The optimism expressed at the National Conference for Media Reform perhaps represented the triumph of hope over experience.
But in the past few years media reform activists managed to beat back efforts by Big Media and the Bush administration to further deregulate media ownership and restrict access to the Internet. Then they helped Democrats regain control of Congress. Now the reformers hope to keep momentum going.
"We've been playing defense and we got pretty good at it, but it's time to go on the offense," said Robert W. McChesney, a media scholar and president of Free Press, which sponsored the third national conference, which drew more than 3,500 media representatives, political and social activists and bloggers from around the country to the Cook Convention Center in Memphis Jan. 12-14. "We're nonpartisan, but we're progressive," McChesney told the conference. "We're all about creating institutions and structures that make informed self-government possible."
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a longtime progressive public-interest advocate and new chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said "netroots" activists helped overturn the Federal Communications Commission deregulation effort in 2003. Then, when a re-elected Bush in 2005 tried to use some of his "political capital" to slash funding for public broadcasting, the netroots turned out a million signatures on online petitions to help Democrats beat back the assault. "It's the fear of votes that scares politicians," he noted, and those signatures got Congress members' attention.
When the debate on "net neutrality," started last spring, he said, the telecom industry had one lobbyist for each Congress member. But the netroots turned up 1.5 million signatures to keep Big Media's hands off the Internet. "It's a force unlike anything I've seen in my 30 years in Congress," he said. "Congress is a stimulus response institution. There is nothing more stimulating than having 1.5 million people who say 'I don't think I want you to keep your job if you won't keep your hands off the Internet.'"
A similar groundswell is now being seen in opposition to President Bush's plan to send more US troops to Iraq. "The time it took for the people to reject it was about the time it took for him to say 'surge,'" Markey said.
Net Neutrality (also known as Equal Access to the Internet), has managed to unite groups such as Free Press, the ACLU, Moveon.org and the Gun Owners of America, the National Religious Broadcasters and the Christian Coalition, he noted.
In the next two years, he will chair hearings that will determine the future of the Internet, and Markey promised, "unlike the last two years it just won't be the CEOs of the telephone and cable companies who are there."
For much of the past six years, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have been fighting a holding action at the FCC, and they welcomed the help arriving in the new Congress.
Copps, commissioner since May 2001, noted that TV and radio broadcasters get free use of the public airwaves, which are valued at more than $500 billion. "What do the American people ... get in return? Too little news and too much baloney passed off as news. Too little quality entertainment, too many people eating bugs on reality TV. Too little local and regional music, too much brain-numbing national playlists. Too little of America, too much of Wall Street and Madison Avenue. That's what we get for half a trillion dollars. It's one hell of a bad bargain, don't you think?
"I don't know about you, but I'm sick of this bargain and I'm sick of playing defense." While it's necessary to defeat the current Bush administration proposal to relax media regulations, he proposes "that we replace the bad old bargain that past FCCs struck with the media moguls with a new American Media Contract. It goes like this. We, the American people have given broadcasters free use of the nation's most valuable spectrum, and we expect something in return."
Copps' proposed contract would include:
A right to media that strengthens our democracy
A right to local stations that are actually local
A right to media that looks and sounds like America
A right to news that isn't canned and radio playlists that aren't for sale
A right to programming that isn't so damned bad so damned often
"And, by the way, you have already paid for this with the half trillion dollars you gave the media giants -- so you deserve all this on free-over-the-air TV and radio," he added.
Copps would make FCC license approval and renewal into more than a paper tiger. "No more postcard license renewals -- but instead a requirement for license-holders to prove they are fulfilling the Contract," he said.
He also would give minorities a seat at the media table and expand the number of media outlets in each community, with support for low power radio and TV, public access and community wireless. He also would protect new forms of media from consolidation that has ensnared traditional media. "The Internet can be truly transformative -- or it can become another network monopoly," he said.
