Journalists Must Speak Up

One of the highlights of the fourth annual UNITY: Journalists of Color convention last month in Chicago should have been the appearance of Sen. Barack Obama at perhaps the largest gathering of journalists in U.S. history.

The chance to see -- and question -- the presumptive Democratic nominee (his opponent didn't make it to the Windy City) was the highlight of the event.

Watching someone who could be the nation's first black president had to be inspiring for a room filled with journalists who spent their careers overcoming the toughest of barriers -- a reminder it's still possible to tear down the most improbable of walls.

But even Obama's appearance couldn't remove the shadow hanging over this gathering. I spoke with dozens of veteran and young journalists in Chicago and was surprised by the level of despair about the journalism profession, as well as their own job status. There was little hope of overcoming the obstacles being placed before them.

Most media companies, including newspapers, still make plenty of money. But Wall Street has placed unreasonable demands on companies to increase their profit margins. To accomplish this, news organizations have targeted the newsroom, cutting budgets, closing bureaus, and laying off thousands and thousands of journalists in just the past few years.

Minority journalists have been hit particularly hard. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in April that, for only the second time in 20 years, the number of minority journalists leaving the daily newspaper profession last year outnumbered minority journalists landing their first jobs.

The journalists I spoke with did not know how to fight back against this current onslaught; neither did they understand how the battles in Washington over media policy have impacted their profession.

Many journalists are unaware that their bosses have gone to Washington claiming -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that greater media consolidation will save newsroom jobs and improve their news operations. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin cited this argument when the commission voted to lift the longstanding newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule -- which prevents one company from owning a paper and TV station in the same market -- last December.

Runaway media consolidation is the story behind the attack on quality journalism and the clear-cutting of our newsrooms. But you rarely read -- and then, only inside the business pages -- about media policymaking in the newspaper or hear about it on TV. You might read about jousting among competing media moguls. Maybe there's a small story about layoffs. Very rarely does anyone connect the two.

In recent years, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists -- despite receiving financial support from corporate media companies -- have made the connection and spoken out against media consolidation (as has the Newspaper Guild). They must continue to keep up this fight and expand their efforts. But other journalist groups, like the Society of Professional Journalists, have not taken a stand.

Journalists and journalism groups must add their voices to the media ownership debate, just as they have spoken out strongly in favor of free speech issues and a shield law. Both issues impact the practice of journalism. If journalists do not speak out, their corporate bosses will be more than happy to fill that void.
It is also critical that journalists inform the public about the fight going on in Washington over media ownership rules. The public is too often excluded from participating in this debate even though they are the major stakeholder. Where would journalists of color be if it weren't for the people of color who took to the streets to fight for racial equality during the civil rights movement?

If the public knew more about why the media is struggling, why they're not represented equally, why the serious news they need is disappearing - perhaps they would demand that Congress and the FCC pass policies that support journalism institutions and independent news voices instead of weakening them

It is hard for journalists to imagine that the current crisis in the media industry is not a new one. Throughout our nation's history, the emergence of new technology has always disrupted the traditional media system and the marketplace that supports journalism. It happened with the creation of the telegraph, radio, TV, cable and now with the Internet.

During the previous battles, the government always adopted policies that favored corporate interests over the public interest.

It doesn't have to be that way this time. And if journalists join in the debate, we can build a media system that supports good journalism. That good journalism -- holding our corporate and government leaders accountable -- is what we need to nurture our democracy.

Journalists and journalism groups have to start fighting back if they want to once again feel hopeful about the future of their profession. This is not the time for journalists to hang their heads or flee the profession. Now is the time to fight back.

Government Relations Manager Joe Torres works closely with the policy and research staff to create Free Press' legislative agenda, lobby in Washington, D.C. and in the states, and build new coalitions that broaden the base of the media reform movement. Before joining Free Press, Joe worked as deputy director of communications and media policy at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and was a journalist for eight years.

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