Our Media, Not Theirs
Building the U.S. media reform
by Robert W. McChesney and
In These Times magazine,
When citizens begin to entertain the notion
that media can be an issue - rather than something that simply
happens to us, and to our democracy - they get excited. The fundamental
challenge is not convincing people that something should be done
about media structures. The challenge is to convince people that
something can be done. That simple leap of faith, if it is taken
by enough Americans, will provide us with a base that is strong
enough to challenge corporate control and radically reshape the
media landscape in the United States. So how do we free the political
imagination? How do we widen the parameters of the debate to include
topics that have been left off the table for generations? How
do we make media a national issue?
Countless American activists, from John
Brown to Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Mother Jones to Martin Luther
King Jr., have proved that it is possible to force an issue into
the nation's political discourse, even an issue that the political
and economic elites would prefer to keep off the radar. The environmental
movement also shared a damning feature with the cause of media
reform: There were no powerful monied interests that would benefit
by its success. And as Saul Alinsky said, when faced with organized
money, the only recourse is organized people.
To determine whether a media reform movement
could generate enough popular support to overcome organized money,
we must answer the three key questions that Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord
Nelson posed for the burgeoning environmental movement back in
Does the issue affect everyone in some
fundamental way? Yes. In this age of the Internet, round-the-clock
cable and broadcast programming, and advertising campaigns that
reach even into schools, the average American is in contact with
media for almost 12 hours per day.
Is there an alternative to the status
quo, a remedy that can and should be put in place? Yes again.
Though the exact contours of a U.S. reform program need to be
developed, none of the media issues that ought to concern Americans
are unique to this country. And none of the responses to corporate
media that have been advanced elsewhere would be difficult to
adapt to America.
Do people believe they have the power
to implement necessary changes and, if not, can they be made to
believe anew in their ability to use democracy to set things right?
For now, the honest answer is no. And for good reason. The sheer
corruption of U.S. politics has erected a daunting obstacle. It
is difficult to be confident about the prospects for reform when
regulators and politicians are frequently in the pockets of big-spending
corporate communication lobbies, and-surprise, surprise-there
is little coverage of media activism L or media policy debates
in the corporate news media.
Moreover, activists are well aware that
over the past generation the political right has zeroed in on
the media as a primary target for their political work. According
to Sally Covington's study of leading conservative foundations,
they have spent in the vicinity of one-half of their funds to
promote pro-corporate, right-wing media and media "deregulation."
In addition to having deep pockets, these big-bankroll conservatives
march in ideological harmony with much of the commercial news
media, especially on matters of neoliberal economic policy, free
trade and military interventions abroad. As the media cheer on
a potentially perpetual war that has yet to be declared-let alone
explained in a coherent manner-it feels like the situation is
Demoralized about the prospects for structural
changes, progressives channeled their energies toward what they
can change and improve: their own media. Yet as important as this
work is there are inherent limits to what can be done with independent
media, even with access to the Internet. Too often, the alternative
media remain on the margins, seemingly confirming that commercial
media conglomerates have become so massive because they "give
the people what they want."
The problem with this disconnect is that
it suggests that corporate media have mastered the marketplace
on the basis of their wit and wisdom. In fact, our media system
is not the legitimate result of free market competition. It is
the result of relentless lobbying from big-business interests
that have won explicit government policies and subsidies permitting
them to scrap public-interest obligations and increase commercialization
and conglomeration. It is untenable to accept such massive subsidies
for the wealthy, and to content ourselves with the "freedom"
to forge alternatives that only occupy the margins.
How, then, can we force a change in the
media systems that dominate the discourse and misinform the debate?
