The Challenges of Media Reform

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More than 2,500 people converged in downtown
St. Louis in mid-May for
an historic meeting of citizens,
activists, scholars, artists,
policymakers, and media
producers, all dedicated
to solving a crisis that threatens the roots
of American democracy: the media.
Readers of the Public i – its very existence
being to counter the onslaught of
big corporate media – no doubt know
already that democracy depends on a free
press. Likewise, those reading this paper,
following the activities of the UCIMC,
tuning into WEFT, nosing about on various
blogospheres, or attempting in any
way to be more active consumers of news
and information likely know about the
problems already: Deregulation, corporate
consolidation, Bushie propagandizing,
Rathergate, Sinclair Broadcasting,
Clear Channel, and the recent Newsweek
retraction, to name a few.
Many of the St. Louis Media Reform
magnates, including Sy Hersh, Phil Donahue,
Bernie Sanders, and Maurice
H i n c h e y, had the week before appeared in
Champaign-Urbana for a separate conference,
and as one might expect, several of
the themes addressed were alarmingly
consistent. All were in agreement that
something must be done, now. One of the
most compelling, sobering, worrying
analyses of the pathetic state of A m e r i c a
and its media comes from the incisive
Canadian journalist Naomi Klein: “When
US democracy is in crisis, the world is in
crisis. When Americans learn geography
through religion and war,we are in crisis.”
But I didn’t venture to St. Louis to
hear dire proclamations, wallow in my
ongoing patriotic misery in the company
of like-minded others, nor to report back
that we have reached the sunset of
enlightenment. Rather, I went to St. Louis
to experience the optimism, hope, creativity,
intelligence and power that is driving
the media reform movement. Overall
the spirit of St. Louis was one of people
coming together to learn, laugh, and
act for change. Al Franken and Jim Hightower
entertained us. Amy Goodman,
Medea Benjamin, and Representative
Diane Watson inspired us. Policymakers,
politicians, and keynote speakers brought
us to our feet, drawing cheers and
applause as they committed themselves to
saving democracy through media reform.
I left St. Louis with the feeling that our
hard work is worth it, our movement is
sustainable, and that we must continue in
our tireless efforts.
A sinking feeling arises again, howeve
r, when I look at the challenges faced by
the media reform movement, and progressivism
more generally at this historical
juncture. Please allow me to toss aside
any pretense of journalistic objectivity or
balance to be frank about such challenges:
Technology: Urbana, thanks largely to
the efforts of a handful of people working
with the UCIMC, is an exemplar of community-
based internet access; likewise,
the worldwide Indymedia movement,
starting with the Seattle WTO protests in
1999, has thrived by appropriating the
technologies of globalization. Savvy
internet users can stream media from all
over the world, progressives can connect
with one another through web sites and
blogs and, as we saw last year, entire
presidential campaigns can be both motivated
and derailed online. But what about
access to internet-capable computers?
What about print culture, and newspapers
such as this one? What happens when
internet service providers become
increasingly privatized and therefore
more expensive and more limited?
Power: At the Media Reform Conference,
it became clear to me that the most
powerful figures in our movement are
affluent white men. Sure, these figures
are sympathetic to the plight of the working
classes; sure, having lived through the
civil rights movement and the 1960s, they
are sympathetic to the civil rights and
feminist movements; sure, being openminded
liberals, they support gay rights,
reproductive rights, immigrant rights, and
workers rights. Is it a problem, then, that
the leadership of the media reform movement
is largely comprised of affluent
white men? After all, they were the very
founders of this democracy now in such
peril. However, the tokenism seen in St.
Louis remains troubling to me.
C o h e re n c e : I met and saw so many
wonderful people at the conference, ranging
from young pink-haired anarchists to
Pacifica radio producers, to professors, to
elderly Democrats, to young liberals, to
closet policy wonks like myself. Robert
McChesney and his cadre of dedicated,
o rganized, and talented media reformers
deserve great credit and should still blush
with pride at the success of the conference
and the movement. Yet I worry about sust
a i n a b i l i t y. It’s one thing to gather together
for a rousing weekend of speeches and
entertainment, and yet quite another to
ensure that the momentum is strong
enough to endure another three years of
the Bush administration, FCC rulings, and
judicial appointments, not to mention
unforeseen repercussions of war and torture.
How can a media reform movement
achieve a coherent balance between creative
production of video, radio, print, and
web content while still engaged in policy
reformation and lobbying?
Audience: As a student of rhetoric, I
am particularly concerned with the notion
of audience; that is, are writers, speakers,
and artists communicating as best they
can to their readers, listeners, and other
happenstance consumers? The Public i,
for example, prints approximately 4,000
papers ten months out of the year.We are
not certain how many people actually
read our paper, nor how many people toss
them in the garbage (please recycle, at
least!), nor how many clip articles and
pass them along to friends. Sure, I fantasize
that Maureen Dowd or Katha Pollitt
will someday soon call me up to work
with them at the New York Times or The
Nation, but in the meantime how can we
be assured that independent, non-corporate,
anti-conglomerate media is arriving
at the doorsteps, eyes, and brains of those
who would most benefit from it?

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