The Widening Gulf Between Local Communities and National Policy

Last night, Orion Magazine invited me to speak to their monthly “Green Drinks” event in Great Barrington, MA. This summer Orion published a piece by me on grassroots media and democracy and in my talk I wanted to explore one key theme, that I was only able to touch on briefly in the article itself. Recently I have been mulling over the ways in which technology has put more and more media in the hands of the people, while the media policies that shape everything we watch, read, and hear are putting more and more media control in the hands of corporations. What are the implications of this tension?

Here is what I said last night, but it just scratches the service or this much larger question:

My name is Josh Stearns, and I work for Free Press a national media advocacy organization headquartered up the road in Northampton. Thanks for having me, and thanks to Orion for making some space in their pages to explore the intersection between healthy media and healthy communities. I’m happy to talk more about the changing landscape of news and journalism and the current media policy debates happening in Washington later this evening, but for now I want to explore an issue I’ve been mulling over recently.

Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities has written that:

“Stories help us imagine the future differently. Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others. . . . Telling stories is our best hope of reflecting the kind of world we want to live in and, therefore, gives us a hope of creating it.”

In the Orion piece I open by talking about how one theme in the Egypt uprising was the struggle to tell a new kind of story, and fostering a new vision for their nation. There’s some more background about the role of media in Egypt that I couldn’t fit in the Orion article, but that I wanted to tell you about tonight. (The two stories below were originally reported by Sam Graham-Felsen in a Nation article entitled How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak)

While much has been written about how Facebook helped mobilize the initial January 25th protest in Egypt, what few realize is that the Facebook page where it all began wasn’t initially set up to spark a protest. The page was designed to honor 28-year-old Khaled Said who was pulled out of an Internet cafe and beaten to death by Egyptian police because he was suspected of posting videos of police corruption on YouTube. We forget sometimes that media and the ability to tell our own story is a life and death issue.

That Facebook page became a hub for activists like Dalia Ziada. After finding a 50 year-old American comic book about Martin Luther King and his nonviolent tactics, she translated it into Arabic and created electronic and print versions which were distributed all over Egypt and served as inspiration and training for a new generation of activists there.

However, Egypt is also symbolic of a tension that I have been increasingly troubled by, a tension that is touched on in my Orion piece, but which I hoped wade into in a bit more detail tonight.

We are at a critical juncture in our media system. Technology has put more and more media tools in the hands of people, at the same time that policy is putting more and more control of the media in the hands of corporations. While new kinds of media helped organize the protests in Egypt, media consolidation and state control made it possible for Mubarak to shut down the nation’s Internet with little more than a phone call.

In the US, the Internet has democratized media making, but the policies that shape the future of the Internet are increasingly un-democratic. There is an exciting network of local nonprofit media and journalism projects emerging around the country just as federal regulators allow more media consolidation – the Obama administration just allowed Comcast and NBC to merge, and are currently considering allowing AT&T and T-Mobile to do the same. It’s a troubling paradox that while the tools to make media are growing more and more accessible, control over the media itself is narrowing further and further.

But media is not alone in this. The emerging grassroots movement for local community media often reminds me of the long fight efforts to support local food. In the article I argue that, in many ways, media activism is where food activism was ten years ago. While we have seen amazing progress in raising issues like food miles and carbon footprints in the public consciousness, and while CSAs and farmers’ markets have grown and expanded dramatically in recent years, the political and economic structures that undergird our food system still privilege the biggest corporations.

Just this week, in the New York Times, Mark Bittman detailed how corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, Pepsi, General Mills and Kraft Foods have created massive lobbying coalitions with names like the The Sensible Food Policy Coalition to lobby for weak regulation or, even better, self-regulation. And according to Bittman, their efforts are paying off. Government agencies that are meant to be regulating these companies are instead cheering them on.

This trend – amazing local organizing and local alternatives thriving even as more and more political and economic power is given to the largest corporations – is repeated across social movements and issues from the environment to the economy, from big oil to big banks.

Bittman ends his New York Times piece this way:

“What’s worse? Self-serving self-regulation or toothless guidelines set by an agency that appears to be complicit in maintaining the status quo? Hard to say. What’s better is having grass roots movements that drive agencies toward real regulation.”

And this is really what I come back around to. We need the grassroots alternatives at the local level, and the grassroots advocacy at the national level. When those two things come together there is huge potential and we have a great example of that here. I’m really glad to have two local community radio stations – WBCR from right here in the Berkshires and WGXC from the Catskills – here with us tonight. I should also note that it is almost the 6th birthday of Valley Free Radio, Northampton’s LPFM station.

The future is bright for community radio. In December, after ten years of organizing and lobbying by community radio advocates, Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act, which will open up the airwaves for thousands of new nonprofit community stations across the country. This summer those same advocates are blanketing the country, helping prepare local communities to apply for LPFM licenses.

Coming back around to the Egyptian activist who found inspiration in MLK’s non-violent tactics, I want to end by pointing back to one of the people who inspired MLK – Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi said that the three elements of social change were creating alternatives (what he called constructive program), political action, and personal transformation. If we want to fight for better media, healthier communities and stronger democracy, we have to weave these three together.

So, whatever your medium, be a media maker. Where ever you live, support community media. And whatever you do, be an advocate for better media policy. This is a fight over who gets to tell the story of our time, and I believe it should be – it must be – us.

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