If you know anything at all about the Federal Communications Commission, says media scholar Robert McChesney, you shouldn't be surprised by its June 2 vote to relax rules restricting how many media outlets a company can own. The FCC, he explains, is traditionally a “captured” agency—one that has internalized the values of the industry it regulates—so its decision to hand over more power and wealth to media conglomerates shouldn't be shocking. But here's what is: Despite a virtual blackout on the issue by network news, the public flooded the FCC and Congress with some 2 million responses—the vast majority opposing deregulation. (Even Congress took notice, with the Senate voting September 16 to roll back the FCC ruling.)
Does this groundswell signal an isolated consumer uprising or the growing strength of a new movement pressing for media democracy? It's too soon to tell. But as the country heads into what promises to be a contentious election year, a number of grassroots organizations have clearly been energized by the fight. Membership at the 30-year-old citizen lobbying group Common Cause spiked to 200,000 after it helped to fund a series of ads opposing the FCC vote. Its hard-hitting response quickly earned it new monetary support, largely from online supporters. The Internet activist network MoveOn.org generated 340,000 letters to Congress through its own FCC campaign.
The issue of the ownership of major media being held in just a few hands will be at the heart of two major fall conferences. The National Conference on Media Reform (Nov. 7-9 in Madison, Wisconsin; www.mediareform.net/conference.php), convened by McChesney and The Nation's John Nichols, and the shadow convention to the World Summit on the Information Society (Dec. 10-12 in Geneva, Switzerland) both hope to draw further public attention to the problems stemming from current media trends.
A year ago, McChesney said that the FCC's runaway drive toward deregulation was all but unstoppable. Today he says, “The real story here is how the fix wasn't in. . . . For the first time in U.S. history, there was an enormous grassroots campaign to oppose it. Unprecedented! And it still blows the minds of everyone in Washington.”
According to Kalle Lasn, publisher of Adbusters, a media watchdog publication whose recent rise in circulation is another sign of growing concern about these issues, the war in Iraq was a jump start. Once combat began, peace activists turned their attention to the networks like Fox and CNN that seemed to do little more than echo Pentagon press releases—the same companies that stand to benefit from deregulation. “People suddenly said, “Oh God, we're fighting this war, and we're doing it because of what we heard on CNN,'” Lasn says. “It's a powerful force when you realize that the most powerful nation in the world can actually be making fundamental mistakes because of its communication systems.”
But the bipartisan nature of opposition to deregulation suggests that the war added momentum to an already growing dissent. Opposition has arisen not just from progressive media reform activists but also from groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Organization for Women, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Consumers Union, The New York Times' conservative columnist William Safire, and even the National Rifle Association. Wave after wave of media mergers have left advocacy groups—minorities, proponents of children's programming and public broadcasting, and those seeking space on the airwaves for gun rights or religious viewpoints—feeling increasingly shut out by the networks. People are waking up to the fact that freedom of expression and religion, even free elections, hinge on fair media practices. As Lasn puts it, “All the really big issues of our time go back to who is in control of our information delivery systems.”
Even optimists among media reformers admit things are likely to get worse before they get better. President Bush has threatened to veto Congress’ efforts to overturn the FCC's June 2 decision, and looming battles—renewed funding for PBS and corporate control of the Internet, to name just two—are yet to be waged. But since Congress requires the FCC to review its media ownership guidelines every two years, this spring’s melee is guaranteed a sequel. Perhaps that's why McChesney remains pragmatic about the road ahead for a media-rights revolution. “It's like the civil rights movement in 1951. It's not 1963, it's 1951,” he says. “But it's not 1896 either. We've come a long way in the past year.”
Paul Schmelzer is a Minneapolis-based writer specializing in media issues.