The Media Reform Movement Declares Itself

Some 2,500 activists, policy wonks, community journalists, musicians and others came from all 50 states and eight foreign countries to St. Louis this past weekend for a remarkable political gathering – a conference on media reform organized by Free Press, the advocacy organization. Participants in the wildly eclectic conference shared a common interest in breaking the stranglehold of the corporate media and boosting citizen-friendly alternatives. What made this event unlike so many other progressive conferences over the years was its non-sectarian spirit, diversity of perspectives, political sophistication, and sheer size. The event reminded me of the coiling of a spring: the condensing of a lot of energy that will surely burst out in the future.

For decades, media reform has been the redoubt of dedicated public-interest policy wonks – chiefly a Washington affair, with few grassroots leaders or political clout. But after the firestorm of public protest in 2003 over the FCC’s media concentration rules, media reform has become a hot progressive issue. Everyone from environmentalists to civil rights advocates to economic populists realize that their agenda is dead in the water unless the corporate media will allow them to have a serious public conversation. And in a media universe dominated by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, reality shows and journalism-as-entertainment, that’s not likely. In fact, it is now impossible to carry on the most basic forms of democratic discourse via television and radio. If we’re going to save American democracy, that’s the one common problem we all must confront: the politicization and over-commercialization of the media.

An explosion of citizen energy may come sooner than anyone imagined. Bill Moyers gave a blistering speech that essentially announced a new offensive against the right-wing takeover of public broadcasting. Unlike so many Democrats and careerists who cringe defensively at charges of partisan bias, or treat such accusations as bad manners that should be politely ignored, Moyers courageously denounced the growing partisan witch hunts at PBS. He also called for citizen hearings around the country to ascertain what the public – not politicians or PBS – wants from public broadcasting. Thank you, Bill! Your speech legitimates a sharp new focus on the Bush Administration’s propaganda machine and its scary implications for our democracy. (An audio version of the speech can be downloaded here, and a video of the speech can be watched here.)

It’s impossible to represent the full dimensions of the conference; it was just too large and robust. But I believe it represents a political watershed whose effects will be evident in the months and years to come. When was the last time that two FCC commissioners (Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein) were greeted as if they were rock stars, with standing ovations by 2,500 people? When was the last time that the sectarian left was able to collaborate on such an ambitious long-term agenda? When were the “participatory media” of blogs, podcasting, community television, low-power FM, community Internet, and independent media outlets ever so strong and diversified?

There were other exciting developments:

A lot going on. Naturally, most mainstream media ignored the event. Pacifica broadcast portions of it live. The curious among us can read blogs about the conference here and watch video segments of the conference here.

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