise sought to quell Republican insurgency by making it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government or its officials.
In those days, our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic freedom with the blunt instruments of the law – padlocks for the presses and jail cells for outspoken editors and writers. Over time, with spectacular wartime exceptions, the courts and the constitution have struck those weapons out of their hands. But now they’ve found new methods, in the name of “national security” and even broader claims of “executive privilege.” The number of documents stamped “Top Secret,” “Secret” or “Confidential” has accelerated dramatically since 2001, including many formerly accessible documents which are now reclassified as secret. Vice-President Cheney’s office refuses to disclose what, in fact, it is classifying: even their secrecy is being kept a secret.
Beyond what is officially labeled “Secret” or “Privileged” information, there hovers on the plantation a culture of selective official news implementation, working through favored media insiders, to advance political agendas by leak and innuendo and spin, by outright propaganda mechanisms such as the misnamed “Public Information” offices that churn out blizzards of factually selective releases on a daily basis, and even by directly paying pundits and journalists to write on subjects of “mutual interest.” They needn’t have wasted the money. As we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the plantation mentality that governs Washington turned the press corps into sitting ducks for the war party for government and neo-conservative propaganda and manipulation. There were notable exceptions – Knight Ridder’s bureau, for example – but on the whole all high-ranking officials had to do was say it, and the press repeated it, until it became gospel. The height of myopia came with the admission by a prominent beltway anchor that his responsibility is to provide officials a forum to be heard. Not surprisingly, the watchdog group FAIR found that during the three weeks leading up to the invasion, only three percent of U.S. sources on the evening news of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, and PBS expressed skeptical opinions of the impending war. Not surprisingly, two years after 9/11, almost seventy percent of the public still thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of that day. An Indiana school teacher told the Washington Post, “From what we’ve heard from the media, it seems like what they feel is that Saddam and the whole Al Qaeda thing are connected.” Much to the advantage of the Bush administration, a large majority of the public shared this erroneous view during the buildup to the war– a propaganda feat that Saddam himself would have envied. It is absolutely stunning –frightening– how the major media organizations were willing, even solicitous hand puppets of a state propaganda campaign, cheered on by the partisan ideological press to go to war.
There are many other ways the plantation mentality keeps Americans from reality. Take the staggering growth of money-in-politics. Compared to the magnitude of the problem, what the average person knows about how money determines policy is negligible. In fact, in the abstract, the polls tell us, most people generally assume that money controls our political system. But people will rarely act on something they understand only in the abstract. It took a constant stream of images – water hoses, dogs and churches ablaze– for the public at large to finally understand what was happening to Black people in the South. It took repeated scenes of destruction in Vietnam before the majority of Americans saw how we were destroying the country to save it. And it took repeated crime-scene images to maintain public support for many policing and sentencing policies. Likewise, people have to see how money-in-politics actually works, and concretely grasp the consequences for their pocket books and their lives, before they will act. Media organizations supply a lot of news and commentary, but almost nothing that would reveal who really wags the system, and how. When I watch one of those faux debates on a Washington public affairs show, with one politician saying this is a bad bill, and the other politician saying this is a good bill, I yearn to see the smiling, nodding beltway anchor suddenly interrupt and insist: “Good bill or bad bill, this is a bought bill. Whose financial interest are you serving here?”
Then there are the social costs of “free trade.” For over a decade, free trade has hovered over the political system like a biblical commandment, striking down anything–trade unions, the environment, indigenous rights, even the constitutional standing of our own laws passed by our elected representatives– that gets in the way of unbridled greed. The broader negative consequence of this agenda– increasingly well-documented by scholars– gets virtually no attention in the dominant media. Instead of reality, we get optimistic multicultural scenarios of coordinated global growth, and instead of substantive debate, we get a stark, formulaic choice between free trade to help the world and gloomy sounding “protectionism” that will set everyone back.
