The year 2003 holds a special place in the history of the media reform movement. That was the year when then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell tried to eradicate every media ownership rule on the books.
The public response was swift and powerful, with organizations on the right and left leaping to action, mobilizing nearly 3 million people to write letters to the Senate calling for a stop to media consolidation. In the end, the Senate and the courts acted to strike down the FCC rule changes. It was a watershed moment that introduced many new people to the politics of our media system.
However, while 2003 was a moment of crisis that catalyzed a movement, 2008 has been a year of movement building that proved to lawmakers and corporate lobbyists that media reform is here to stay.
Over the past year, I have had the good fortune to work with organizations and individuals in nearly every state, and have been consistently awed and inspired by their care, commitment and creativity in the fight for media reform. It is their day-to-day work that keeps this movement feeling as fresh and full of potential as it did back in 2003. Over the past five years, we have faced many challenges, won some battles and lost others, fought with corporate giants and sometimes fought among ourselves, but we’ve also repeatedly shown that a new media system is possible and that we are ready to make it a reality.
This year provided a number of stark reminders about why we do the work we do. What I find most inspiring, however, is that each of these disheartening media failures was met head-on by a strong community of media advocates whose actions made a real difference.
In late April, the New York Times revealed how a lazy mainstream media, one that has replaced real journalists with professional talking heads, bought into a Pentagon pundit program designed to sell the war in Iraq. While independent and community media sources reported on the scandal in-depth, the mainstream media remained silent on the issue. In response, tens of thousands of citizens called on members of Congress to investigate. The public response to the Pentagon pundits stirred up a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill, including legislation in the Senate and investigations within the Defense Department, the Inspector General’s Office and at the FCC.
Last December, when the FCC gutted the long-standing newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban, public interest groups and Congress promised a swift response. Momentum gathered over the first few months of 2008 until more than a quarter million people had written the Senate and demanded they take action. Five years after vetoing the last FCC media ownership rule changes, the Senate vetoed them again. On May 15, by a near-unanimous vote, they sent a strong statement to the FCC and Big Media that America doesn’t want more media consolidation.
This September, the country watched in shock as St. Paul police abused and arrested journalists trying to cover the Republican National Convention and the protests outside the convention center. The haunting video of Democracy Now! producer Nicole Salazar being tackled and beaten as she held out her press credentials spread across the Web like wildfire. Within three days, more than 60,000 people across the country had visited Free Press and written to city officials in St. Paul demanding that all charges be dropped against the jailed journalists. The day after the convention ended, journalists and citizens hand-delivered the letters to St. Paul City Hall and within a month, all the charges had been dropped and the journalists were freed.
I have been amazed at all that the media reform community has been able to achieve over the past year. However, it is not so much what was done as what is being done that keeps me going. Independent media outlets across the country continue to report on the Pentagon pundits program, even while mainstream networks continue to feature the former generals as reputable sources. In communities across the country, concerned citizens are still writing letters and meeting with policy makers to push for stronger regulations of what Big Media companies can own. And in St. Paul, local journalists and activists are meeting to discuss how they can ensure that journalism is protected the next time a big event comes to town.
In 2008, we proved we can make an impact, but more importantly, we proved we can maintain the pressure. The election of Barack Obama — a long-time supporter of media reform — as the 44th president does not mean our work is done. Indeed, it is now more important than ever to translate our short-term successes into a long-term vision for media in America.
What we accomplished this year has given us glimpses of that vision, but it is only part of the picture. We need to fill in the gaps, and connect media ownership to the future of the Internet and the health of our public and community media sectors. In 2009, we’ll see these issues draw closer together under the umbrella of our digital future and our old definitions and divisions will become less and less useful. We will need to listen to new voices, engage new communities, and ask for the help of others to build this vision together. The possibilities are profound, but the challenges are immense. And yet, in 2008, I have seen what we are capable of, and I am full of hope.