Adelstein, commissioner since December 2002, said he remembers that he works for the American people, not the giant media companies he regulates. "That seems like a simple concept -- public officials represent the public's interest -- but that's "fuzzy math" in Washington," he said.
When the FCC in 2003 voted 3-2 along party lines for Powell's rules allowing more media consolidation, Adelstein recalled, the public interest won a bipartisan vote in the Senate, 55-40, to veto the new regs. But Majority Leader Tom DeLay prevented a House vote on the veto. That appeared to clear the way for the Powell rules to take effect until a federal court struck them down in 2004.
In the new Congress, Adelstein noted, Markey will chair the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an outspoken advocate for the public interest, got a promotion from the House to the Senate, and Tom Delay no longer can block a vote. "This time, in 2007, if the FCC passes an order to increase media consolidation, there's nothing to stop Congress from vetoing it," Adelstein said.
He urged people to demand that the Internet remain open. "We can't let what happened to our media happen to the Internet. We can't afford to let it become controlled by a few gatekeepers seeking to maximize their profits in the service of advertisers. We need to keep the Internet of the people, by the people and for the people. ... We hear a lot of talk out of Washington about spreading freedom and democracy around the world. How about uplifting the quality of our own freedom and democracy right here at home?"
Sen. Sanders congratulated the activists for making media control a major political issue. "We've reached a moment when critical mass is kicking in," he said, noting that not only is there a House media reform caucus, but he will have allies in the Senate as well. But he added that reform is not going to happen unless there is a strong grassroots demand for change.
"Four years ago, George W. Bush told American people a third-rate military power -- Iraq -- had weapons of mass destruction and that they were about to attack the USA," Sanders said. "Day after day, those of us who opposed the war were holding national press conferences that you never saw. People were so disgusted they turned off the American media and went to the BBC and the CBC."
With 99% of talk shows leaning conservative, he said, "Now is the time to open the question of the Fairness Doctrine again."
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee with FCC oversight, is author of the Media Ownership Reform Act. Among other things, the bill would restore the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC under Ronald Reagan did away with in 1987. Reagan then vetoed a bill to reinstate the doctrine. That began the process of media consolidation and the right-wing takeover of radio and TV news and talk shows, Hinchey said. "The only way the right wing wins is to not allow free discussion," he noted.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, as chairman of a new Domestic Policy subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, will also have some oversight of the FCC. He said he would push for media reform, including the bill reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. "Media reform translates to democracy reform," he said.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was an aide to Martin Luther King, said King's legacy "brings us to this point today, 40 years later, to define the great issues of our time -- the broken promises, the new schemes of denials, the impact of a media that freezes out democracy, the media that looks at the world through a key hole and not the door." Media concentration comes from capital concentration, he said. "We must fight to open up airwaves for all the people."
Jane Fonda, a founder of the Women's Media Center (womensmediacenter.com), was the penultimate speaker on Sunday. She called for more women in "clout positions" in the media, with control over budget and staffing and drew cheers with her observation: "Remember, the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, it's democracy."
The conference closer was Van Jones, founder of the California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, who grew up in smalltown Jackson, Tenn. Jones recalled that two years ago, stunned progressives were "crying in our soup and threatening to leave the country" after Bush was re-elected. "In just 24 months George Bush's polling numbers were in the toilet in Tennessee, in the red states ... Six years of one-party rule was shattered."
He remains optimistic. "This will be the tipping point. This will be the year for media justice and media reform. You don't believe me but I'm telling you the truth. We defeated an authoritarian regime and we've got to claim victories where we can get 'em."
He added, "In 24 months we built a progressive infrastructure that rivals the right wing in impact." But the movement must build hope, he said. "Martin Luther King Jr. didn't get famous giving a speech called, 'I have a complaint ... The brother had a dream. We need to be able to have a movement that stands for that."
(See texts and/or videos of many of these speakers at freepress.net/conference/.)
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