10 Steps to More Democratic Media

Whether you care about the state of journalism, access to information, diversity of media ownership, privacy, innovation, or the health of noncommercial media

—all these and more will be up for grabs as Congress begins re-writing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 this year. Likewise, the Federal Communications Commission and even your local town or city council will be facing choices that will determine who gets to communicate what, to whom, over what medium during this “digital century.”

How, for example, will policy makers choose to define “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” a concept enshrined in U.S. communications law since 1934? Or will we see a rejection of a concept that has obliged the electronic media to serve the country?

Will we have a communications environment that reflects the highest aspirations of a democratic culture, including equality, diversity, and civic expression? Or one that serves primarily as an inter?active vending machine for the latest products of Big Media and Madison Avenue?

The stakes have never been higher. The major media and telecommunications companies are lobbying for even greater corporate control. But we the people can change America's “digital destiny” by promoting positive change in these ten areas:

1. Call for less, not more, media consolidation:

The bland homogeneity of commercial radio—dominated by Clear Channel, Infinity, et al—may soon be coming to TV sets and newsstands near you as media conglomerates seek to further consolidate their ownership of media outlets. Fox, NBC, Sinclair, and others are asking Congress to rewrite the Telecommunications Act, sweeping away limits on the number of media outlets they can control. You can join with Free Press, Common Cause, Mediachannel, Reclaim the Media, Media Tank, Media Alliance, and others opposing media consolidation (find contact information in the Resource Guide that follows).

2. Build Community Broadband:

Broadband Internet access has replaced dial-up as the preferred means of reaching the Internet, but such connections (controlled by cable and local telephone companies) remain beyond the reach of many households. In response, towns across the United States are building “wi-fi” and other high-speed networks that make affordable Internet access available to homes as well as to schools, businesses, government agencies, and non-profits. Comcast, Verizon, and other monopoly broadband providers are lobbying to prevent competition from these municipal networks. You can organize your town to create a local network that puts the public before profits.

3. Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine:

For decades, broadcasters were required to offer diverse perspectives on important issues. But the broadcasters lobbied to kill what was called the “Fairness Doctrine,” giving rise to the lopsided news, analysis, and talk shows we have today. Representative Louise Slaughter of New York and others are working to restore some balance to broadcasting by restoring the Fairness Doctrine (see www.fairnessdoctrine.com).

4. Open Up the Cable TV Monopoly:

Companies like Comcast and Time Warner control access to the majority of TV channels available to the seven out of 10 U.S. households that subscribe to cable television. But it's almost impossible for independent programmers and alternative channels to gain entry. Much of the work of increasing access and community accountability of the cable companies takes place at the local level, where a few people can make a big difference. One great model is Media Tank.

5. Restore Public Airwaves to the Public:

Just as you can't own or sell the air we breathe, the airwaves belong to all of us. But because the broadcast spectrum is worth many billions of dollars, broadcasters and phone companies are actively lobbying to privatize this public resource. The future of an open Internet depends on the public's ability to use the spectrum, since more space will be needed for the burgeoning wireless networking movement. To learn more, see the New America Foundation's guide to spectrum policy at www.newamerica.net.

6. Claim Your Right to Information and Culture:

Creativity, culture, and learning build on the information and creative expressions of others. With increasingly restrictive “intellectual property” laws, even excerpting material for educational purposes, for example, or making copies for personal use are threatened by the law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Thus while information may “want to be free,” the recording industry, Hollywood, and the TV industry want to make sure we pay for everything. Groups like Public Knowledge and the Electronic Freedom Foundation are representing the public interest in the digital copyright debates. Learn more at www.publicknowledge.org and www.eff.org.

7. Make Public Broadcasting Truly Public:

Noncommercial public service media are endangered species. In an age of powerful consumerism, we need more, not less, not-for-profit media. Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (Editor's note: as of 2008, this organization's Web site has gone dormant) is working to ensure that the impending transition to digital television will bring more opportunities for community participation. You can also challenge your local PBS and NPR station to do more local programming.

8. Choose Open-Source Software Solutions:

A major barrier to many people who would like to produce programming for the electronic media has been the sheer expense of broadcast-quality production. Now, low-cost digital alternatives are increasingly available. While there are differences of opinion concerning the merits of “open-source” (www.opensource.org) versus “free” (www.gnu.org) software, the two camps are united in their opposition to the bottlenecks and toll roads created by the proprietary products. Don't let our media future be ruled by Microsoft!

9. Keep Broadband Open:

Big telephone and cable companies want to alter the Internet's basic DNA of openness and diversity by controlling the “last mile” that links your home and business to the Internet. The debate over open access—whether broadband providers must allow users to choose any Internet service provider and any Internet content —has finally reached the Supreme Court, which will hear the issue this spring. Learn more about this issue from the Media Access Project at www.mediaaccess.org.

10. Support Alternative Media:

The mainstream media are by nature driven by advertising revenues and ensnared in corporate politics. That's why organizations such as Alternet, Democracy Now!, Free Speech TV, members of the Independent Press Association (including this magazine), and others are so vital, offering the public diverse viewpoints without fear or favor.


Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org). Gary O. Larson is a writer/researcher at the Center for Digital Democracy.

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