The degree to which this has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that can help people weigh net gains and losses, is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it – that is, simply because it stood for “free trade.” We have reached the stage when the pooh-bahs of punditry only have to declare the world is flat for everyone to agree it is, without even going to the edge to look for themselves.
I think what’s happened is not indifference or laziness or incompetence but the fact that most journalists on the plantation have so internalized conventional wisdom that they simply accept that the system is working as it should. I’m working on a documentary about the role of the press in the run-up to the war, and over and again reporters have told me it just never occurred to them that high officials would manipulate intelligence in order to go to war.
Similarly, the question of whether our political and economic system is truly just or not is off the table for investigation and discussion by most journalists. Alternative ideas, alternative critiques, alternative visions rarely get a hearing, and uncomfortable realities are obscured, such as growing inequality, the re-segregation of our public schools, the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation– all examples of what happens when independent sources of knowledge and analysis are so few and far between on the plantation.
So if we need to know what is happening, and big media won’t tell us; if we need to know why it matters, and big media won’t tell us; if we need to know what to do about it, and big media won’t tell us – it’s clear what we have to do: We have to tell the story ourselves.
And this is what the plantation owners fear most of all. Over all those decades here in the South when they used human beings as chattel and quoted Scripture to justify it (property rights over human rights was God’s way), they secretly lived in fear that one day instead of saying, “Yes, Massa,” those gaunt, weary sweat-soaked field hands bending low over the cotton under the burning sun would suddenly stand up straight, look around at their stooped and sweltering kin, and announce: “This can’t be the product of intelligent design. The bossman’s been lying to me. Something is wrong with this system.”
This is the moment freedom begins – 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. When the garbage workers struck here in 1968, and the walls of these buildings echoed with the cry “I am a man,” they were writing their own story. Martin Luther King, Jr. came here to help them tell it, only to die on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The bullet killed him, but it couldn’t kill the story. You can’t kill the story once the people start writing it.
So I’m back now where I started – and with you – will travel where the movement is headed. The greatest challenge to the plantation mentality of the media giants is the innovation and expression made possible by the digital revolution. I may still prefer the newspaper for its investigative journalism and in-depth analysis but we now have in our hands the means to tell a different story than big media tells. Our story. The other story of America that says free speech is not just corporate speech, that news is not just chattel in the field, living the bossman’s story. This is the real gift of the digital revolution. The Internet, cell phones and digital cameras that can transmit images over the Internet, make possible a nation of story tellers…every citizen a Tom Paine. Let the man in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue think that over. And the woman of the House on Capitol Hill. And the media moguls in their chalets at Sun Valley, gathered to review the plantation’s assets and multiply them; nail it to the door– they no longer own the copyright to America’s story– it’s not a top-down story anymore. Other folks are going to write the story from the ground up and the truth will be out, that the media plantation, like the cotton plantation of old, is not divinely sanctioned, and it’s not the product of natural forces; the media system we have been living under was created behind closed doors, where the power brokers meet to divvy up the spoils.
Bob McChesney has eloquently reminded us through the years how each medium –radio, television, and cable– was hailed as a technology that would give us greater diversity of voices, serious news, local programs and lots of public service for the community. In each the advertisers took over. Despite what I teasingly told you in St. Louis the last time we were together, the star that shined so brightly in the firmament the year I was born –1934– did not, I regret to say, appear above that little house in Hugo, Oklahoma. It appeared over Washington when Congress enacted the Communications Act of 1934. One hundred times in that cornerstone or our communication policy you will read the phrase “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Educators, union officials, religious leaders, parents were galvanized by the promise of radio as “a classroom for the air,” serving the life of the country and the life of the mind. Then the media lobby cut a deal with the government to make certain nothing would threaten the already vested-interests of powerful radio networks and the advertising industry. Soon the public largely forgot about radio’s promise as we accepted the entertainment produced and controlled by Jell-o, Maxwell House, and Camel cigarettes. What happened to radio, happened to television and then to cable, and if we are not diligent, it will happen to the Internet.
