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Rep. Diane Watson

Reporting for the Rest of Us
By Steve Novotni

At the Conference for Media Reform, journalists and activists discuss the future of the news


Professor 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.

“If 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.

“With 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, very corrupt.

“On 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.

“Media 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 says.

“All 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 York.

“Telecommunications 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.

In 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.

“I’ve been involved in grassroots community organizing for 30 years,” Pierce says. “The climate is getting more hostile against local media.”

Siva 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 article.

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 were nonwhite.

“The 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.

“There 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 absent.

“What 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 balance.”

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 people.”

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.

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