"The media's just like the weather, only it's man-made weather." -- Woody Harrelson as Mickey, the psychotic killer transformed into a folk hero by themedia in Natural Born Killers
"Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."
-- Mark Twain
Harrelson's McLuhanesque description of the ubiquity and power of Big Media rings eerily true in 2007. But there will be a lot of people -- famous and not-so-famous -- in Memphis this week who are out to prove Mark Twain dead wrong.
Beginning Friday, Memphis plays host to the National Conference for Media Reform, an event that brings nearly 3,000 media professionals, academics, and activists from across the country together with an extensive and impressive roster of media celebrities, critics, politicians, policy makers, and movie stars. Their goal is to bring on the sunshine by making a little rain.
They are united by issues such as the potential dismantling of network neutrality, a measure which would de-democratize cyberspace by turning the Internet over to the telecommunications industry. They are emboldened by a common belief that America's increasingly deregulated corporate media -- struggling to meet market demands while adapting to new, rapidly changing technologies -- are failing to fulfill their mandate to provide consumers with adequate news and a diverse range of opinion.
"The media are in a state of deep, deep crisis, and it's universally acknowledged that the state of journalism in America has disintegrated," says conference founder Robert McChesney, a media critic and research professor at the University of Illinois. "And I learned a long time ago that the only way you can fight organized money is with organized people."
McChesney describes the communications industry as an "oligopoly," wherein an ever-smaller number of extremely profitable companies determines what we read and view and controls its distribution with virtually no oversight. He says this combination of money and influence allows Big Media to impact government regulatory policies without properly informing the public or having to engage in open debate.
It's a sentiment echoed in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2006 "State of the News Media" report: "[T]he decades-long battle between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost," the report claims. The nonpartisan study further alleges that there is a disconnect between newsrooms and boardrooms: The once widely held notion that news organizations are a public trust is now viewed as a "quaint" vestige from a bygone era. Media consolidation and market forces have "aided the efforts of newsmakers to control what the public knows."
In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), then chaired by Clinton appointee Michael Powell (who never met an ownership cap he liked), voted 3-to-2 to lift the already loose restrictions governing limits on local broadcast ownership. It was a decision that would have allowed a single corporate entity to reach 45 percent of the national audience.
Prior to the FCC's vote, Powell -- who became a fixture on cable news after one of Janet Jackson's nipples made a cameo appearance during the 2004 Super Bowl -- held only one public forum (in Richmond, Virginia) to discuss the loosening of ownership rules. In spite of Powell's attempts to keep the vote on the downlow, the FCC's party-line decision resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of public dissent.
"Nearly 3 million Americans voiced their opinion on that vote, and 99.9 percent of them opposed it," says Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps.
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, Copps' progressive ally on the FCC, says Powell's gambit pushed the envelope so far that the American people had no choice but to respond. "Without knowing it, Michael launched a movement," he says.
"And that response really resonated with Congress," Copps adds, pointing out that in 2003 more people contacted their representatives about the FCC's vote on deregulation than on any other single issue except for the war in Iraq. The response encouraged the Senate to overturn the commission's vote and prompted the Third Circuit Court to question the commission's methods for determining what constituted public service.
"It was a victory for citizens," Copps says, marveling at the good news before considering the less good.
"The bad news is that we're looking at a sequel," Copps says. "It's all back up for grabs."
In June 2006, the FCC announced that it would again consider further deregulation as well as a possible modification of rules governing cross-ownership no longer deemed to be in the "public interest."
"The word deregulation is propaganda," McChesney says, adding that public and corporate interests are too often conflated. "Deregulation sounds really good, because who wants to be regulated? But our media system has never been a free-market system. From day one it's been based on subsidies, policies, licenses."
Adelstein agrees. "We need to see that broadcasters are meeting their obligations and showing accountability." He laments the increase of what he describes as "lowest-common-denominator programming" and the fact that broadcasters seeking to renew their licenses have to do very little to prove they are providing adequate services to their community.
"An investigative journalist who uncovers corruption in city hall can save a community millions," Adelstein says. But currently, investigative journalism only comprises one half of 1 percent of all broadcast content. (14 percent of all content is devoted to paid infomercials.) "Sometimes, the relatively small cost of supporting that kind of journalism is more than a [media] company is willing to pay," he adds.
From a reform perspective, one of the greatest problems with consolidation and publicly traded media stock is the decline of local media ownership. Corporate decision-makers are often far removed from the needs of the communities they serve. Wall Street, unencumbered by traditional media ethics, views media operations through the same lens as it does any other corporate entity: Success or failure is ultimately determined by a company's stock-market value. And lately, corporate media -- daily newspapers, in particular -- have been underperforming.
