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Winning The Media Wars

Russ Baker

May 20, 2005

Russ Baker —an investigative reporter and essayist—is a longtime contributor. He is involved in the development of  a new not-for-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism in America.

How much of a pipe dream is it to be an effective “media reform activist?”  Most of us are skeptical about real opportunities for mere mortals to do anything to stanch the flow of life from an increasingly sold-out, wimpy, self-censoring, corporate-owned fourth estate.

Now, I don’t want to come off as excessively starry-eyed. But I’ll tell you this: I wasn’t the only one attending the National Conference on Media Reform last weekend in St. Louis who was impressed, energized, made to see what is now possible in terms of reclaiming our right to read and hear the truth. So were the 2,500 other attendees. So were the hundreds or perhaps thousands more who wanted to come, were there ample space to accommodate everyone.  So were participants Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein the two holdouts on the Federal Communications Commission who still believe in a vigorous, diverse press. And so was Bill Moyers, the poster boy for a conservative campaign to neuter public broadcasting, who capped the proceedings with a rousing call to arms .

Pretty much everyone was begoshed to find that so many other people care about such dry-sounding and technical matters as media monopolies, censorship at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, affordable and unfettered Internet access and strategies for funding independent journalism.

I usually can’t stand such conferences, and I’ve attended plenty. Lots of blather but little concrete to show for it.  However, this oneorganized by the group FreePress  (co-founded by Robert McChesney and John Nichols) was singular. Attendance was dramatically up over previous conclaves, and everyone, it seemed, had success stories from the media wars. Which suggests this rather elementary formulation: If you can get enough people doing lots of different things on an issue that has traditionally eluded popular appeal or public scrutiny, everything can change. 

Here are just a few of the things you can affect as an individual:

What’s on television.  Cable companies set the menu for what you can watch in your city, but every few years, cable franchise licenses come up for renewal. And at that time, you can help persuade your local government to require those companies to reconsider what kinds of programs they carry, and to expand the diversity and value of their offerings.  One way is to increase the number of public access channels.  For more on this, contact Alliance for Community Media .

What’s on the radio. A huge chunk of the programming going over the airwaves is now determined by a handful of executives at companies like Clear Channel, owner and operator of more than 1,200 stations. So you can help support and promote the growing number of alternatives, which include locally owned and run stations, Pacifica, Air America, Internet radio, podcasts, and, notably,  community-run “low-power FM” stationswhich, facing severe obstacles, now appear poised to emerge in a bigger way, thanks to the Local Community Radio Act of 2005, from Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. As noted recently by the Utne Reader , “the bill would expand LPFM service nationwide, easing the burden on would-be LPFM stations to prove noninterference with commercial broadcasters.”  For more on LPFM, including information on obtaining a license, contact Prometheus Radio Project .

What’s on public broadcasting. Common Cause, recognizing that the campaign financing system can’t be changed unless the media are reformedand the best parts protected is involved with a “Hands Off NPR and PBS” campaign. You can find out about it here .

The creep of commercialism in your community. To learn more about what’s wrong with Channel One, the providers of advertising-soaked “news” programming to a captive audience of 8 million students in 12,000 schools across America, read my articles from The New Republic and The American Prospect. Then contact Commercial Alert  to find out what you can do about it.

FCC Decision-making. The FCC must ask for and acknowledge public comment, but hardly ever hears from anyone but corporations. Recently, large numbers of citizens have begun exercising their right to be heard, and the rising chorus seems to be making a demonstrable difference in FCC deliberations. To get started, go here .

Local coverage. Monitor your area media and, when you see something wrong, speak out. Many attendees had stories of getting results from their own newspaper, radio and TV stations when they complained about bias, poor journalism and tepidness. One woman from an extremely conservative part of Florida happily recounted how she had single-handedly muscled key advertisers into withdrawing support from one hate-mongering program.

Support the good media that are out there, or create your own.  Independent newspapers, blogs, podcasts there’s a thriving marketplace of ideas out there, if you look just a bit. And a cornucopia of groups are bringing democracy to media. Go to for a list of 149 organizations working in various aspects of media reform. Choose your favorite area. And dive in.

Remind the “old media” folks that they’re becoming dinosaurs not just for economic and technological reasons. They've forgotten how to do real journalism anymore, so busy are they establishing their 'fairness' by giving equal time to credible information served up in the public interest and to blatant lies, and by lowering the barrier to fluff. Bill Moyers’ trademark maxim nails it:  “News is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.”

And there's a nice counter-maxim. Publicityin the form of concerted public actionis in fact an antidote, the best way to coax that "real news" out of hiding.



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