The Black Stake, and All Our Stakes, in the Media Justice Movement
by Bruce Dixon
Black Agenda Report
[ comments invited ]
Mass media determine public consciousness. But in the US, where mass media are owned and operated almost entirely by and in the interest of a greedy and irresponsible corporate elite, who keep the issues of control and governance of the internet, cable, broadcast and other media off the table. Potential growth of the media justice movement into an arm of a broad and popular social movement is a clear and imminent threat to the nation's bipartisan elite. And it's the only hope for many millions of Americans currently unable to speak with or hear their own voices, or to realize their own power.
The Black Stake, and All Our Stakes, in the Media Justice Movement, Part 1 of 2
by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon
There's a fundamental legal contradiction at the heart of the nation's media regime. It's the contradiction between the rights of private ownership and the duties of public obligation.
For example, the law lays out in a precious few provisions, that the broadcast spectrum is scarce public property upon which licensees are allowed to operate their monopoly businesses on the condition that they serve the public interest. At the same time the vast majority of all the statutes, the judicial precedents, and the administrative law implicitly and explicitly recognize and make “legitimate” what amount to the private property rights over chunks of the spectrum on the part of broadcast license holders. You can't get more fundamental, or more contradictory that that.
Since the conflict between private media ownership and public obligation is almost never discussed where the public can access it, it's easy to see which side of the contradiction is winning. The very notion, in the US at least, that media can be operated any other way than as the private property of wealthy corporations is utterly off the table. In any rational world, we are told, it's the unquestioned rule. It's the rule in the courts, it's the rule at the FCC and in Congress, where Big Media employs hundreds of lobbyists.
Most tellingly, the political imaginations of many in the media reform movement are often limited to the horizons of what judges, regulators, lobbyists, legislators and political consultants think is possible or reasonable in the next year or two. That can't be good. Judges, regulators, lobbyists and legislators, even the best ones, don't start or lead mass movements. At best, their roles are to consolidate the victories of mass movements. At worst, they block, betray or bargain away the political advantages, the moments which significant changes in public opinion make possible.
The movement for media reform as we know it, achieved its first major victories in 2003, when it helped orchestrate a vast public outcry over the manifest unfairness of FCC rulings that would have allowed a single corporate entity to buy and operate seven radio stations, a cable company, newspapers and multiple broadcast TV stations in any single market and in dozens of cities across the country. There were literally hundreds of public meetings and demonstrations in towns and cities large and small. People sent tens of millions of phone calls, letters and emails to each other, and millions more to their elected representatives and the FCC before the courts and Congress stepped in to overrule the FCC's OK of Big Media getting even bigger.
In the years since, Big Media has pushed back on every front, vastly expanding the amount of cash spent on direct and indirect lobbying, particularly with African American legislators. Big Media's lobbyists have worked their FCC sock puppets to auction portions of the public airwaves to the highest bidders, to OK the end of network neutrality on cable networks, and more. The courts too, have acquiesced in the end of network neutrality. Big media's meat puppets in state and federal legislatures first pushed federal, then state cable franchising schemes that deprived local communities of any means prevent the digital redlining of poor, minority, and rural communities nationwide, and have worked tirelessly to prevent wi-fi wherever it reared its head.
It's an unequal struggle, one in which Big Media has many advantages. The biggest edge is that Big Media doesn't have to call mass meetings in ten our twenty big cities. Big Media funds the “policy round tables” of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and the National Conference of Black State Legislators, just to name two institutions, so the phone calls of its lobbyists are returned via speed dial every day of the year. Its lobbyists tell their think tanks and roundtables what they want, these tell the regulators and lawmakers, and unless sufficient public pressure is mounted every single separate time, it happens. Thus, the movement for media reform and media justice is deprived of the initiative, locked into a reactive posture. Whenever and wherever media justice advocates succeeds in delaying the latest grab of public resources, the matter goes into back rooms out of public view for negotiation, back rooms in which all the participants accept the fundamental legitimacy and primacy of Big Media's property right, whether in the broadcast spectrum, the cable networks (laid out public streets and roads) and telecom systems (developed with public money). In such an atmosphere, the most that media reformers are able to accomplish, when they claim “victory” is to limit Big Media to 40, 60, or 80% of what it wanted in a particular instance.
To qualitatively advance the cause of media justice, its advocates must begin to take the political offensive, to dictate the agenda, and to stay on the offensive. We must engineer what the media system is designed to prevent, namely an ongoing public debate on whether media --- the broadcast spectrum, the internet, cable and telecom networks should be controlled by and for a wealthy corporate elite, or whether people ought to be entitled as a matter of right to speak with and to hear their own voices, and to access the broadband technology that undergirds prosperity in the 21st century. The present election cycle offer a priceless opportunity to lay out, in a series of public meetings across the country, a media reform agenda against which to measure the promises and performance of the next Congress and the next president. Holding and publicizing a series of public forums on media --- to give candidates for Congress and the presidency some specific demands to react to between now and election day, between now and the new year when they will be sworn in, is a goal well within the resources of the existing media justice movement.
Toward that end, we at BAR here offer a short list of the kinds of popular media demands that might come from such a national series of media justice forums, especially if there is significant input from African Americans.
Repeal statewide cable franchising regimes, restore the power to local authorities to negotiate cable franchises;
Each state should conduct a thorough and comprehensive survey of broadband availability in order to identify underserved areas and guarantee universal access;
Local news gathering and local news broadcasts should be a requirement for most radio and TV station licensees;
Payola, the limitation of airplay based upon bribes to network and station execs, should be vigorously prosecuted;
Entities with three, four and five broadcast licenses in a single market should be compelled to give up some of those licenses;
More broadcast licenses should be in the hands of community and not for profit broadcasters;
More broadcast licenses should be in the hands of minorities and women;
Cable companies should be required to set aside a fifth of all their channels for public, educational, and governmental use as a condition of their use of public rights of way.
Legislative and regulatory barriers to local government sponsored cable TV and wi-fi companies should be eliminated;
Guaranteed network neutrality on the internet;
Give a large percentage of newly available digital TV and radio channels to new local holders including nonprofits and minorities instead of allocating them automatically to existing broadcast licensees;
Cheap high-speed broadband being essential to job growth, to the delivery of educational and other services, and to local economic development in general, should be recognized as a human right of communities in the 21st century.
Repeal the designation of CDs and DVDs sent through the mail as “parcels” and restore the ability to mail them at bulk rates so that independent distributors using these media can find their audiences;
Repeal the postal rate increases that selectively penalize small magazines and which were written into law by the lobbyists at Time Warner;
Force US cell phone companies to adopt the European model, in which one phone can be used for any company's plan, any plan ends at the 1st of the month, and switching plans carries no penalties.
Of course there are other demands. You've got some. Want to make them heard? Organize a meeting in your town and publicize it. That's what video cameras and YouTube are for. Do your part to build a chorus of voices demanding media justice. Do it NOW. Do it BEFORE the election, not after, because that's when candidates must at least pretend to listen. If you can't get your forum on before the election, at least do it before the new Congress and president are sworn it. Don't wait for public officials or supposed leaders to tell YOU what YOU want. It's your job --- our job, to tell THEM.
Will it happen? Will there be a series of national media justice meetings to explore, to elicit, to put forth these and other demands? We hope so. We'll do our part. And next week we will explore some of the hidden history of how America's unequal media regime got that way, and why the current way is not the only way.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Atlanta, where he pretty much guarantees there will be a major public forum to put these and other media justice demands on the plates of candidates for the new Congress and the presidency late this September. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com