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National Conference on Media Reform Panel: Engaging New Constituencies in Media Reform

Panelists: Tim Carr, Free Press/Media for Democracy; Noah Winer, MoveOn.org; Leonard Hill, independent TV movie producer, formerly with ABC and NBC, described as "the leading Hollywood voice speaking out on deregulation"; Medea Benjamin, Global Exchange, United for Peace and Justice/Code Pink (100 chapters), Occupation Watch (Baghdad), Bill Fletcher, TransAfrica/United Auto Workers

Tim: We've talked abut identifying stakeholders, reaching new constituencies... But the language is shibboleths of inclusion in a closed group. The language of the movement needs to change as well. The words "media reform" mean nothing unless we can [move people]. These panelists come to the movement from the side, not the frontlines.

Noah: MoveOn became involved in the FCC fight because our members wanted to be involved. The grassroots rose up and said 'this is important.' MoveOn is working to engage progressives in the political process. Don't underestimate the power of deeply engaging progressives who aren't involved, Those are the people where our limited resources really pay off. They agree to change minds from a distance, they're the best messengers. People trust their own neighbors. Engaging in political action is a first step to engaging more deeply. When you read a newspaper there are stories that are biased, incomplete, or missing. So we've gotten more engaged.

Progressives are a very important part of this movement. We have a lot to do to build the infrastructure. Progressives know that when our ideas are covered, we win the debate. When progressives win [the changes could be sweeping]

Progressives whine and gripe but don't participate in action--they're frustrated. So it's an opportunity to engage them more deeply. Show them actions that feel manageable, compelling, and have an impact.

Len: I come as a writer/producer of Hollywood programs; that puts me in the conservatives' crosshairs. As an environmentalist, a consumer, who believes in the democratic process and a free and open society, all those agendas are held subservient to the open and free marketplace of ideas that is now being strangled, I want to unlock the promise of the 500-channel universe. TV made it impossible to censor Tiananmen Square. The Xerox machine could not be controlled by the Soviet Union. The 500-channel universe has been subsumed by the colonization by five or six corporations. They will be controlled by five ventriloquists and we will be a society of dummies.

In 1983, the networks succeeded in getting the FCC to abandon the financial interest and syndicate rules, 5-0. The networks were not seeking deregulation; that was the packaging to sell their agenda. Regulation of broadcasting technology is the most fundamental need of government. We can't allow anyone to set up an antenna, anywhere. So government allocates based on "the public interest, convenience and necessity." That phrase is in the original 1934 telecom act 117 times. And we gave the spectrum away for free. They want to be deregulated only of the restraints. In 1990, a Republican-dominated FCC blocked that 3-2. Unfortunately, the decision was overturned by Judge ` Richard Posner, former attorney for CBS, who refused to recuse himself. These were the dark days, and it was Bill Clinton who pushed the 1996 telecom act.

I am not fighting for the proposition that in an open and free debate, progressives win, I'm fighting to have the open and free debate and let the best ideas win.

We need arms-length interactions, not the self-dealing that corporations call synergy. Embrace the multi-party nature, and the very simple solutions: remind those who benefit from the grant that they need to have their license renewed every three years after public debate. That has now been converted to an 8-year FCC rubber stamp EZ Pass [electronic fast-track toll-collection system]. The first step is 3-year, locally vetted license.

Bill: Two points: 1] We have to begin by asking several questions: who owns the media, who makes the decisions, who's in front of or behind the camera or microphone, what issues are discussed, and what is considered relevant? Who cares about this? Those are the constituencies we need to reach.

2] We need to articulate it as a battle for democracy, and not a lobbying effort. Organize screenings of "Bamboozled" by Spike Lee. It's a satire on the way black folks are treated in the TV industry. Why is it nearly impossible to find African-Americans who are not in semi-minstrel positions? To feel we have a media that's about exclusion and ridicule--when we think about it in those terms, we reconceptualize the reform movement as a movement for democracy, global justice, racial and economic justice.

Medea: 59 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war is not worth fighting--but we couldn't get one damn senator to vote against $82 billion. I don't just want to look back on the good old days; I want to build new structures. I look around and I say, where is the movement? The Downing Street Memo is incredible! MoveOn should send that and say if this is not in the evening news, we'll be calling, we'll be sitting in at your stations.

[in which, in July of 2002, many months before the war, a senior British diplomat reported to the Defence (British spelling) and Foreign Secretaries that the US wanted war regardless of other options. Two key excerpts, as reported by The Times of London, the UK's most respected newspaper:

[Excerpt 1]" C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

[Excerpt 2] "The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change."

Read the full memo here.]

I want to see the kids kicking out the army recruiters on the cover of Newsweek. I want to see PTAs coming together and saying those people should not be in our schools. On Mother's Day I wanted to see Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, debating Bill O'Reilly on the evening news. [Conscientious objector] Pablo Pardedes got zero prison time, that was a story, we want that on the front page. I want the media to do what Marla Ruzicka [humanitarian worker killed by a car bomb in Iraq] was doing: to go and count the civilian casualties. And I want us all to demand that we stop the killing occupation in Iraq.

Bill: The media reform movement is conceptualized as a mass lobby, and that will kill us. It has to touch people in the labor movement, who are furious about the exclusion of the working class from TV. The trade union movement is completely ignored, or covered with loaded terms like 'labor bosses.' If the media reform movement is not talking to the people who don't know these heroes but know all the sitcom characters, [it's not relevant].

