A double-take on media & democracy

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by Jane Wardlow Prettyman


Part 1 (the idea part): * Why Bother? *

Part 2 (the practical part): * Getting Media-Active *

Part 3: * Specific Steps Toward Media Reform, * suggested by Ben Bagdikian with additions by AR. You can copy or adapt these items in your letters to your representatives in Congress, the President, the FCC, the FTC, and to state and local democratic institutions. See Congress Action & Addresses for some ideas that Congress can act on (as opposed to areas where Congress cannot tread, like the creation of alternative news systems).

Part 4: * Sample Letters to Editors *




This section is designed to bring attention to the need for citizens to regain their belief that their activism can make a difference. This is because it will take the activism of millions of citizens to take back our media so that it delivers to us the news that addresses issues important to our lives and our democracy.

Aside from cable fees, we think we're getting our TV programming free. This means we don't give media value, which means we don't give media our best attention and analysis. There's a cost to us in our lack of attention to media. It's not free. TV and most of the rest of media may be costing us everything.

We are conducting our national conversation through the miasma of commercial media. A miasma, according the Webster's, is a befogging vapor that poisons the air. In January 2000, AOL announced it was buying out Time Warner in the largest such gobble in corporate history, so large we cannot see all its implications. This follows a long stream of media mergers and buyouts, many set in motion by the Telecommunications Act in 1996, while the FCC and anti-trust divisions of the Clinton Administration have sat on their hands.

These mergers and conglomeration of corporate media have already had the effect of restricting the subjects the news media place on the national agenda and indulging in passive news (picked up from wires), personality news, soft news, crime news, entertainment news, sports news, financial news --because these are all fairly cheap to produce. Few reported stories rock the boat of corporate interests.

The FCC, the FTC, and the Justice Dept anti-trust division exist solely to protect the public interest. The AOL-Time Warner merger is a gigantic red flag signaling STOP! Now is the time for these agencies to go to work and do their jobs to regulate these actions by AOL and Time Warner to ensure that the public interest is served, not only in economic terms of cost, but in the very vital terms of quality of communications, free flow of information, and the gathering and dissemination of news by a free press.

As you know, a free press is maintained in its freedom to keep us, the citizens, free. Corporate conglomeration cannot ensure that freedom but rather will tend to strangle it. Government's job is to keep the lines open so that we do not, in the ultimate irony, suffer by corporate means the strangulation which the Constitution went to such lengths to protect us from by government.

Some aspects of media reform cannot involve government (Congress/President). See A Few Steps Toward Media Reform. Other areas CAN and MUST involve government (See Congress Action & Addresses. For example, the Telecom Act should be rolled back, the media mergers stopped and the media cartels broken up. Remember, the American people own the airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine needs to be restored (even on talk radio) and commercials should be stripped from television and radio news broadcasts. Political candidates should take up the cause of media reform and run on it.

All this requires two things that have been weakened but must regain their strength: 1) the individual citizen's sense of making a difference with activism, and 2) government regulation of corporate media activity. Government regulations have been trashed for so long (by corporations, corporate media and by corporation-pandering Congressmen) that we've forgotten that government can and should serve the interests of the American people who have a right to full information and real news we can use to keep ourselves free.

We want to see corporate media reform along the lines suggested by Mr. Bagdikian and you will find them in Part 3: A Few Steps Toward Media Reform.

The development of parallel non-profit news systems will need to occur free of government influence or domination. How this will be pulled off is a major question for debate and will require imagination and commitment. Thus, you can see that media activism is a complicated undertaking.

If you read Robert Putnam's essay, you'll notice the rise of television coincided with the decline of American civic life and decline in voting. Civic associations may be one antidote to media. Civic associations and activities are a media of their own form. They are living entities, humanly simple and informal, and they were once such a a popular habit in earlier centuries in America that Alexis deTouqueville remarked upon them. In some circles, civic associations were our networks of communication and news before we had media technology. We were involved and accountable for our opinions because we faced each other within a foot or two, eye to eye. We spoke up.

This seemingly old-fashioned social form can be revived. It's only a matter of will.

In a monthly discussion group on Media and Current Affairs we established in Santa Barbara, participants introduce themselves not by their age but by the year they were born. This instantly brings to mind their history, the era of their human experience. We discuss media in light of history, society, personality, technology, literature, art, analogy, mythology, psychology. We break open the corporate commercial problem, lay it out and look at what afflicts the information flow. We try to discern the media ecology. We say hard things. We laugh. We're like a jazz band.

We're not radicals or socialists (some of us are Republicans) but we're very interested in our society. We care about our city. We write, our letters and op-ed pieces appear in the paper. We do a lot of thinking about the life of the world. We do what we wish the media would do.

We inform each other from our best sources and, unlike the "free press," we freely reveal our sources because, here in the group or as families at the kitchen table, we are forced to be accountable. "How do you know that?" "Where did you get your facts to support that?" We educate others with our information. We also offer our memory and history and human perspective, whereas in technological media there is little historical memory.

Here's another way to look at it: It's not outrageous to say that commercialism--the sale--stops time and makes the past scarce. We lose a great deal in that point-of-purchase transaction of instant gratification. The media -- most, not all -- rely on Newness and Now, everything focused in the present, on the unique without memory, at the point of purchase, the point of instantaneous choice without reflection, the flash, the look, the hook, the appeal. The arrangement works for advertisers to create an effortless flow, so that continual change can occur, so that artificial distinctions can be made, so that one product can be distinguished from another, so that one model of a product can be outmoded and replaced by a new model of the same product, so that a "choice" can be made when, really, it's so that a sale can be made with as little thought as possible.

Commercial (fast) action has a conflict of interest with critical, reflective or analytical (slow) thinking. Commercial media programming is, for the most part, designed to assist commercial advertisers in the avoidance of critical or questioning thinking. Noam Chomsky calls this "manufacturing consent." Has the "world made safe for democracy" become the "world made safe for sales"?

Although we laud the basic essentials of buying and selling when it comes to products and services outside the news business, it's a dangerous game when it comes to the transmission of information and ideas in any sort of deep or free -- and freeing -- fashion. The interests of commercialism are, in relation to news, sometimes in conflict with the interests of human beings. Media technology is allowing us to get ahead of ourselves without reflection on what we're doing. And we have watched comercial newsmedia run political ideas and the entire political class through a meatgrinder, demeaning nearly all politicians as buffoons. Some of them are, but watch who benefits in the bargain -- the news corps and advertisers who appear more "credible" and "respectable" by comparison.

The overall media effect is hypnotic. Cher slapped Nicolas Cage in "Moonstruck" and yelled "Snap out of it!" but it isn't that easy. We're in love. We're seduced. We're into the media hook, line and sinker. How do we break through the media trance while preserving the media's best features for service to our society and our political process?

Media activism is truly active. It's involved with, yet independent of, the media. It's a force of nature come home to its rightful place in the livingroom. It's all sorts of things you will discover as soon as you rise up out of the languid passivity of commercial media--and take a few vigorous steps toward media activism . . . .


Go to Part 2 (the practical part): Getting Media-Active

Go to Part 3: Specific Steps Toward Media Reform

Go to Part 4: Sample Letters to Editors

A double-take on media & democracy

What's New? ||| Media Criticism ||| Media Reform ||| Activism ||| Write Media/Congress
Discussion Center ||| News Examiner ||| Special Editions ||| Books ||| Links ||| Contents ||| Intro