Bill Moyers warned the National Conference for Media Reform in his keynote address Jan. 14 that the independent press is under sustained attack. The dominant institutions of our media are no longer "guardians of democracy," he said, as corporations conspire with political leaders to create an Orwellian world "in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power are wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth."
Moyers, a veteran journalist, former aide to President Lyndon Johnson and president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, agreed with Michael Schudson, who wrote in the January/February issue of Columbia Journalism Review that when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important medium. But newspapers are purposely dumbing-down, "driven down," says Schudson, by Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil and seems determined to eviscerate those papers.
Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, who was murdered in Memphis in 1968 while supporting striking garbage workers, Moyers said, "The bullet killed him, but it couldn't kill the story, because once the people start telling their story, you can't kill it anymore." Moyers added, "This is the moment freedom begins, the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it's time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself."
That is why it is vitally important that we protect the freedom of the Internet, he said. "The Internet, cell phones and digital cameras that can transmit images over the Internet makes possible a nation of story tellers, every citizen a Tom Paine," he said.
He compared big media corporations to plantation owners and American media consumers to their slaves. "What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable. If we are not diligent, then it will happen to the Internet, [creating] a media plantation for the 21st century dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have controlled the media for the last 50 years."
While it is easy to despair, the public has risen up to win a couple important victories for media and democracy. Four years ago, Moyers noted, when then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his fellow Republicans decided it was OK for a single corporation to own a community's major newspapers, three of its TV stations, eight radio stations, its cable TV system and its major broadband Internet provider, "you said, enough's enough!"
Free Press, Common Cause, Consumer's Union, Media Access Project, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and others, working closely with Democratic commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps. organized public hearings across the country. People poured out their frustrations with the media. Congress was flooded with petitions and when a federal court ruled that Powell had to back off, Moyers noted, the decision cited the importance of involving the public in these media decisions. Powell quit to become a senior adviser at a private investment firm specializing in media companies but Moyers warned that his successor, Kevin Martin, is ready to take up where Powell left off and give the green light to more conglomeration. "Get ready to fight," Moyers advised.
The netroots also put Washington on notice that it had to guarantee the Internet's First Amendment protection in the $85 billion merger of AT&T and BellSouth. "Because of you, the so-called Net Neutrality -- I much prefer to call it the 'equal-access provision of the Internet' ... the equal-access provision became a public issue that once again reminded the powers-that-be that people want the media to foster democracy, not to quench it," Moyers said.
"This is crucial, because in a few years, virtually all media will be delivered by high-speed broadband," he said. "And without equality of access, the Net can become just like cable television where the provider decides what you see and what you pay. After all, the Bush Department of Justice had blessed the deal last October without a single condition or statement of concern. But they hadn't reckoned with [Democratic commissioners] Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, and they hadn't reckoned with this movement. Free Press and SavetheInternet.com orchestrated 800 organizations, a million and a half petitions, countless local events, legions of homemade videos, smart collaboration with allies and industry, and a top shelf communications campaign. Who would have imagined that sitting together in the same democratic broadband pew would be the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, Common Cause, and Moveon.org? Who would have imagined that these would link arms with some of the powerful new media companies to fight for the Internet's First Amendment?"
When GOP Commissioner Robert McDowell had to recuse himself from the AT&T merger approval because of a conflict of interest, that left a 2-2 deadlock. AT&T had to cry "uncle," with a "voluntary commitment to honor equal access for at least two years." The agreement marks the first time that the federal government has imposed true neutrality on an Internet access provider since the debate erupted almost two years ago, Moyers noted.
"I believe you changed the terms of the debate." he told the activists. "It is no longer about whether equality of access will govern the future of the Internet. It's about when and how. It also signals a change from defense to offense for the backers of an open net. Arguably the biggest, most effective online organizing campaign ever conducted on a media issue can now turn to passing good laws, rather than always having to fight to block bad ones." Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, have introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007 to require fair and equitable access to all content. They can count on support from Markey and other key Dems in the House.
But the other side won't give up so easy. After the agreement expires in two years, Moyers predicted, "they will be back with all the lobbyists money can hire." The corporate press won't be covering stories like this because of "priorities." And in exchange for giving up on Net Neutrality, Moyers noted, AT&T got the green light to dominate over 67 million phone lines in 22 states, almost 12 million broadband users and total control over Cingular Wireless, the country's largest mobile phone company with 58 million cell phone users. "Big Media is ravenous," he said. "It never gets enough, always wants more. And it will stop at nothing to get it. These conglomerates are an empire, and they are imperial."
Moyers recommended the book, Digital Destiny, by Jeff Chester, which describes how we are being shadowed online by a slew of software digital gumshoes working for Madison Avenue. "Jeff asks the hard questions: Do we really want television sets that monitor what we watch? Or an Internet that knows what sites we visit and reports back to advertising companies? Do we really want a media system designed mainly for Madison Avenue?
"But this is a hopeful book. 'After scaring the bejeezus out of us,' as one reviewer wrote, Jeff offers a policy agenda for the broadband era. Here is a man who practices what the Italian philosopher Gramsci called the 'pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.' He sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses and tries to change it, despite what he knows."
Moyers will be back with a weekly series on PBS, Bill Moyers' Journal, in April. "I hope to complement the fine work of colleagues like David Brancaccio of NOW and David Fanning of Frontline, who also go for the truth behind the news," he said.
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