Who'll Unplug Big Media? Stay Tuned
On a Thursday in mid-May, the Senate did something that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Led by Democrat Byron Dorgan, the senators--Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives--gave Rupert Murdoch and his fellow media moguls the sort of slap that masters of the universe don't expect from mere mortals on Capitol Hill. With a voice vote that confirmed the near-unanimous sentiment of senators who had heard from hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding that they act, the legislators moved to nullify an FCC attempt to permit a radical form of media consolidation: a rule change designed to permit one corporation to own daily and weekly newspapers as well as television and radio stations in the same local market. The removal of the historic bar to newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership has long been a top priority of Big Media. They want to dramatically increase revenues by buying up major media properties in American cities, shutting down competing newsrooms and creating a one-size-fits-all local discourse that's great for the bottom line but lousy for the communities they are supposed to serve and a nightmare for democracy.
That's just some of the good news at a time when the media policy debate has been redefined by the emergence of a muscular grassroots reform movement. Bush Administration schemes to use federal dollars to subsidize friendly journalists and illegally push its propaganda as legitimate news have been exposed and halted, with the House approving a defense appropriations amendment that outlaws any "concerted effort to propagandize" by the Pentagon. Public broadcasting, community broadcasting and cable access channels have withstood assault from corporate interlopers, fundamentalist censors and the GOP Congressional allies they share in common. And against a full-frontal attack from two industries, telephone and cable--whose entire business model is based on lobbying Congress and regulators to get monopoly privileges--a grassroots movement has preserved network neutrality, the first amendment of the digital epoch, which holds that Internet service providers shall not censor or discriminate against particular websites or services. So successful has this challenge to the telecom lobbies been that the House may soon endorse the Internet Freedom Preservation Act.
But while the picture has improved, especially compared with just a few years ago, the news is not nearly good enough. The Senate's resolution of disapproval did not reverse the FCC's cross-ownership rule change. It merely began a pushback that still requires a House vote--and even if it passes Congress, it will then encounter a veto by George W. Bush. Likewise, while public and community media have been spared from the executioner, they still face deep-seated funding and competitive disadvantages that require structural reforms, not Band-Aids.
The media reform movement must prepare now to promote a wide range of structural reforms--to talk of changing media for the better rather than merely preventing it from getting worse. "Media reform" has become a catch-all phrase to describe the broad goals of a movement that says consolidated ownership of broadcast and cable media, chain ownership of newspapers, and telephone and cable-company colonization of the Internet pose a threat not just to the culture of the Republic but to democracy itself. The movement that became a force to be reckoned with during the Bush years had to fight defensive actions with the purpose of preventing more consolidation, more homogenization and more manipulation of information by elites. Now, however, we must require corporations that reap immense profits from the people's airwaves to meet high public-service standards, dust off rusty but still functional antitrust laws to break up TV and radio conglomerates, address over-the-top commercialization of our culture and establish a heterogeneous and accountable noncommercial media sector. In sum, we need to establish rules and structures designed to create a cultural environment that will enlighten, empower and energize citizens so they can realize the full promise of an American experiment that has, since its founding, relied on freedom of the press to rest authority in the people.
Despite all the revelations exposing government assaults on a free press, too many media outlets continue to tell the politically and economically powerful, "Lie to me!" Five years into a war made possible by the persistent refusal of the major media to distinguish fact from Bush Administration spin, we learned this spring about the Pentagon's PR machine's multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign that seeded willing broadcast and cable news programs with "expert" generals who parroted the White House line right up to the point at which the fraud was exposed. Even after the New York Times broke the story, the networks still chose to cover their shame rather than expose a war that has gone far worse than most Americans know.
Recently we have seen an acceleration of the collapse of journalistic standards. Veteran reporters like Walter Cronkite are appalled by the mergermania that has swept the industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news and gutting newsrooms. Rapid consolidation, evidenced most recently by the breakup of the once-venerable Knight-Ridder newspapers, the sale of the Tribune Company and its media properties and the swallowing of the Wall Street Journal by Murdoch's News Corp continues the steady replacement of civic and democratic values by commercial and entertainment priorities. But responsible journalists have less and less to say about newsroom agendas these days. The calls are being made by consultants and bean counters, who increasingly rely on official sources and talking-head pundits rather than newsgathering or serious debate.