The problem with organizing a media democracy
movement is not a lack of activity. Numerous groups work the corridors
of power in Washington, struggling to win recognition of public-interest
values under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. These
groups have won some important battles, particularly on Internet
privacy issues. Over the past six months, they have organized
a stunning campaign to stop the FCC from scrapping media ownership
Beyond the Beltway, there are strong currents
of activism on media issues-from local media watch groups and
media literacy education efforts to newspaper unions and microradio
broadcasters. But we need to better network our organizations
and link our campaigns. With scant resources available, allied
groups are often forced to try to outscramble one another in the
race for funding. More often than not, we are also forced to defend
against new corporate initiatives, rather than to effectively
advance positive reforms.
We need to energize and build the movement
by sharing resources and strategizing to work pro-actively in
ways that cross-support a diverse array of approaches, networks
and campaigns. This way we can best build the coalition-a national
media reform coalition-necessary to drive the movement.
Making media a political issue in America
is going to take an energized coalition to get the issues on the
national radar. How can such a coalition be built? First and foremost,
by organizing in our communities. Yes, foundations and other nonprofit
organizations have to be a source of seed money for initial development
of the movement, but the reform coalition must ultimately be broad-based
and member-funded like Greenpeace or, dare we say it, the National
Rifle Association. "All of the issues we talk about are interlinked,"
explains Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.
"We are fighting against a lot of the same corporations.
The corporations, while they supposedly compete with one another,
actually work together very well when it comes to lobbying. We
need to link up the activists and start to work together as well
as the corporations do for the other side."
Even if we can draw together all the key
media-reform players in Washington and around the country, however,
our growing coalition will be little more than a political footnote
if we do not quickly reach out beyond the media-reform circle.
To fuel a mass movement, we must reach out to and involve organized
groups that currently are not very active in media reform but
are seriously hampered by the current media system. Absent far
too long from media reform activism have been the cause's natural
allies: organized labor, teachers, librarians, civil libertarians,
artists, religious denominations and civil rights groups.
To be sure, there has been some movement
in this regard. For example, the Newspaper Guild section of the
Communication Workers union, which represents print journalists
and other newspaper employees across the country, is becoming
a serious and savvy player in debates over media monopoly and
diversity. The National Organization for Women (NOW), many disability
rights groups, as well as a number of gay and lesbian organizations,
have developed effective and influential critiques of mainstream
media coverage of issues concerning their communities-and, increasingly,
of the media structures that maintain stereotypes.
Both the NAACP and Rainbow/PUSH have targeted
media as a central focus for their activities-organizing forums,
sending leaders to testify before Congress, and raising tough
questions about federal policies regarding minority ownership
of broadcast outlets. The United Church of Christ has been doing
good work for years, and the Unitarians are now supporting some
vital media reform initiatives. The American Academy of Pediatrics
went so far as to formally resolve that commercial television
was a public health hazard for children. These groups have to
be brought together to strategize and maximize their effect on
the national level.
While it may seem like a no-brainer for
groups that have long suffered from media neglect to endorse fundamental
reform of the media, there are no guarantees that these groups
will simply fall into place as coalition partners. Media corporations
do not just lobby Congress; they lobby a lot of the groups that
suffer under the current system. Some of those groups have been
bought off by contributions from foundations associated with AOL,
Verizon and other media monoliths; others-particularly large sections
of organized labor-have been convinced that they have a vested
interest in maintaining a status quo that consistently kicks them
in the teeth.
Media reform needs its equivalent of the
Voting Rights Act or the Equal Rights Amendment-simple, basic
reforms that everyone can understand, embrace and advocate in
union halls, church basements and school assemblies. There is
no way around it: Structural media reform is mandatory if we are
serious about addressing the crisis of democracy in the United
States. We see the following proposals as essential-though certainly
not exclusive-starting points for mobilizing a media-reform agenda:
* Establish a full tier of low-power,
non-commercial community radio and television stations across
* Apply existing anti-monopoly laws to
the media and, where necessary, expand their reach to restrict
ownership of radio stations to one or two per owner. Consider
similar steps for television stations and moves to break the lock
of newspaper chains on entire regions.
* Establish a formal study and hearings
to determine fair media ownership regulations across all sectors.
