for the Rest of Us
By Steve Novotni
the Conference for Media Reform, journalists and activists
discuss the future of the news
Steve Breyman of Troy signed up to attend the National Conference
for Media Reform because he needed a way to recharge his battery
as an activist.
Breyman teaches science and technology studies at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute and has been active in campaign finance
reform and environmental action for years. He says it was
just a few years ago that he realized he needed to join the
struggle for a freer press.
you’re for peace and justice, you need also to be for media
reform,” he says.
The second Conference for Media Reform convened in St. Louis
on the weekend of May 13 to confront issues of big-media consolidation
and the FCC’s trend toward deregulation of the airwaves, community
access to the Internet, and the public’s diminishing access
to “real” news.
about 75 percent of the prime-time network programming and
80 percent of the cable programming controlled by six media
conglomerates, there is really no difference between having
600 channels or six channels, as programming decisions are
made by the same executives and original programs are replaced
by syndicated reruns,” says Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.).
Watson, whose district includes Hollywood, said television
programming is going from bad to worse as executives focus
on the bottom line and pump out sensationalized shows such
as American Idol and Survivor. “I kind of call
that the dumbing down of America,” she says. “Even news magazines
like Prime Time Live choose to report on reality TV
shows rather than reporting on the actual news. . . . Where
is the choice? Watch a reality show or watch a news program
about a reality show.”
Breyman, whose classes focus on the ethics and politics of
technology, agrees that media executives were, in general,
one hand you have to marvel at the chutzpah of these guys,”
he says. “They’re shamelessly pressing their advantage in
the halls of power in D.C.”
Breyman was referencing a major talking point at the event:
media organizations lobbying congress and the FCC to deregulate
the industry. Media monopolies hold both the carrot and the
stick, inducing politicians to vote for media consolidation
with sweetheart junkets and glitzy outings on one hand and
threatening negative campaign coverage on the other. Television
programming that’s really propaganda and reporters who have
been bought and paid for by the government were also lambasted
by speakers including Democracy Now! broadcaster Amy
Goodman and FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
reform is necessary because it is what’s needed to have viable
democracy and viable democracy is what’s needed to have social
justice and human happiness,” event founder Robert McChesney
of the other issues—the war, the poverty—these are related
at a core level to the corrupt media system in this country,”
says New Media Alliance executive director Steve Pierce.
Pierce, who is in the business of educating community-media
groups throughout upstate New York, says access to the media
is really a civil-rights issue, adding, “What we’re seeing
[at the conference] is the nascent stages of a community-building
effort from coast to coast.”
Pierce says the central local problem he was working on that
interested him in the Media Reform Conference was putting
municipal wireless throughout the small communities in New
infrastructure is a necessary community service,” Pierce says.
“It’s like roads a hundred years ago. If you don’t have them,
people won’t want to live there.”
Community wireless Internet could help to build that infrastructure,
delivering digital community access to people who can’t afford
the high rates charged by the phone and cable companies or
who are outside of the service areas. Even as activists like
Pierce are working to promote and develop this technology,
the lobbyists in Washington are bent on keeping the airwaves
in the hands of the corporations.
a very near future, high-definition television, telephone
service, radio and the Internet could all be reliably piped
into homes, cars and portable devices through a single wireless
service provider. Local broadband providers like Road Runner
are banking on that scenario. Neighborhood wireless networks
are the alternative, where the community itself offers low-cost
or free use of high-speed Internet as a public utility rather
than a privately delivered luxury. Cable lobbyists are trying
to get federal laws passed that would block such service.