The crisis is widespread, and it affects not just our policies but the politics that might improve them. There are two critical issues on which a free press must be skeptical of official statements, challenging to the powerful and rigorous in the search for truth. One of them is war--and in the case of the post-9/11 wars, our media have failed us miserably. (Even former White House press secretary Scott McClellan now acknowledges that the media were "complicit enablers" in the run-up to the Iraq invasion). The other issue is elections, when voters rely on media to provide them with what candidates, parties and interest groups often will not: a serious focus on issues that matter and on the responses of candidates to those issues. Instead, when the Democratic race was reaching its penultimate stage, the dominant story was a ridiculously overplayed discussion about Barack Obama's former minister. Before the critical Pennsylvania primary, studies show, the provocative Rev. Jeremiah Wright got more coverage than Obama's rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton. And forget about issues--the most covered policy debate of the period, a ginned-up argument about whether to slash gas taxes for the summer, garnered only one-sixth as much attention as Wright.
Viable democracy cannot survive, let alone flourish, with such debased journalistic standards. Despite some remarkable recent victories by grassroots activists, our media still fail the most critical tests of a free press. This is an impasse that cannot last for long, and in all likelihood the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will go a long way toward determining which side, the corporate owners or the public, will win the battle for the media. The stakes could not be higher.
The next President will make two important decisions. The first will be whether to accept media reform legislation or veto it. There is little doubt that Congress has shifted dramatically as a result of popular pressure. Corporate lobbyists who used to worry only about battling one another for the largest slice of the pie know the game has changed. The 2008 elections will almost certainly increase support in both houses and from both parties for media reform.
Second, the next President will appoint a new FCC chair who will command a majority of the commission's five members. This is a critical choice. The right majority would embrace the values and ideals of the thousands of media critics, independent media producers and democracy activists who will gather June 6-8 in Minneapolis for the fourth National Conference for Media Reform. Dissident commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who have battled the FCC's pro-Big Media majority on issues ranging from media ownership to net neutrality and corporate manipulation of the news over the past four years, will both address the conference. If Copps, the senior of the two, is named chair, this savvy Washington veteran is prepared to turn the agency into what it was intended to be by Copps's hero, Franklin Roosevelt: a muscular defender of the public interest with the research capacity and the authority to assure that the airwaves and broadband spectrum, which are owned by the people, actually respond to popular demand for diversity, competition and local control. After years of battling to block rule changes pushed by corporate lobbyists, Copps has called for a New American Media Contract, saying, "I'm sick of playing defense." In these pages on April 7, he urged that we "reinvigorate the license-renewal process" by returning to standards set during Roosevelt's presidency, when "renewals were required every three years, and a station's public-interest record was subject to FCC judgment."
Don't look for a President John McCain to hand Copps the chairmanship. There is a clear difference between McCain and Obama when it comes to what the candidates say about media issues, and an even clearer difference in their records. Although many GOP voters, and some back-benchers in Congress, are supportive of media reform, the commanding heights of the party are a wholly owned subsidiary of the media giants. On the surface McCain may appear to be a complex figure who straddles the fence. In the increasingly distant past he occasionally tossed out a soundbite recognizing citizen concerns. But in recent years he has invariably championed the corporate lobbies. McCain's free-market rhetoric about government-created and indirectly subsidized media monopolies is increasingly recognized for what it is: propaganda to advance the policy objectives of massive corporations.
More than a decade ago McCain voted against the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gave the green light to media consolidation. He also loudly opposed the efforts of commercial broadcasters to quash low-power noncommercial FM broadcasting in 2000. Progressives applauded in both cases. But as chair of the all-important Senate Commerce Committee, which was responsible for implementation of the Telecom Act, the Arizona senator resisted numerous opportunities to mitigate its worst excesses. The hallmarks of McCain's "leadership" have been: (1) a failure to promote the public interest; (2) hypocritical pro-consumer rhetoric that hides pro-business action; (3) a fundamental misunderstanding of technology and economics; and (4) troubling, at times scandalous, loyalty to particular special interests.