Powerful forces are at work now – determined to create our media future for the benefit of the plantation: investors, advertisers, owners, and the parasites that depend on their indulgence, including much of the governing class. Old media acquire new media, and vice versa. Rupert Murdoch, forever savvy about the next key outlet that will attract eyeballs, purchased MySpace, spending nearly $600 million so he could (in the words of how Wall Street views new media) “monetize” those eyeballs. Google became a partner in Time Warner, investing one billion in its AOL online service, and now Google has bought YouTube so it would have a better vehicle for delivering interactive ads for Madison Avenue. Viacom, Microsoft, large ad agencies, and others, have been buying key media properties – many of them the leading online sites. The result will be a thoroughly commercialized environment – a media plantation for the 21st century dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have produced the system we have today.
So what do we do? Well, you’ve shown us what we have to do. Twice now you’ve shown us what we can do. Four years ago when FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his ideological side-kicks decided that it was OK if a single corporation owned a community’s major newspaper, three of its TV stations, eight radio stations, its cable TV system, and its major broadband Internet provider, you said, “Enough’s enough.” Free Press, Common Cause, Consumers Union, Media Access Project, the National Association for Hispanic Journalists, and others, working closely with Commissioners Adelstein and Copps– two of the most public-spirited men ever to serve on the FCC – and began organizing public hearings across the country. People spoke up about how poorly the media was serving their communities. You flooded Congress with petitions. You never let up, and when the Court said Powell had to back off, the decision cited the importance of involving the public in these media decisions. Incidentally, Powell not only backed off, he backed out. He left the commission to become “senior advisor” at a “private investment firm specializing in equity investments in media companies around the world.” That firm, by the way, made a bid to take over both the Tribune and Clear Channel, two mega-media companies that just a short time ago were under the corporate friendly purview of…you guessed it…Michael Powell. That whishing sound you hear is Washington’s perpetually revolving door, through which they come to serve the public and through which they leave to join the plantations.
You made a difference. You showed the public cares about media and democracy. You turned a little publicized vote on a seemingly arcane regulation into a big political fight and public debate. Now, it’s true as Commissioner Copps has reminded us, since that battle three years ago, there have been more than 3,300 TV and radio stations that have had their assignment and transfer grants approved. “So that even under the old rules, consolidation grows, localism suffers and diversity dwindles.” It’s also true, too, that even as we speak Michael Powell’s successor, Kevin Martin, put there by President Bush, is ready to take up where Powell left off and give the green light to more conglomeration. Get ready to fight. Inside the beltway plantation the media thought this largest telecommunications merger in our history was on a fast track for approval.
But then you did it again more recently – you lit a fire under people to put Washington on notice that it had to guarantee the Internet’s First Amendment protection in the $85 billion merger of AT&T and Bell South. Because of you, the so-called “Internet neutrality” – I much prefer to call it the “equal access” provision of the Internet – became a public issue that once again reminded the powers-that-be that people want the media to foster democracy. This is crucial because in a few years virtually all media will be delivered by high speed broadband, and without equality of access, the net could become just like cable television, where the provider decides what you see and what you pay. After all, the Bush department of justice had blessed the deal last October without a single condition or statement of concern.
But they hadn’t reckoned with Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, and hadn’t reckoned with this movement. FreePress and SavetheInternet.com orchestrated 800 organizations, a million and a half petitions, countless local events, legions of homemade videos, smart collaboration with allies in industry, and a topshelf communications campaign. Who would have imagined that sitting together in the same democratic broadband pew would be the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, Common Cause, and MoveOn.org? Who would have imagined that these would link arms with some of the most powerful “new media” companies to fight for the Internet’s First Amendment ground? We owe a tip of the hat, of course, to Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell. Despite what must have been a great deal of pressure from his side, he did the honorable thing and rescued himself from the proceedings because of a conflict of interest. So AT&T had to cry “uncle” to Copps and Adelstein with a “voluntary commitment” to honor equal access for at least two years.
