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Daniel McLeod interviews Robert W. McChesney
O n June 2, 2003 the FCC voted to relax key media ownership rules, that would pave the way for a renewed wave of corporate consolidation in the communications industry. Spearheaded by FCC chair Michael Powell (Colin Powell’s son), the rule changes would permit one broadcast network to own another, raise the national cap on the number of stations a TV network can own, allow a company to own cable TV systems and TV stations in the same community, and eliminate a ban on cross-ownership of newspapers, TV, and radio stations in local markets.
Unlike past media deregulation enacted with little fanfare, this latest effort incited a firestorm of opposition voiced by over three million people who registered complaints with Congress and the FCC. Congress responded to this unprecedented public pressure and began crafting bipartisan legislation to repeal part or all of the decision. In September, the Senate passed one such bill to nullify the rule changes altogether and there will be a concerted effort to force the House leadership to allow a vote on it in 2004.
If media activists and members of Congress succeed in this endeavor, it will likely mean a major grassroots victory in the face of one of the most feared lobbies in Washington, DC.
An important figure in the national groundswell challenging corporate media’s agenda is Robert McChesney, professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. McChesney is a leading media historian and critic, and the founder of Free Press. He writes widely for academic and non-academic publications and has written numerous books, the most recent being Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (2000) and, with John Nichols, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media (2002).
DANIEL MCLEOD: A survey conducted in February 2003 found that 95 percent of U.S. citizens had little to no awareness of the proposed June 2 rule changes. By fall, media ownership was the hottest issue among constituents on Capitol Hill, second only to Iraq. How was such a critical mass alerted and engaged on this issue in such a short time span?
ROBERT MCCHESNEY: I think there were two or three things that triggered the enormous public eruption in 2003. The first was the war in Iraq. Much of the news media seemed to be rabidly pro- war and hyper-jingoistic. FAIR [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting] did a survey of mainstream television news and the sources used by the newscasts in the week or two leading up to the actual invasion. They show overwhelmingly pro-war positions that were used as sources. I don’t know the exact figure, but it is well over 90 percent.
The reason why this became important for the media ownership fight was that almost immediately on entering the war, thanks to MoveON and other antiwar activists, the word started getting out that the very same companies that were the most rabidly pro-Bush and pro-war—Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Clear Channel Radio—were leading the fight to relax media ownership rules so they could get bigger and bigger. This really freaked out a lot of people who were against the war.
MoveOn, the Internet activist group, was flooded with people on its list saying, “We gotta stop this.” It was really grassroots driven and I think a lot of the anti-war movement channeled its energy into this fight. That generated hundreds of thousands of people who wrote letters, emails, signed petitions, and participated in demonstrations. In addition, the experience of radio in this country made this issue very concrete in many people’s eyes.
Normally an issue about ownership caps on what media companies can own would seem incredibly wonkish and abstract to most citizens, but in 1996 Congress passed a law loosening the regulation of radio stations in the United States dramatically. It went from a company being allowed to have 40 stations nationally to unlimited and from 4 stations to 8 in a single market. As a result of those changes radio has been turned upside down.
One company, Clear Channel, has over 1,200 stations and almost every community in the country now has two or three companies completely dominating the market. We’ve seen a real elimination of localism, of local content radio, and certainly of local news. Increasingly what you get are these huge chains piping in disc jockeys. So radio, what should be our most decentralized, creative, local media because it is so inexpensive, has become our most regimented and standardized.
Big companies have also increased the commercialism dramatically, from 11 or 12 minutes an hour in the early 1990s to 17 to 19 minutes an hour today. Payola has returned with companies charging musicians to play their music on the air. All sorts of corruption has emerged. Radio, in effect, has been destroyed and this has registered with people across the political spectrum. Conservatives, moderates, and apoliticals don’t like the state of radio either. They like having local content on radio.
A notable player in mobilizing public ferment has been a g roup you founded, Free Press. Can you tell us about this organization?
Free Press was founded at the end of 2002 by John Nichols, who writes for the Nation , Josh Silver, who had been a campaign finance activist in Arizona and elsewhere, and me. Our vision was of a group that would advocate structural changes in our media system primarily at the national and legislative level in Congress. They would be sweeping, proactive, and improve the situation—not just to keep things from getting worse. Our goal was to try to get increased public involvement around tangible, coherent, progressive media reforms to do two things ultimately—to make the commercial system more competitive, more localized, more decentralized and, two, to build a strong, healthy, vibrant, and pluralistic nonprofit and noncommercial media sector.
Ultimately, that’s what we need to have a decent media system in this country and to push forward any genuine semblance of meaningful self-government. Free Press was founded with that mission and, in our view, no one was doing that. There were terrific groups doing great work inside Washington defending the public interest at the FCC and in the courts and doing their best to hold the line in Congress—the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Media Access Project, Center for Digital Democracy, the Benton Foundation—but they had been so busy playing defense and fighting to keep things where they were that they hadn’t had time to do the outreach and generate grassroots support for proactive measures beyond the rhetorical level. We wanted to put some people behind what they were doing and really jack it up a couple notches.
