Last weekend's National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis was a freewheeling, articulate, committed gathering of activists, policy wonks and everyday citizens dedicated to the idea that there can be no real democracy without a media democracy -- independent reporting from diverse communities free of the interference and spin of government and big business. Perhaps nowhere else can you witness an FCC commissioner like Michael Copps get a rock star standing ovation worthy of Mick Jagger or hear the words, "Common carrier rules are hot!"
Some 3500 assembled to participate in panels and hear a range of speakers that included my colleague Bill Moyers, Senator Byron Dorgan, Center for Internet and Society founder Lawrence Lessig, Naomi Klein, Louise Erdrich and Dan Rather. Participants grappled with mobilizing grass roots movements around such hot button issues as continuing, big media consolidation and net neutrality -- two words perhaps more elegantly phrased as "Internet freedom" -- keeping cyberspace open and accessible to all, regardless of income. As Moyers has pointed out, neutrality sounds too much like Switzerland, and as my colleague Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild, West, says, the notion of fighting for neutrality seems oxymoronic. So, "Internet freedom" it is.
Marty Kaplan, director of the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, told those gathered they were a crowd that "may not color inside the lines but sure can connect the dots." Yet as perceptive and informed as attendees were, sadly absent from the weekend's energetic dialogues was any significant discussion of this country's economy, the vast gap between rich and poor, the way gross inequality in such desperate times is being largely ignored by the media, our candidates and the progressive movement.
"The economic crisis is just not that compelling or sexy to the many progressives who are stirred into action by every ugly utterance by Bill O'Reilly," media activist and journalist Danny Schechter writes. "...Cheering on political personalities or mounting one more issue oriented e-mail campaign is certainly easier than confronting the economic and power imbalances caused by the structural conflicts in our economy."
Schechter goes on to quote an executive with the Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank, who describes our current situation as, "A CRISIS OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS." The exec elaborates: "I'm not talking New Testament biblical; I'm talking Old Testament hellfire and brimstone. This is the worst credit crisis we've ever seen."
Thirty-six and a half million Americans -- one in eight Americans, one in six children -- that we KNOW of, because there are no good ways to really measure -- live below the official federal poverty level, $20,000 a year for a family of four. Half of us -- half! -- will have gone through a year or more of poverty by the time we turn. 60.
In contrast, behold the woeful case of Alan Schwartz, former CEO of the now defunct investment bank Bear Stearns. As that company nosedived last year, subprime mortgage hedge funds crashing in flames, Schwartz relinquished his usual annual bonus, which meant that his total compensation for 2007 and the prior four years was a piddling $141 million. Poor guy had to rent out his 7800 square foot house in the New York suburbs and squat at his new, $28 million Manhattan apartment; his seven-acre home in Greenwich, Connecticut; and his Colorado condo. Just a couple of weeks ago, shareholders approved Bear Stearns' merger with JP Morgan, which received $30 billion in taxpayer-funded, federal loan guarantees to take over what little was left.
John McCain says the fundamentals of the economy are strong but admits it's a subject he doesn't know a lot about. He counts among his economic advisors Carly Fiorina, fired chief executive of Hewlett Packard, where you'll recall she was accused of breathtaking mismanagement and street-bully tactics. Of her role in the McCain campaign, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management told The New York Times, "You couldn't pick a worse, non-imprisoned C.E.O. to be your standard-bearer."
Among McCain's other top advisors are John Green and Wayne Berman, who received $720,000 in lobbying fees from Ameriquest Mortgage, one of the noteworthy, predatory lenders in the country's mortgage mess. As the New York Daily News reported this past spring, Ameriquest, which has since been bought out by Citigroup, "was forced to settle suits with 49 states for $325 million. More than 13,680 New York homeowners got taken for a ride by the company, records show."
Barack Obama believes our current economic crisis is "the logical conclusion of a tired and misguided philosophy that has dominated Washington for far too long." Nonetheless, his economic policy director, Jason Furman, has been a defender of Wal-Mart and was director of former treasury secretary Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, a group of Wall Street Democrats committed to continuing Bill Clinton's economic doctrine -- i.e., growth based on deficit reduction and free trade.
Until his resignation Wednesday, Obama's team also included Jim Johnson, ex-Mondale chief of staff and former CEO of Fannie Mae, the government-sanctioned banker that buys and resells loans from other banks and lenders. According to the Wall Street Journal, Johnson, who was leading the search for Obama's running mate, was given preferential treatment when he received $2 million in personal loans from one of Fannie Mae's biggest customers, subprime lender Countrywide Financial Services.
A front page story in Wednesday's Washington Post added that Johnson also was "the beneficiary of accounting in which Fannie Mae's earnings were manipulated so that executives could earn larger bonuses. The accounting manipulation for 1998 resulted in the maximum payouts to Fannie Mae's senior executives -- $1.9 million in Johnson's case -- when the company's performance that year would have otherwise resulted in no bonuses at all, according to reports in 2004 and 2006 by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight."
Both candidates need economic advisors untainted by association with corporate interests, folks who know what it's like to have to live on macaroni instead of meat, to spend sleepless nights in subways or shelters, to let diseases like cancer and diabetes gnaw away at a person's insides because they can't afford medicine and doctors. And the media need to tell their stories, not only to make the rest of us aware and stir us to action, but also to validate and empower with Webspace, column inches and airtime the plight of those so afflicted, to bring dignity and gravitas to their predicament. Attention must be paid.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.