It was a media event that spread around the Inter?net like wildfire—Jon Stewart, comedian, begging the hosts of CNN's Crossfire to do real journalism, and stop “hurting America.” Hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson sat stunned, scrambling to make a convincing argument that their program does higher quality journalism than Stewart's comedy show.
This exchange struck a chord with the growing numbers of Americans of all political stripes who are losing patience with the corporate media's partisan hackery, celebrity obsession, failure to hold government accountable, narrow range of debate, unchecked commercialism, and lack of investigative journalism. And here it was, the rarest of moments when the media's failings were vocalized, live and unedited. The emperor had no clothes.
Corporate media's failure to inform the American people is an issue of catastrophic consequence, constituting what legendary journalist Bill Moyers describes as the greatest threat to our nation: “Democracy can't exist without an informed public.” And misinformed they are. Most Americans don't know the consequences of our ballooning $386 billion deficit and $7.1 trillion national debt. The media are silent as Congress dishes out some $125 billion every year in corporate welfare. A full 49 percent of Americans still believed in September 2004 that Iraq had WMDs.
Presidential candidates and allied groups shattered all campaign spending records in 2004, spending $2 billion. Most of that money bought political ads from the biggest media companies—who gave us back election coverage that was an echo chamber of partisan spin and empty soundbites. Is it any surprise that surveys showed many Americans went to the polls lacking the facts to evaluate the candidates?
How did corporate media get to this point? Over the past century, a handful of corporations have bought and leveraged their way into media empires with vast holdings in television, radio, movies, books, magazines, billboards, and concert venues. You know the biggest and the most notorious: Disney, NewsCorp, Viacom, General Electric, Clear Channel, Sinclair. Along with a handful of others, they control most of what Americans see and hear each day. Their monopoly access to the airwaves is brought to you by monopoly licenses and government subsidies doled out in one of the most corrupt policymaking processes imaginable, with laws routinely written by media lobbyists and passed by politicians steeped in campaign contributions and for whom the public interest is an afterthought.
Investigative journalism is expensive, so cut the newsroom budget and cover the cheap stuff like the Scott Peterson trial or Kobe Bryant's court case. Avoid controversies that may criticize or scare away coveted advertisers. Cozy up to—don't criticize—government officials; they will dish out favorable legislation worth millions of dollars when they're not golfing with your CEO. And if you really cozy up, they may leak you the next big story. But don't expect the messy news of media's failures or corrupt lobbying to make it on the air or the printed page. The corporate-owned media have an abysmal track record for covering their own failings.
Millions speak up
Now roll the tape to June 2003 when media issues exploded into the public consciousness. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, at the urging of a business-friendly White House, proposed new rules that would loosen ownership limits and let Big Media get even bigger. When the FCC's two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, held hearings around the nation, public opposition found an outlet. Grassroots organizations, including Media Alliance (San Francisco), Reclaim the Media (Seattle), Media Tank and Prometheus Radio Project (Philadelphia), and Media Democracy Chicago, held public events around the hearings, distributed information, and organized thousands of citizens to weigh in.
By the June 2 vote, nearly 3 million Americans—from NRA members to MoveOn activists—had faxed, e-mailed, or called members of Congress and the FCC denouncing the proposed rules. Conservatives like Senator Trent Lott stood next to liberal Senator Byron Dorgan to oppose media gigantism. The rules passed nonetheless in a partisan 3-2 vote, only to be rejected by the courts and Congress. In rejecting the rules, a federal appeals court referenced the public outcry and sent them back to the FCC. In January, 2005, the Bush administration decided to abandon its appeal of that ruling.
The ownership controversy lit a spark within the burgeoning media reform movement and showed the power of this issue: both in its importance to democracy and its appeal across political lines. Media reform ranked second only to election reform in MoveOn's post-election member survey. Last fall, Sinclair Broadcast Group was forced to hold back its brazenly biased “Stolen Honor” program days before the election. Almost every egregious action by big media corporations—once met with muted opposition—was greeted with a swift response from an increasingly unified, bipartisan, and vocal public.
What was once a handful of media reform organizations has been joined by organizations like MoveOn and Common Cause, and conservative groups like the Parents Television Council. Liberals are concerned with declining journalistic standards, a narrow range of debate and a lack of dissent in the press. Conservatives are concerned with declining localism and increasing indecency. Both are fed up with the 30,000-plus advertisements the average child must tolerate each year. And millions of citizens understand that our bankrupt media system is the direct result of government policies made in the public's name but without our consent. The unprecedented reaction to the FCC's proposed ownership rules proved that public participation is the answer to the media problem.
But stopping media consolidation is just the beginning. The burgeoning media reform movement is organizing around a range of media issues: strengthening alternative, independent and non-commercial media; forcing media companies to serve the public interest; limiting advertising directed at our children; and making access to communications affordable and universal. All of these issues—and more—will be in play when Congress reopens the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as it is expected to do this year.
FCC commissioners Copps and Adelstein—two of the finest members in that agency's history—plan to convene more public hearings across the country to listen to the public, keep media issues in the news, and provide a basis for their consistent support of the public interest. This May, Free Press, the organization we founded to increase public participation in media policy debates, will host the Second National Conference for Media Reform, May 13–15 in St. Louis. We encourage the public to join us.
This much is clear: Media reform is a movement that has arrived, and its success is integral to everything we hold dear: a clean environment, health care for everyone, fair wages, and quality education, to name a few. It must be added to the list of priorities for those working on all of these issues. If you control the news, you control the views. Real reform will not succeed without all of us bringing renewed passion and commitment to building a media system that serves not just the large media corporations, but our families, our communities, and our democracy.Josh Silver is the executive director of Free Press, www.freepress.net. Robert W. McChesney is founder and president of Free Press and the author of The Problem of the Media; Rich Media, Poor Democracy; and other books