Although daily newspaper readership has been in steady decline for years, newspaper divisions of major media companies have cut resources and continued to post profits that are nearly double that of the average Fortune 500 company.
But profitability is only one part of a bigger equation: At the end of 2005, profit margins for major newspapers averaged 20 percent but stock prices were in free-fall. In a 2006 essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, media analyst Douglas McCollam concluded that the cost-control measures effected by Big Media companies had resulted in a domino effect: Cutting news-gathering resources yielded degraded products that further accelerated declines in readership. This, in turn, made investors nervous and sent newspaper stocks even lower.
"Stock prices are the first thing these people think about when they wake up in the morning and the last thing they think about before they drift off to sleep at night," says television personality and conference speaker Phil Donahue. (See "Man on the Mic," p. 18.)
Donahue was fired from his nighttime job at MSNBC in 2003, ostensibly for his failure to drive ratings. An internal memo circulated among MSNBC execs and subsequently leaked to The New York Times told another story, suggesting that Donahue's firing had nothing to do with his ratings and everything to do with the perceived zeitgeist. The memo stated that Donahue, a famously liberal talker, could present a difficult "public face" for the fledgling cable station during a time of war and heightened American patriotism.
Adelstein argues that Big Media companies have other conflicts when it comes to objective reporting on consolidation, regulation, and other issues that could negatively impact their stock values. But he's optimistic that the grass-roots movement to reform media will ultimately bring about meaningful change in the way large media companies conduct business.
"Right now, the first order of business is to prevent further damage," he says. "To do no harm."
McChesney says "net neutrality" is the second-biggest issue being addressed at this week's conference.
"The telecoms want to turn the Internet into a tiered system of service, predicated on the idea that with a privatized Internet, some people will be on the outside and some people will be on the inside," McChesney says. "It's all predicated on the idea that some people have a lot of money and will pay a lot of money not to be on the outside.
"Look," McChesney says, attempting to see things from the other side of the fence, "if I'm a shareholder in AT&T or Comcast and the people at AT&T or Comcast aren't doing everything they can to junk net neutrality, of course I want somebody to be fired."
In the absence of significant media-on-media reporting, the Internet has played a major role in building the current reform movement. Commissioners Adelstein and Copps have high hopes for the preservation of network neutrality. "More and more people are recognizing the power of the Internet and the role it plays in their daily lives," Adelstein says. "When you threaten people's ability to freely access information, they see that as a personal affront."
Copps suggests that the network-neutrality issue could almost be seen as a secondary issue to the U.S.'s lack of a cohesive strategy for the proliferation of broadband services.
"Other countries have seen the value of broadband and they have beaten us badly," Copps says, citing a new study on computer use that ranks America 21st worldwide, just behind Estonia and in a dead heat with Slovenia.
Copps, Donahue, Adelstein, McChesney, and a host of others are coming to Memphis to address the far-reaching impact of media consolidation and network neutrality, as well as other issues, including minority media-ownership, religious broadcasting, and the development of family-oriented content that doesn't marinate children's brains with excessive advertising. They are all confident that their trip will bring us one step closer to understanding these problems and to ultimately solving them.
"There is an extraordinary power in the right to assemble, to have 3,000 people from all 50 states convene as a social being," McChesney says. "You can effectively collapse into three days what it would otherwise take two or three years to accomplish."
Stay tuned. There's possible big news in Memphis this weekend. That is, if the corporate media aren't afraid to cover it.
Who, What, When, Where
The National Conference for Media Reform, sponsored by Free Press, a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating meaningful change within the media, convenes on Friday, January 12, at the Cook Convention Center.
The list of confirmed speakers and performers includes: FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, Ben Bagdikian, author, The Media Monopoly, Duncan "Atrios" Black, author Eric Boehlert, PBS's David Brancaccio, David Brock of Media Matters for America, Adrienne Maree Brown of Ruckus Society, Jeff Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy, R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop's Rosa Clemente, U.S. representative Steve Cohen, MSNBC commentator Flavia Colgan, Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America, Phil Donahue, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, Rev. Ben Hooks, Rev. Jesse Jackson, journalist and author Bill Moyers, media critic Norman Solomon, Hearst Newspapers' White House correspondent Helen Thomas, the Bar-Kays, the North Mississippi Allstars, and many, many more.
Additional information about the conference is available at www.freepress.net/conference.