Feb 1 2006

Media Reform for What?

The success so far, the challenge ahead

Most people have heard the famous quote by press critic A.J. Liebling, “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.”

Recently I keep recalling another, less popular quote in which Liebling referred to the press as the “weak slat under the bed of democracy.” He continued:

It is an anomaly that information, the one thing most necessary to our survival as choosers of our own way, should be a commodity subject to the same merchandising rules as chewing gum, while armament, a secondary instrument of liberty, is a government concern. A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there.

And that was decades ago.

So the recognition that we share—that information is a public good, not a commodity—has a history. The work we’re doing now stands on the shoulders of others whose names we don’t know, as well as some we do: Liebling, Upton Sinclair, I.F. Stone, George Seldes.

But a lot has changed since FAIR was founded in 1986, perhaps most significantly inside people’s heads. Back then, many politically active people considered media an ancillary issue: There was bad coverage of this or that subject, but the media system was not generally understood as itself a problem. I think there may have been an implicit sense that better media would flow naturally from the other social justice goals we wanted to achieve.

That’s changed now. People think differently about media. Remember how when you complained about something on TV or radio, people—even those who agreed with you—would tell you to “just turn it off”? You don’t hear that so much anymore. It increasingly sounds as odd as telling someone who complains about air pollution to “just stay inside.”

We no longer talk about media as a kind of corporate noblesse oblige—“They’re giving us this magic stuff and we don’t even pay for it!”—where the public has no standing, no right to demand accountability or redress. The media are now a political issue. And not just that, but it’s understood as a “keystone” issue—like a keystone species, something that critically affects virtually everything else we care about.

To make change, people need both to see that something is wrong and, crucially, to believe that there is something they can do about it. We’re at that point now with media, and maybe we should take a moment and appreciate that for the sea change, the victory, that it is.

And we should appreciate the victories along the way, which I fear can get lost. If you ever fought for a particular program to get on the air or stay on the air, or helped start up a low-power radio station, or wrote a letter to the editor or an opinion column—that represents ideas that got into people’s heads that might not have otherwise. That matters.

So, we’ve been successful: People are talking about media reform. But as we move forward, I think we have to keep asking ourselves: Media reform for what?

Do we want to break up dominant media corporations because it just sounds better to have a larger number of owners? No.

Media reform is not an academic exercise. Bad media hurts real people. Better media would help real people. Media reform means gaining the power to speak and be heard, and that means taking some of that power from those who have it now. Media reform is dangerous, done right.

Let me be clear: I want truly democratic media because 45 million Americans don’t have health insurance, and many of them believe it’s their fault.

I want better media because black and brown kids go to jail because of what someone read in the paper about “superpredators.”

I want democratic media because public TV just said that a family with lesbian mothers is unfit to be acknowledged on the network you and I pay for.

I want a truly democratic media system because if we had one, tens of thousands of people who have died in Iraq might be alive today.

Media reform is not a merely theoretical issue; it is a crucial issue for our time. Asking ourselves, “Media reform for what?” will help us keep our eyes on the long-term goals we hope to achieve and will remind us to acknowledge and celebrate the real, concrete successes we will no doubt achieve on our way to those bigger goals.

This article is adapted from a speech to the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis on May 13, 2005.