If they win, high-speed Internet will remain out of reach
of the working class and the poor, reinforcing the digital
divide along class and racial lines.
been involved in grassroots community organizing for 30 years,”
Pierce says. “The climate is getting more hostile against
Vaidhyanathan, director of communication studies at New York
University, says that there has also been recent discussion
in Congress of extending copyright protection to the facts
presented in articles. Vaidhyanathan says lobbyists representing
database companies are working to expand copyright so that
the ideas in an article would be the intellectual property
of the author. This would imply that reporters, bloggers,
or academic researchers could face lawsuits for writing an
article in their own words that references facts within another
Commissioner Copps also cited the lack of minority issues
covered in news and the negative way people of color are depicted.
Indeed, conference organizers made attempts to address the
issue of diversity at the event by offering scholarships and
recruiting panelists; and more than a third of the panelists
were people of color. Still, only a small percentage of the
more than 2,400 journalists, educators and activists attending
problem of diversity bedevils the media-reform movement too,”
Breyman says. Breyman, a founding member of the Hudson-Mohawk
Independent Media Center, an activist news service, said that
issues along the race line plague activist groups the same
way they do the mainstream. He described his local activist
and media-reform movements as being typically white, middle-class
professionals with less than 10 percent being people of color.
He says he believes that if whites want people of color to
join forces with primarily white movements, the white activists
must work on actions that are led by blacks.
McChesney said the budding media-reform movement is based
on policy reform, education and critique, and journalists
in the trenches actually doing independent media.
has got to be a media that is not run by corporations that
profit from war,” says Amy Goodman, host of the national news
program Democracy Now!. “The voices excluded are not
a silent minority, but a silenced majority. . . . The media
is at an all-time low. The Pentagon has deployed the media
and it is time to take it back.”
Goodman says public sentiment against the war in Iraq and
dissent among the U.S. military have been deliberately underreported
by the mainstream press. She states that coverage of the peace
movement and communities in Iraq affected by the war is conspicuously
if we saw just one of the babies lying dead on the ground
or women with their legs blown off? . . . Where are the pictures?
Just imagine if we saw the images,” she asks. “We need a media
that is unembedded. We are supposed to be the check and the
The National Conference for Media Reform wants to be part
of the solution. And it is, to an extent. It is the highest
profile convention of its kind, drawing the largest number
of journalists into a single space. Participants include high
profile people like Al Franken, Phil Donahue and musician
Patti Smith. That draws attention to the movement, but it
also means that the celebrities and the mainstreaming of media
reform can become the focus, displacing the radical ideas
and grassroots movements that are at its core.
Dee Dee Halleck, of New York City’s community media-project
Paper Tiger TV, said that many folks in the Indymedia movement—an
international self-serve activist media system that allows
anyone to submit content online—felt shut out by the event.
Halleck has been working on the Indymedia project since it
began in 1999.
Halleck says she thinks the conference organizers are afraid,
politically, of some of the people in Indymedia, because they
seem too fringe, and might hurt the movement politically.
“I think they’re terrified of them and they don’t want to
give them too much space,” she says. “It was unfortunate that
[Indymedia representatives] were not on any of the panels.
The movement really will not go anywhere without the grassroots
Halleck says she believes organizers are concerenced about
alienating some of their new supporters as the movement becomes
more of a mainstream issue, attracting the interest and cooperation
of FCC commissioners, members of the Senate and Congress.
Indymedia, which is one of the largest activist groups in
the world, is controversial—having no editors means that anyone
can post reports to the newswire, which is great for a diversity
of ideas, but allows for questionable reliability of content.
Indymedia sites often end up being as full of propaganda as
they are with well- documented journalism on issues that might
otherwise never see the light of day.
Indymedia representatives had a much smaller role at the recent
conference than they did two years ago at the first National
Conference for Media Reform in Madison, Wis. At that event,
there was an Indymedia conference on site that paralleled
the main events. A similar, interactive media center, complete
with computer terminals for live reporting from the site and
a low-power FM radio station, was considered this time, but
was turned down by conference organizers.
The event is still in its early stages, Breyman says, and
he believes it is experiencing some growing pains. Event organizers
say they’re trying to improve diversity for the next conference,
planned for late 2006.