The agreement marks the first time that the Federal government has imposed true neutrality –oops equality– requirements on an Internet access provider since the debate erupted almost two years ago. I believe you changed the terms of the debate. It is no longer about whether equality of access will govern the future of the Internet; it’s about when and how. It also signals a change from defense to offence for the backers of an open Net. Arguably the biggest, most effective online organizing campaign ever conducted on a media issue can now turn to passing good laws rather than always having to fight to block bad ones. Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, and Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican, introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act in January of 2007, to require fair and equitable access to all content. And over in the House, those champions of the public interest – Ed Markey and Maurice Hinchley– will be leading the fight.
But a caveat here. Those other folks don’t give up so easily. Remember, this agreement is only for two years, and they’ll be back with all the lobbyists money can hire. Furthermore, consider what AT&T got in the bargain. For giving up on neutrality, it got the green light from government to dominate over 67 million phone lines in 22 states, almost 12 million broadband users, and total control over Cingular wireless, the country’s largest mobile phone company with 58 million cell phone users. It’s as if China swallowed India.
I bring this up for a reason. Big media is ravenous. It never gets enough, it always wants more. And it will stop at nothing to get it. These are imperial conglomerates. Last week on his Web site mediachannel.org, Danny Schecter, recalled how some years ago he marched with a band of media activists to the headquarters of all the big media companies concentrated in the Times Square area. Their formidable buildings, fronted with logos and limos and guarded by rent-a-cops, projected their power and prestige. Danny and his cohorts chanted and held up signs calling for honest news and an end to exploitative programming. They called for diversity and access for more perspectives. “It felt good,” Danny said, but “seemed like a fool’s errand. We were ignored, patronized, and marginalized. We couldn’t shake their edifices or influence their holy ‘business models’; we seemed to many like that lonely and forlorn nut in a New Yorker cartoon carrying an ‘end of the world is near’ placard.”
Well, yes, that’s exactly how they want us to feel – as if media and democracy is a fool’s errand. To his credit, Danny didn’t buy it. He’s never given up. Neither have some of the earlier pioneers in this movement – Andy Schwartzman, Don Hazen, Jeff Chester. Let me confess that I came very close to not making this speech today, in favor of just getting up here and reading from this book – Digital Destiny, by my friend and co-conspirator, Jeff Chester. Take my word for it: Make this your bible. As Don Hazen writes in his review on Alternet this week, it’s a terrific book – “A respectful, loving, fresh, intimate comprehensive history of the struggles for a ‘democratic media’ – the lost fights, the opportunities missed, and the small victories that have kept the corporate media system from having complete carte blanche over the communications channel.”
It’s also a terrifying book, because Jeff describes how “we are being shadowed online by a slew of software digital gumshoes working for Madison Avenue. Our movements in cyberspace are closely tracked and analyzed. And interactive advertising infiltrates our unconsciousness to promote the ‘brandwashing of America.’” Jeff asks the hard questions: do we really want television sets that monitor what we watch? Or an Internet that knows what sites we visit and reports back to advertising companies? Do we really want a media system designed mainly for advertisers?
But this is also a hopeful book. After scaring the bejeepers out of us, as one reviewer wrote, Jeff offers a “policy agenda for the broadcast era.” Here’s a man who practices what the Italian philosopher Gramsci called “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” He sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses, and tries to change it despite what he knows. So you’ll find here the core of this movement’s mission. Media reform, yes. But as the Project in Excellence concluded in its State of the Media Report for 2006, “At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost.” The commercial networks are lost, too – lost to silliness, farce, cowardice, and ideology. Not much hope there. Can’t raise the dead.
