Feb 1 2006

A Cornerstone of the Media Reform Movement

FAIR at 20

I remember the first time I heard of FAIR as if it were yesterday. I was a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Alexander Cockburn was giving a speech on campus. This was 1986, and Cockburn was in his full glory; his main beat at the time was media criticism, and nobody did it better. The auditorium was packed to capacity with nearly 1,000 people. Before taking the podium, Cockburn turned the microphone over to Jeff Cohen, who was traveling around the nation to discuss the new group he was forming called Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.

Cohen was brilliant and inspiring in his 15-minute critique of the corporate media and in his call for an organization to rigorously fact-check and expose their fabrications and biases. He was convincing as he made the case that the current news media provided a massive barrier to genuine democracy, and served the interests of the powerful more than the needs of the citizenry.

I signed up immediately thereafter, and became a charter subscriber to Extra!, FAIR’s magazine. I think I can safely say that to this day it remains the only publication I read cover-to-cover almost immediately after I fish it out of my mailbox. I am always struck in my own scholarship by how much I find myself citing studies published in Extra!, as compared to the amount of usable research being generated in the academy. I am not sure if this says more about FAIR or about academic media scholarship.

Eliminating the Rockies

Extra!, FAIR’s weekly radio program CounterSpin and the online “media advisory” activist items are FAIR’s most visible and important work. Over the course of two decades FAIR has located a real problem—the need for serious and sustained critical analysis of the U.S. news media—and has provided a good part of the solution. It is, in the annals of progressive activism, one of the great success stories of the past quarter-century.

Such an appraisal, no matter how accurate, is also misleading. FAIR was not launched in 1986 merely to provide criticism of the news media, to educate citizens to become more skeptical and demanding and to jawbone editors and journalists to improve their work. FAIR concludes its self-description in its masthead as follows: “As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.”

This point can hardly be exaggerated. FAIR never operated under the belief that the problem with our news media was that we had lazy or incompetent journalists, or that we had particularly malicious owners. The problem with our news media was that the system made it rational for even our best journalists to produce biased and propagandistic work, and for owners to encourage such work. FAIR always understood that, in the end, the solution to the problem facing journalism in the United States was structural. We needed to create a media system that made good journalism the rational expectation of its operations.

The crucial word in the FAIR self-description is “ultimately.” Back in the 1980s, the notion that we could organize to change the media system in any fundamental sense was all but unthinkable. Even the most sterling radical press criticism from that era—Herman and Chomsky’s extended corpus of work, majestically represented in 1988’s Manufacturing Consent—discussed the notion of actually changing the U.S. media system only in passing, and then as something largely hypothetical. The media system was accepted as virtually immutable for the visible future. It would have seemed about as rational in 1986 to talk about organizing a political campaign to change the structure of the media system as it would have been to talk about organizing a campaign to eliminate the Rocky Mountains.

Debunking the “liberal” bias

The first thing that needed to be done, then, in FAIR’s assessment, was to generate a coherent and rigorous critique of existing journalism. In particular, FAIR had to do battle with the dominant notion of that period, that the U.S. news media, especially the elite media like the New York Times and TV network news, had a “liberal” bias.

We are all familiar with this heavily promoted refrain from the political right, and its absurdity is now self-evident. But such was not the case in the 1980s or in much of the 1990s. The constant right-wing bombardment about the “liberal” bias of the media from the 1970s onward meant that for most Americans, the idea that the mainstream media had such a bias was a given. The “liberal media” were looked on as the official opposition to the status quo, for better or (as was usually the case) for worse, and the notion that the media were a reactionary force was far from common. I dare say that even a significant percentage of self-described liberals or progressives accepted the notion that, in the end, the news media were on their side, and saw the world from the vantage point of those outside of power.

It is one of FAIR’s great accomplishments to have been a central player in the demolition of the notion that the mainstream news media have a “liberal” bias. FAIR did this not with a propagandistic repetition of a big lie, or with stretching half-truths and quarter-truths into decontextualized bold-faced prevarications, but with extensive empirical research that demonstrated convincingly the emptiness and opportunism of the right-wing claim.