While most of the attention to February's New York Times investigation of McCain's relationship with Vicki Iseman focused on speculation about romantic entanglement, shockingly little attention was paid to the revelation that in 1999 McCain had, as Commerce Committee chair, pressured the FCC to issue a critical TV station license to Paxson Communications, for whom Iseman was lobbying. McCain's approach was so aggressive and so out of bounds even for corporate-cozy Washington that then-FCC chair William Kennard complained about the senator's attempted intervention. Paxson's executives and lobbyists contributed more than $20,000 to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, and its CEO lent McCain the company's jet at least four times for campaign travel. The senator's symbiotic relationship with Paxson and telecom giants like AT&T is rarely mentioned on the Straight Talk Express.
Also unmentioned is the crucial role McCain played in shaping the Bush-era FCC. It was McCain who personally and aggressively promoted Michael Powell to serve as FCC chair, and who defended Powell's attempts in 2003 to rewrite media ownership rules according to a script written by industry lobbyists. While other senators objected to those rule changes after more than 2 million Americans communicated their opposition, McCain sought to preserve them. And he remains joined at the hip with Powell, who unabashedly thinks the job of government is to promote the interests of the largest communication firms. In May Powell represented the McCain campaign on a panel discussion at the annual conference of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
It is unlikely that McCain would reappoint the disgraced Powell as chair. But it is reasonably certain he would appoint someone who shares Powell's deafness to the pleadings of public interest. The senator's 2006 vote against maintaining net neutrality suggests that his commitment to the business objectives of AT&T outweigh any commitment to the public interest. Straight-talk soundbites notwithstanding, McCain will be a reactionary force on media issues across the board.
Barack Obama is different. Obama's campaign has produced the most comprehensive, public-interest-oriented media agenda ever advanced by a major presidential candidate. Like Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator has been an outspoken defender of net neutrality. The Obama camp's position paper on media issues echoes Copps when it says that as President, he "would encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum." In a recent speech Obama called for strengthened antitrust enforcement, specifically warning against media consolidation. An Obama presidency would, he and his supporters say, use all the tools of government to promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve. Like Copps, Obama favors investment to connect remote and disenfranchised communities to the Internet and to make public broadcasting a more robust voice in the national discourse.
While a President Obama would almost certainly be different from a President McCain on media issues, the extent of the difference remains open to debate. Would Obama actually make Copps or someone like him FCC chair? Would Obama move immediately and effectively to break the stranglehold of media lobbyists? That is by no means certain. While his stated policies are encouraging, competing forces are struggling to influence the candidate. Industry money is going to Obama in anticipation of his victory. He is a self-styled party centrist, and in recent Democratic Party history, "centrism" has usually meant putting the demands of moneyed interests ahead of those of rank-and-file citizens. The good news is that many of Obama's younger advisers are products of the media reform movement or have been influenced by it. The bad news is that others, like Clinton-era FCC chair Kennard, have records of compromising with the telecom industry. So while some Big Media will be betting on McCain, they won't give up easily on Obama.
What Obama's candidacy offers, then, is an opening and--if we dare employ an overused word from this campaign season--a measure of hope. The proper response to that opening is not celebration but vigilance and determination. Obama's positions, while sometimes vague, do allow us to imagine securing increased funding for public and community broadcasting, a broadband build-out that allows all Americans to realize the promise of the Internet, and a new approach to the licensing and regulation of the people's airwaves that respects the public interest more than Rupert Murdoch's bottom line. We can anticipate the development of creative policies to promote and protect viable independent journalism and local media. The right President will make achieving all these ends easier. The right Congress will make the task easier still. But above all, we will need the right media reform movement--one that is aggressive in its demands regardless of who sits in the White House, savvy in its approach to the FCC and Congressional committees, bipartisan and determined to build broad coalitions, and focused not just on playing defense but on shaping popular media for the twenty-first century.
Robert McChesney is research professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. He and John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, are the founders of Free Press, the media reform network, and the authors of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (New Press).
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written The Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress. Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.
Copyright © 2008 The Nation