Medea: I want the analysts not only to put it up on their websites, but I want them to be connected to you, to tell us get your people to do this, and we will do this. People want to do work to change the media. You can have these little wins, and we need all the wins we can get.

Len: Without the media movement, the other movements won't succeed. I made the heretical suggestion that Buck McNealy from Cape Girardeau, Missouri [should attend this conference]. He is to the right of Limbaugh, but has a small show about hunting and fishing. Both of us were assured that we could take our independently produced programs to indy stations that would put them on the air. That's no longer true. The left and right can join forces to open up a media democracy.

Noah: My work is so influenced by the analysts who follow the outrages, the policy disputes. We need information, visioning. I've learned so much from Free Press about community Internet. Offering the visions, building them, showing models of them--this is how we make the content change.

Bill: No one particular issue resonates more, but the principal motivator is access for points of view out of the mainstream--and who defines the mainstream? We have to take issue with the idea that the center-right is the mainstream, as the big media position it.

Len: Evaluate everything [by the guidepost of] 'magnetic north': truth. Be suspicious where there exists conflict of interest. We have an unholy combination: vertical and horizontally integrated companies that extract rights and behave in highly anticompetitive ways. Remember the Sherman Act, the Clayton Act, the bricks and mortar of capital competition. Synergy is a fancy term for self-dealing, and that destroys the market. It was Media Access Project that stuck a finger in the dike of media consolidation, in a Philadelphia courtroom.

Break up distribution and production [monopolies]. Challenge those who would control rights from cradle to grave.

Noah: The telecomm act is coming up for renewal. Let's see what we can take back, as we move toward new technologies.

What's wrong?

Bill: People feel overwhelmed. Cynicism leads to inaction. Look who's in the room and reach out to those who are not.

Medea: A lot of people in our movement don't watch TV. We don't know what the mainstream is watching. If the first time we see Fox is Outfoxed [a documentary film about Fox's manipulation of the American mind], it's like coffee with a nasty edge. Watch it enough to get incensed. And we don't have enough structure. There are groups that can pay $50,000 to do the ad in the New York Times, there are the groups that can get people out in the streets, we have the groups with religious concerns. We have good media in the Bay Area because we do that kind of coordination

Len: You have to learn to have conversations about technology [in a way that's accessible to ordinary, apolitical consumers]. You need to say, you bought HDTV (High Density TV), but instead of super picture, you’ll get five new low- definition channels. That's not what you bargained for, here's what we can do about it.

Noah: We haven't yet gotten on the boat of local news. That's what people watch, and it's more permeable. You can walk in the door and meet with the owner, ask to see the transcripts and records. There were no records of the government VNRs (video news releases: propaganda disguised as news) [Author's Note: For more on that story, please see my blog entry for April 30, 2005 (you may have to scroll through the archives)]

Audience Comment:
I know a lot of people who agree with me, but they’re scared! I lost a job in talk radio. People lose jobs, the FBI comes knocking. How do we address this fear?

Noah: We need to think of this movement not as an attack on journalists but as a defense of what the Fourth Estate (the press) can do.

Medea: Yes, this can be immobilizing. The best way to combat fear an protect yourself is to build a community, so people are here to support your back when you need it.

We started Code Pink right after 911. The FBI agent was out there with us every day, and when we announced a march on [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld's house, they called and said 'we're going to get tough, They put one of our women on the no-fly list, They took an activist off a plane to Afghanistan and grilled him for five hours. We [blasted out publicity] and said, 'how dare you!' Organize, organize, organize--get big and powerful, and then they can't do anything to you,

Audience Comment:
MoveOn is very important, but why has it left the war issue? I joined MoveOn because my country was trying to rob and kill and steal the resources of another country.

Noah: When MoveOn works best is when we're not trying to mimic a media organization. Our issue alerts have to be tied to action. It's got to tell the reader in under a minute what I can do to influence this. (Here, the audience loudly and enthusiastically told Noah that the war is still a key issue.)

Medea: Bush has no exit strategy because they don't want to leave. We need to be strong together.

Audience Comment:
Some of these issues shouldn't be issues. Abortion has been turned into a holy war. How do we show a third voice without playing the rules that the enemy has created?

Audience Comment:
We need to hear more about justice, about liberation, about oppression that people deal with on a daily basis. This is about people's lives: health care, rights of gays, people of color, racism, sexism, classism--where's the systematic analysis?

Tim: There has been considerable debate. We're here in part to try to figure that out. It's worthy of a conference in and of itself.

Bill: The media reform movement is much bigger than this conference. This conference is part of process, and we have to be thinking about how we join these movements. I'm not going to spend time trying to reach the NRA (National Rifle Association). You have growing consolidation of Latino media around ultra-right forces, and who is talking about this? You look at Latino sitcoms and they all look like they're filmed in Madrid. [Where are the indigenous Latinos of the Americas?]

Audience Comment: There was so much power in having 50 strangers in my house watching Outfoxed. I got reenergized, as I had by feminist consciousness raising groups in the 70s.

Audience Comment: We fought recruiter notification with our school board and we won. The kids kicked the recruiters out of the lunchroom. Parents mobilized to stop a Black Hawk helicopter from landing on the football field.

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Peace & Politics and Down to Business, the author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, and the founder of the Business Ethics Pledge campaign

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