This was the work that needed to be done before the notion of structural media reform could even be thinkable, and in doing this work, FAIR provided the foundation for the explosion in media reform activism of the past decade. Today there is an astonishing array of media reform activism, and FAIR’s work has been a key reason for its development. There is an array of organizations that have joined FAIR in doing first-rate media criticism, like Media Matters for America, the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisc., and the Media Education Foundation in Northampton, Mass. There has been a veritable explosion in media policy reform groups, from national organizations like Free Press, the group I co-founded with John Nichols and Josh Silver in December 2002, to scores of local and issue-specific groups. (The freepress.net site includes a guide to all of them, organized by issue and geographically.)

And, of course, there has been a quantum increase in the amount of independent and alternative media, much of it outstanding. The Internet and new digital technologies have enabled a great deal of this.

All three wings of the media reform movement—criticism, policy activism and independent media—complement each other and depend upon the others’ success to thrive. They rise and fall together. And each of these areas, not just media criticism, owes some of its success to the pacesetting work of FAIR.

The nadir of media reform

But before we assess those points, let’s look again at where we were.

Back in the mid-1980s, when Jeff Cohen and Marty Lee were kicking around the idea of FAIR, media reform was arguably at its nadir. The high points for media activism in the United States had been the Progressive Era around the turn of the 20th century, and in the 1930s. In both of these periods, widespread campaigns criticized monopoly commercial control over newspapers and broadcasting as corrupting public life and undermining democracy. In both eras, popular movements made reform of the media part of their political work for democratizing American society.

Following World War II, with the emergence of the “American Century,” the radical critique of the inherent limitations of for-profit, advertising-supported media became marginalized, and the status quo became politically untouchable. This is not to say that progressive opposition to the deleterious effects of commercial media ended. In the 1960s, for example, several journalism reviews emerged, put together by dissident working journalists, that criticized the nature of news in a manner that anticipated what FAIR would do two or three decades later. Likewise, a raft of underground newspapers were launched in the 1960s, all premised on the notion that the commercial mainstream was hopelessly lost as a viable source of information.

And in Washington, D.C., numerous media advocacy groups emerged, inspired by the civil rights, feminist and consumer movements, to demand that broadcasting better serve the public. These groups had their greatest impact by the 1970s, but, by historical standards, they were never able to generate a radical structural critique or develop popular awareness and support for their activities, not to mention structural media reform.

By the 1980s, much of this activity had dissipated. This was the Reagan era, with its mantra that “deregulation” was the order of the day and markets needed to be freed to work their magic with minimal government “interference.” Exhibit A in the Reaganite neoliberal program was media “deregulation”: Farewell to the Fairness Doctrine, and the pressure was on to relax or eliminate media ownership rules. The big would get bigger, much bigger.

So powerful was the neoliberal thrust that even many progressives were left fighting on the right-wing’s turf, failing to recognize the utter absurdity of positing media as a free-market undertaking. Media markets were largely built upon government-granted monopoly licenses and subsidies—monopoly use of scarce public airwaves for radio, TV and satellite broadcasting, cable TV monopolies, postal subsidies, copyright privileges, etc.—and were anything but free-market industries. But the right was on a rampage, insisting that any regulation of media interfered with free markets, and progressives were on the defensive. It provided a policy recipe for a massive wave of media concentration.

Prehistoric movement

So in the era of FAIR’s founding, the notion of organizing to generate public support for structural media reform seemed removed from reality, no matter how intellectually defensible and desirable the prospect might be. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, FAIR continued its critical examination of the mainstream U.S. news media, with considerable implications for what would follow.

Today, it is easy to highlight the massive public outcry against the FCC’s plan to relax media ownership rules in 2003 as the Fort Sumpter of the media reform movement. To many, that is when this movement went from being an idea held by a few people to a reality shared by millions.

