The election of 2004 made it unmistakable—the media not only define the scope of our political conversation, they determine much of the public's perception of reality itself.
We focus on the media in this issue of YES! because it is clear that democracy cannot function when diverse, critical perspectives are excluded from the public conversation, nor when entire populations are absent from or mischaracterized in the popular media.
The importance of the media is reflected in the U.S. Constitution, which enshrines freedom of the press as one of our basic rights. It is why 3 million Americans contacted the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to demand a stop to rules that would have allowed more mergers and mega-media corporations. And it is why a growing media justice movement is demanding that those ordinarily excluded have a say in what is covered and whose voices get heard.
These movements show that the feisty, democratic spirit on which the U.S. was founded is alive and well.
At the local level, community-access television, community radio, low-power FM stations (legal and pirate), independent publications, and community internet sites proliferate. Community media centers, like the one in Grand Rapids (see page 21), teach young people to use the media, rather than be used by its advertisers and spin doctors. In Oakland, young organizers pressured a Clear Channel-owned station to allow young people of color to tell their own stories about criminal justice and other issues affecting their lives (see page 18).Democracy Now! with host Amy Goodman (see interview with Amy Goodman
) has become one of the largest independent media networks in the country, reaching people through hundreds of radio stations and now also on satellite television.
The national media reform movement, led by Free Press (see page 33), the Center for Digital Democracy (see page 37), Prometheus Radio Project (see page 30), and others are building on the public's growing awareness that concentrated ownership of media outlets is bad for democracy. MoveOn's post-election poll of its members found media reform ranking second only to electoral reform as a top priority.
In coming months, major decisions will be made about the future of media, and you can weigh in. Your community might want to create its own wireless infrastructure to insure that all families, businesses, and schools can enjoy full Internet access (watch out—some of the big media corporations are trying to get state legislatures to make that illegal). When your local cable franchise comes up for renewal, you can ask for more accountability and more community uses of the system.
At the national level, a new FCC chair will be appointed to replace Michael Powell, and citizen input can push the FCC in a new direction. FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein continue to hold formal and informal hearings around the country, providing a focal point for education and activism on media policy. There is talk in Congress of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, abolished in 1987, which required broadcasters to give equal airtime to opposing points of view. There is continued debate about who should control what part of the broadcast spectrum, with activists pointing out that the airwaves belong to the people and the public interest takes priority.
The opportunities are at all levels, and the stakes are high. If we are to have the public conversations essential to taking on serious dilemmas from climate change to criminal justice reform, we need forums for those conversations. The media can facilitate the conversations or shut them down. They can open up or constrain our beliefs about what is possible, what is desirable, who is deserving, and which perspectives are legitimate.
Our media are where we create our future. Our hope for a real conversation about our future lies with the scrappy independent writers, publishers, and broadcasters who have something to say and will not be silenced, and the activists who are insisting that media have the independence to give us the real stories of our time.
P.S. I write this just before leaving for the World Social Forum, which meets annually under the banner “Another World is Possible.” You can catch my reports at www.yesmagazine.org.