News: Guarding the Watchdogs

How to reclaim the media for public service

Stephen Novotni

Amy Goodman blasted the mainstream media for ignoring the anti-war movement.

ST. LOUIS — Can you trust this newspaper? Is the journalist writing this story providing you with all the facts, or has something been left out because of who signs his checks?

Trust and access were the focus of the National Conference for Media Reform, a convergence of more than 2,400 concerned academics, journalists and activists here May 13-15. They met to discuss and to mobilize on inequities in the national media system.

Many speakers at the event pointed to systemic problems of corruption within the American media. Key issues were:

· Media consolidation and the movement of the press toward becoming just another commodity that is bought and sold, rather than an economy of ideas. Just five corporations — Viacom, Disney, Time-Warner, News Corp. and NBC/GE — control 70 percent of the primetime market share, according to Consumers Union. Speakers argued that this trend causes editorial decisions on content to be replaced by financial decisions that regard only the bottom line. Compare the amount of airtime spent on Michael Jackson's trial and the runaway bride in Georgia to coverage of the proposed changes in social security.

· Media organizations lobbying Congress to snuff Federal Communication Commission regulations limiting the number of media outlets one company may own, inducing politicians to allow further consolidation with glitzy junkets and the threat of negative publicity during campaigns.

· Media that allow the government to direct their programming and relay government propaganda through paid-off "journalists" and government advertisements disguised as news.

· Custom copyright. Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of communication studies at New York University, says there has been 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 and bloggers could face lawsuits for writing an article in their own words that references facts within another article.

"Copyright is the only area of law that can trump the First Amendment," Vaidhyanathan said.

· Issues of media access. In the 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 Roadrunner and Zoomtown are banking on that destiny. Neighborhood wireless networks are the alternative, with the community itself offering low-cost or free use of high speed Internet as a public utility rather than a privately delivered luxury. State Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon) introduced House Bill 188 in April in an effort to prevent municipalities from offering these telecommunications services. If it passes, high-speed Internet will remain out of reach of the working class and the poor, reinforcing the digital divide along class and racial lines.

Ignoring dissent
"There has got to be a media that is not run by corporations that profit from war," said 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."

The mainstream press has deliberately underreported public sentiment against the war in Iraq and dissent among the U.S. military, Goodman says. She said coverage of the peace movement and communities in Iraq affected by the war are conspicuously absent.

"What if we saw just one of the babies lying dead on the ground or women with their legs blown off?" Goodman said. "Where are the pictures? Just imagine if we saw the images. We need a media that is un-embedded. We are supposed to be the check and the balance."

Tom Bishop, executive director of the local public access TV station Media Bridges, says the local media are also guilty of sins of omission.

"(Being) local news is not just calling yourself 'local news,' " he said.

In a world where most people get their news from television, many locals simply won't find out who won school board elections or who was elected to Norwood City Council, he said.

"Local broadcasts don't cover them," he said.

Bishop is presenting a class June 29 at Media Bridges on how to challenge the broadcast licenses of Cincinnati television stations. He says his intent isn't to shut down any local television stations, a goal he admits is unrealistic, but to open a productive dialogue between viewers and management as to how local TV can better serve the community.

"Broadcasters get free use of our airwaves to print money for their stockholders," Bishop said. "(They) need to do more to serve the public interest."

Maynard and Sara Johnson of Greater Cincinnati aren't media professionals, but they traveled 350 miles and attended the conference because they're concerned citizens. Johnson said she and her husband are disappointed in the local press; she plans to show movies about media reform to friends and neighbors as a way to bring the issue to Cincinnati.

"The media is the key to a bunch of things that aren't getting done, aren't being seen or heard," Johnson said. "We got rid of the (daily) paper years ago because it made me sick."

The National Conference for Media Reform wants to be part of the solution. It's the highest profile convention of its kind, drawing the largest number of journalists into a single space.

But organizers are struggling to bring more people of color to the table and to wrangle many different media projects under the same banner of media reform. The reformers will have to question their own motives along the way to ensure that their organization is as democratic, just and open as the movement they're trying to build. ©

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