In fact, we know that all great social movements have a prehistory that is indispensable to the history itself, and that is only recognized after the fact. The Civil Rights movement did not begin with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. Without the concerted growth in civil rights activism and African-American political organizing in the 1930s and 1940s, the movement never would have developed as it did. Likewise, the movement for gay and lesbian rights did not begin in 1969 in Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn. It required a generation of covert consciousness raising and organizing to prepare the ground for 1969.

So it has been with the media reform movement. As people became exposed to the FAIR critique of the mainstream media, they increasingly asked the logical questions. In fact, after a while, the questions were all but unavoidable. Why does this system generate such biased and undemocratic news? Where does this system come from? How can we change the system to improve the news? What can we do to encourage independent and alternative media?

The stars are right

Over the course of the 1990s, interest in media issues grew, slowly at first and then dramatically. Publications like the Progressive, the Nation and In These Times began running features, even special issues, on media. AlterNet’s Don Hazen organized two enormous Media & Democracy conferences, in 1996 in San Francisco and in 1997 in New York City, to draw attention to the importance of media reform to progressive politics. Legendary media scholar George Gerbner launched the Cultural Environment Movement in 1997 to begin the process of having people organize to improve the media system.

These visionary conferences and the CEM were ahead of their time; it would take a few more years before the stars were in alignment for the popular explosion. The grassroots campaign on behalf of low-power FM radio, which generated considerable support in Congress in 2000, was a turning point. It indicated, for the first time in generations, that if people organized successfully, they had a chance to defeat the corporate media lobbies.

And then came the media ownership fight of 2003, when nearly 3 million Americans protested the plans to allow increased media concentration. We won that fight (for the time being) when the federal courts threw out the FCC rule changes, citing, among other things, how the FCC had studiously ignored the public input it was getting from all corners.

My group, Free Press, cut its teeth in that battle and has never looked back. Even in this inhospitable political climate, we have been part of a number of major victories on media policy fights over the past two years—from stopping government propaganda and protecting community Internet systems to exposing the corruption in public broadcasting—victories that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. We have held two national conferences, in Madison in 2003 and St. Louis in 2005, which drew many thousands of participants from all 50 states. While Free Press is the largest media reform group, with a full-time staff of 20, there are many other success stories, and there are many prominent groups like Common Cause and Consumers Union that are increasing their work in the media area.

Moreover, media policy activism is just one of three parts of the media reform movement, along with criticism and producing independent media. All three areas work hand in hand: Criticism of the existing news media informs the need for structural reform and the need for independent media. Policy activism requires criticism to fuel informed participation, and it requires independent media to show what we are fighting for. And independent and alternative media desperately require victories on the policy front to guarantee access and a favorable environment.

Not media but democracy

FAIR is a leader in the realm of criticism, of course, and in this capacity it also informs the entirety of the media reform movement. But, with Extra!, CounterSpin and the fair.org website, FAIR is also a major producer of independent media in its own right. And since 2003, FAIR has increasingly come to cover the media reform movement and weigh in on events as they unfold. Just this year, FAIR produced a major report on the corruption of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, calling for its abolition.

But FAIR does not and should not have lobbyists organizing constituencies and members of Congress in Washington, D.C. There are other groups established to do that. FAIR’s reputation has been built on its adherence to intellectual consistency, and its avoidance of partisan politics. It held Bill Clinton and the press coverage of the Clinton administration to the same standard it uses for a Republican administration. FAIR has always been fiercely independent and willing to ruffle feathers, even of its progressive allies. What FAIR brings to the media reform movement is a set of critical, experienced and informed eyes, sympathetic yet unwavering in commitment to principle.

Most importantly, what FAIR brings to the media reform movement is an understanding that this fight, ultimately, is not about media, but about democracy. It is about building a just and humane world. FAIR serves as our sentinel to see that in our daily struggles to survive we never lose sight of what truly is at stake. What Voltaire said about God is true about FAIR: If it did not exist, we would have to invent it. I suspect the first 20 years of FAIR—as great as they have been—will many years from now, be regarded as the group’s prehistory.