I’m at the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, where people from around the U.S. (and in a few cases, from other nations) are talking for three days about how to change American media. Some talented folks are here.
But the activist conference is also notable for what it’s lacking: any serious participation from people not on the political left. This is a conference of, by and for the left wing — and that’s a shame.
The main worry seems to be the notion that big media will throttle good journalism. I know people on the political right who believe the big media have already done so, and they’re also working to foster new kinds of media that some in this ballroom would agree we need.
Many of the topics under discussion would be better served with some serious debate. Instead, I suspect, we’ll have mostly a recitation of the prescriptions for change — many of which, no question, are much-needed — from essentially a single perspective, or permutations from that side. A conference organizer calls it “this movement,” and that sounds right.
So this is a valuable gathering. Too bad the people who also want change but from a different political position aren’t part of it. If they were, this event would be even more interesting.
One of the real heroes of this movement is Bill Moyers, the first speaker, who wryly notes that reform movements have a way of fragmenting. He speaks of the “plantation mentality” that has permeated the nation — and today’s press — creating what Theodore Roosevelt noted was a clash between human and property rights. “Elite plunder” — the capture of wealth by the top “earners” — has become the rule. Is the anti-federalist warning true?
He notes that the resources for solid journalistic work are contracting, that print journalism resources — especially newspapers, the most vital for democracy — are being driven down by Wall Street. Worrying about the loss of real news is not an abstraction, he adds; history proves why it matters to have an independent, robust press challenging the behavior of the powerful.
He cites the sad litany of the media’s pathetic work prior to the invasion of Iraq — “solicitous hand puppets” of the government. Media tell us little about who “wags the system,” he says, and he lampoons the “Poobahs of punditry” like Thomas Friedman who “simply accept that the system is working as it should.”
It’s clear what we have to do when big media won’t: “We have to tell the story ourselves,” Moyers said. And this is what the plantation owners fear most.
It’s not a top down story anymore, he says. It’s a bottom up story, made possible through technology and activist work.
In previous cases of new media, the advertisers took over. Government turned over the keys to the marketers. What happened to radio then happened to television and cable. If we are not careful, he says, it will happen to the Internet.
Can the Net be a plantation? That’s harder, but Moyers points out News Corp.’s buyout of MySpace and Google’s deals with Time Warner and purchase of YouTube.
A media plantation for the 21st Century? What do we do?
Moyers recalls the activists — who included people on the right — successful fight against demolishing media consolidation rules a few years ago. He notes former FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s moves in public life and now in private life, where he’s at a buyout firm investing in media properties.
Even under the old rules consolidation grows. And the current FCC chairman is doing more of the same.
Moyers wrongly cites the recent AT&T case that supposedly guaranteed equal access. He and his allies on this have been conned, sadly, because the broadband carrier beat them with weasel words that will unfortunately guarantee the opposite — and is good only for two years in any case.
He believes the terms of the debate have been changed, which is true. Open access is now on the table in a major way. If it turns into a sound law, it may come out all right.