* Revamp and supercharge public broadcasting
to eliminate commercial pressures, reduce immediate political
pressures, and serve communities without significant disposable
* Provide for a $200 tax credit that all
taxpayers can use to apply their tax dollars to any nonprofit
medium, as long as it meets Internal Revenue Service criteria.
This tool would allow new low-power radio and television stations,
as well as existing community broadcasters, labor union newspapers
and other publications to have the resources to provide serious
news coverage and cultural programming.
* Lower mailing costs for nonprofit and
significantly noncommercial publications.
* Eliminate political candidate advertising
as a condition of a broadcast license; or require that a station
must run, for free, ads of similar length for all candidates on
* Decommercialize local TV news. In return
for the grant of access to the airwaves, which makes media companies
rich, require that those companies set aside an hour each day
of commercial-free time for news programming, with a budget based
on a percentage of the station's revenues. This would free journalists
to do the job of informing citizens, and allow stations to compete
on the basis of quality news-gathering as opposed to sensationalism.
* Reduce or eliminate TV advertising to
children under 12.
* Revamp copyright laws to reflect their
intended goal: to protect the ability of creative producers to
earn a living, and to protect the public's right to a healthy
and viable public domain.
Many of these ideas are already popular
with Americans- when they get a chance to hear about them. Moreover,
the enthusiasm tends to cross the political spectrum. The corporate
media lobbies work to keep their operations in Washington outside
of the public view, because they suspect the same thing we do:
When people hear about the corruption of communication policy-making,
But the new media reform coalition we
envision cannot be simply about building toward a great day of
reckoning. It must also have the near-term objective of organizing
on the pressing policy matters that are currently in play in Washington.
As mentioned above, the FCC is considering the elimination of
the remaining rules that prevent media consolidation, including
bans on owning TV stations and newspapers in the same community
and limits on the number of TV stations and cable TV systems a
single corporation may own nationwide.
The corporate media lobbying superstars
are putting a full-court press on the FCC. The proposed scrapping
of these regulations will increase the shareholder value of these
firms dramatically, and will undoubtedly lead to a massive wave
of mergers and acquisitions. If the lesson of past ownership deregulation-particularly
the 1996 downsizing of radio ownership rules-provide any indication
of where this change will take us, we can expect decreased funding
for journalism and increased commercialism. All of this is taking
place beneath the radar of corporate journalism, unreported and
unexamined-as the 1996 Telecommunications Act was-in classically
We know a thousand frustrations and disappointments
lie ahead. But consider where the journey could take us. Consider
what the U.S. media landscape would look like if all of the reform
agenda we propose were enacted. Corporate dominance over the free
flow of information would be curbed, and a truly diverse, creative,
multicultural, public-interest media would thrive. Across the
country, an amazing variety of well funded alternative media would
emerge, both local and national, many non-commercial and nonprofit.
In this new world, the privatized marketplace of ideas would become
more of a public commons-a vibrant flowering garden, not the commercialized
strip mall we currently endure.
"We go around with all this frustration
over media. But most of us think it's just something that happens
to us," explains Patty Allen, a labor activist who worked
23 years on an Oscar Mayer meatpacking line in Wisconsin and got
turned on to media issues by Ralph Nader. "When I first heard
Nader say that we own the airwaves and that we have a tight to
demand something better in return, I remember how liberating it
felt. I was saying, 'Wow, now that I know this, what do I do?
Where do I sign up! How can I demand a change?' I think there's
a lot of people like me all over this country who are ready. But
we need a sense that we're not just wasting our time."
Such a realization is critical to unleashing
the sort of broad grassroots action that will finally make media
a genuine and ongoing issue in America. Media need not be the
enemy of our desires for democratic renewal in America. Media
can be what Jefferson, Madison and especially the most visionary
of our founders, Tom Paine, intended: the tool by which citizens
ascertain the information they need to be the governors, not the
This essay is adapted from Our Media,
Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media (Seven