Policy reform, yes. “But,” says Jeff, “we will likely see more consolidation of ownership, with newspapers, TV stations, and major online properties in fewer hands.” So we have to find other ways to ensure the public has access to diverse, independent, and credible sources of information. That means going to the market to find support for stronger independent media; Michael Moore and others have proved progressivism doesn’t have to equal penury. It means helping protect news gathering from predatory forces. It means fighting for more participatory media, hospitable to a full range of expression. It means building on Lawrence Lessig’s notion of the creative common and Brewster Kahle’s Internet archives with its philosophy of universal access to all knowledge.” It means bringing broadband service to those many millions of Americans too poor to participate in the digital revolution. It means ownership for women and people of color. It means reclaiming public broadcasting and restoring it to its original feisty, robust, fearless mission as an alternative to the dominant media, offering journalism you can’t ignore – public affairs of which you’re a part, and a wide range of civic and cultural discourse that leaves no one out; you can have an impact here. We need to remind people that the Federal commitment to public broadcasting in this country is about $1.50 per capita compared to $28-$85 per capita in other democracies.
But there’s something else you can do. In moments of reverie, I imagine all of you returning home to organize a campaign to persuade your local public television station to start airing Amy Goodman’s broadcast of Democracy NOW! I can’t think of a single act more likely to remind people of what public broadcasting should be – or that this media reform movement really means business. We’ve got to get alternative content out there to people or this country’s going to die of too many lies. And the opening run down of news on Amy’s daily show is like nothing else on television, corporate or public. It’s as if you opened the window and a fresh breeze rolls over you from the ocean. Amy doesn’t practice trickle-down journalism. She goes where the silence is, she breaks the sound barrier. She doesn’t buy the Washington protocol that says the truth lies somewhere on the spectrum of opinion between the Democrats and Republicans– on Democracy NOW the truth lies where the facts are hidden, and Amy digs for them. And she believes the media should be a sanctuary for dissent…the Underground Railroad tunneling beneath the plantation. So go home and think about it. After all you are the public in public broadcasting; you can get the bossman in the big house at the local station to listen.
Meanwhile, be vigilant about what happens in Congress. Track it day by day and post what you learn far and wide. Because the decisions made in this session of Congress will affect the future of all media – corporate and non commercial – and if we lose the future now, we’ll never get it back.
So you have your work cut out for you. I’m glad you’re all younger than me, and up to it. I’m glad so many funders are here, because while an army may move on its stomach, this movement requires hard, cold cash to compete with big media in getting the attention of Congress and the public.
I’ll try to do my part. Last time we were together, I said to you that I should put detractors on notice. They just might compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair. Well, in April I will be back with a new weekly series called Bill Moyers Journal. I hope to complement the fine work of colleagues like David Brancaccio of NOW and David Fanning of Frontline, who also go for the truth behind the news.
But I don’t want to tease you – I’m not coming back because of my detractors. I wouldn’t torture them that way (I’ll leave that to Dick Cheney.) I’m coming back because I believe television can still signify. And I don’t want you to feel so alone.
I’ll keep an eye on your work. You are to America what the abolition movement was, and the suffragette movement, and the Civil Rights movement – you touch the soul of democracy.
It’s not assured you’ll succeed in this fight. The armies of the Lord are up against mighty hosts. But as the spiritual leader Sojourner Thomas Merton wrote to an activist grown weary and discouraged while protesting the Vietnam War…”Do not depend on the hope of results…concentrate on the value…and the truth of the work itself.”
And in case you do get lonely, I’ll leave you with this:
As my plane was circling Memphis the other day I looked out across those vast miles of fertile soil that once were plantations watered by the Mississippi River and the sweat from the brow of countless men and women who had been forced to live someone else’s story. I thought about how in time they rose up, one here, then two, then many, forging a great movement that awakened America’s conscience and brought us close to the elusive but beautiful promise of the Declaration on Independence. As we made our last approach to land, the words of a Marge Piercy poem began to form in my head, and I remembered all over again why we were coming here:
What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can’t stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
From The Moon Is Always Female, by Marge Piercy
Copyright (c) 1980 by Marge Piercy