What Free Press really wanted to do was go around to all the constituencies in this country that are affected by media, that really could benefit by having a more democratic media system and get them to understand that this is their fight too; that they have a stake in this. Groups like civil liberties and civil rights organizations, environmental groups, feminist groups, and the labor movement.
We would be a small guerrilla army that would try to work with other groups, try to seed new groups, help coordinate activities, and pick a handful of campaigns we’d specifically work on. Otherwise we’d try to support groups doing other campaigns so we can keep working together.
Have these efforts to reach other allies engaged in non-media activism been fruitful in the past year?
I think so. We have a long way to go, but I think we’ve made phenomenal headway. Labor is getting up to speed on this issue in a way it hasn’t in a very long time— probably since the 1940s. We also have seen an organization like Common Cause, a civic organization concerned with good governance, make media policy one of their main issues. Their hundreds of thousands of rank and file membership said, “We want to work on this,” and now a third of all their policy work is on media issues. They hadn’t done anything ever on media the previous 30 years, but now suddenly they’ve become a real big player here. We’re seeing the civil rights and African American communities for example. Rainbow/PUSH has always been a player in this area and they’re increasing their involvement. So I think that signs are very hopeful.
Given t he amount of economic, political, and cultural power at stake, big media can’t possibly take this lying down. What tactics have they already used and what can we expect down the road?
The media firms are a very difficult lobby to beat and the conventional wisdom is that you can’t beat them—they’re rich, they’re powerful, they have huge lobbies in Washington and they have tremendous influence with politicians of all stripes. They also have the added advantage of controlling the news media, which means that you’re not going to see a lot of coverage or criticism of media in their pages or on their airwaves. To top it off, the commercial news media has one of the most impressive public relations arsenals of any industry in this country—all sorts of stuff they’ve developed about how they represent freedom of the press, the First Amendment, how they give the people what they want, that this is the “American way,” and they wrap themselves in the flag. It seems like a pretty tough combination to beat and most people prior to 2003 thought it was a pretty hopeless fight. What we showed in 2003 was that fighting over media issues, as difficult as it seemed before 2003, opened tangible possibilities for organizing in ways progressives hadn’t anticipated.
What’s really nice about media activism is that you can win discreet fights and keep the victories. If we win, for example, low-power FM radio and get 1,000 new FM radio stations for local community groups without ads on the air sometime in 2004—and I think we can win this. They can’t take it away from us. It also means you can generate allies on some issues like low- power FM or media ownership and then try to bring them over to other issues like copyright or cable regulation or public broadcasting.
What’s also good about media activism is, as abstract as it seems at the policy level, it is something everyone experiences in their life. People, whatever their political views, don’t like their kids’ brains being marinated in advertising every day. It bothers them and when they get it linked up to a tangible policy issue, and maybe opens their eyes to corruption of our political economy.
I think we’ve seen that happen this year with some of the activists who used to be hardcore conservatives and now see just how corrupt policy-making is and how closely linked government is to big business and how that’s really the nexus of power in this society, not government as some sort of liberal antagonist to entrepreneurs in the business sector. I think it’s an area that can draw people into progressive politics.
You wrote a chapter in Rich Media, Poor Democracy about corporations using the First Amendment to protect their dominance of the media. Do you think they will exercise this right to block changes proposed by the reform movement?
We have to revisit the First Amendment case law ultimately in this movement. Currently, there’s a misconception that freedom of the press was meant by the founders to mean the right of capitalists to make as much money as possible producing media without any interference. It doesn’t even take a close review of history or the law to see that that is preposterous.
In the first several generations of the republic there is no notion whatsoever that just letting rich people make as much money as possible doing media has anything to do with the free press or democratic media system. No one advocated that. It was unthinkable.
Will media reform be a 2004 presidential issue?
It’s going to be tough. George W. Bush and his Administration are the number one fans of media concentration in the United States. They’re the driving force behind the FCC’s loosening of media ownership rules, they’re the driving force behind getting the Republican leadership in the House and Senate to keep those changes despite the fact the Senate’s already shot it down 55-40 and the House has the majority of the members who want to get rid of what the FCC did.
The Bush administration’s position is crystal clear. This is payback time for the big media corporations that have backed Bush throughout his political career, like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Clear Channel. All the Democratic candidates for president have come out against relaxing media ownership rules so there’s a clear split between the two parties there.
The Green candidate, say it’s Ralph Nader, has been a champion of media reform going back 20 years. He’s been the pioneer in many respects, so I think there’s a chance it could be an issue there. We hope it will be an issue also in all the Congressional races and Free Press, along with other groups, is going to be working on making media reform and media ownership something that gets on the table and debated.
What are some steps a person can take to get engaged?
There’s a wide range of issues to work on. There are literally over 100 groups working on various issues and someone can find what’s really important to them, work on it, and then try to be part of networks so the whole of the movement is greater than the sum of the parts. Our website, www.mediareform.net, lists all the basic issues being fought over. For each issue we tell the groups that are working on it, what the action campaigns are. We have a list of all the media reform organizations in the United States. We also have a “take action” section that lists all the active campaigns and how you can get involved with those.
Daniel McLeod is a mental health counselor and activist. He lives in western Massachusetts.
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MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.