Examining Media and Democracy

“The mainstream media is farcical and tragic” declared Anne Zill, President of the Fund for Constitutional Government (FCG), mincing no words in opening the day long conference “Media, Democracy and the Constitution”. Held at the National Press Club and organized by FCG, the conference attracted journalists and public interest and media watch groups that are concerned that an increasingly commercial and consolidated media has failed in its critical role in ensuring the proper functioning of democracy in this country.

“The mainstream media is farcical and tragic” declared Anne Zill, President of the Fund for Constitutional Government (FCG), mincing no words in opening the day long conference “Media, Democracy and the Constitution”. Held at the National Press Club and organized by FCG, the conference attracted journalists and public interest and media watch groups that are concerned that an increasingly commercial and consolidated media has failed in its critical role in ensuring the proper functioning of democracy in this country.

Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, contextualized much of the discussion for the day in a presentation on the media’s role in a democracy. He stated that the media must keep citizens informed about matters of importance, so that they are able to participate meaningfully in the democratic process. Part of that role includes being a watchdog on society’s power structures. However, instead of being a vigorous watchdog, McChesney criticized today’s news media for concentrating on trivial matters, having huge blindspots when it comes to powerful interests, and disregarding economically disadvantaged segments of society.

McChesney condemned the “theology of the status quo” that ignores what MIT economist Lester Thurow terms the greatest peacetime economic inequality in our nation’s history. McChesney commended global justice activists whose protests in Seattle, Washington DC, and elsewhere have forced the mainstream media to cover the status quo of sweatshops and lack of access to essential medicines in the developing world. Their efforts have sparked public debate on these issues of tremendous social importance which were previously confined to the business pages.

On a panel entitled “Investigative Reporting & Corporate Media: Conflicts and Challenges” the panelists agreed that the increasingly commercial nature of the media has put news departments under pressure to be profitable, harming investigative journalism. Slashed budgets for investigative reporting, some of the riskiest and most expensive journalism, has placed demands on reporters to produce more stories in less time. Editors are also less willing to assign stories that are high risk, either in terms of the chances that a story will be produced or the likelihood that a story will result in litigation. The effect of this on news gathering has been seen by members of the panel in public interest groups who find, that rather than do investigative journalism themselves, reporters often come to them seeking a “finished product”.

A more disturbing variation of this trend by news outlets is the airing of material produced by corporate public relations firms as news. The discussion of the pressure of increased profitability was extended beyond just investigative journalism to the effect on the news media in general. Panelists were particularly disturbed by the closings of many overseas bureaus, and the breaching of the “Great Wall” between a news outlet’s editorial and marketing functions, both actions resulting in fewer and lower quality voices available to the public.

Speaker after speaker returned to the theme of there being a conflict between the public interest of a media commons and the economic interests of those that would like a media marketplace. Janine Jackson, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), described the wedding of capitalism and media as a structural problem, as media as a capitalist endevour is fundamentally at odds with the public interest in a media democracy. Capitalism strives for economic efficiency, which is not necessarily correlated with the values of a democracy, which demand that the media reflect the interests of all of its citizens.

Society distributes its wealth unequally, a media which only reflects commercial values will result in similar inequity in the distribution of democracy.

Today’s media is a marketplace not a commons, though citizens, the consumers of media, have very little buying power in this marketplace.

Consequently, observes Jackson, consumers of media are not the media distributors’ clients, they are the products sold to advertisers. The scramble for consolidation among media distributors and content providers is driven by the ability to offer advertisers more value. The effect, that this consolidation could have, on consumers with the next generation of media services was of great concern to the panelists, with frequent mention being made to the proposed merger between AOL and Time Warner (which would be the largest merger in history).

Jeff Chester, of the Center for Media Education, characterized interactive television, the presumed favorite next generation format of Madison Avenue, as “an advertiser’s Nirvana” with its ability to track every move made by a user. The vision for interactive television by advertisers differs greatly from the reality of the Internet, which provides equal footing to all content providers who use the medium.

Thus, from civil society’s point of view, the present architecture of the Internet is superior to that offered by interactive television. Panelists expressed fear that an entity like a merged AOL/Time Warner would possess the leverage to change the Internet into a platform resembling advertisers’ vision for interactive television, particularly by being able to limit consumer’s access to other content providers.

Most conference participants agreed that the public interest in a media that reflects democratic values should be politically realized through government regulation. Specific policy initiatives panelists backed were the FCC’s proposal for issuing large numbers of low power radio licenses, increased funding and broadcast spectrum allocation for public broadcasting, antitrust litigation to limit media consolidation, an end to broadcast spectrum auctions, and free air time provided to political candidates.

Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), quoted often from a just released report “Off the Record” from CPI, which details the media industries intense lobbying activities in opposition to each one of these policy initiatives.

Lobbying efforts have apparently paid off. McChesney highlighted ways in which government has acted for those with an economic interest citing in particular the FCC’s role in regulating the airwaves shortly after the birth of radio, resulting in restricted access to broadcast rights. Before this regulation, radio was a diverse medium with varied programming. With the creation of the FCC, and a pro-business commissioner, big business had a regulatory apparatus to limit competition. Within a few years radio broadcast rights were concentrated in the hands of ABC and NBC. McChesney drew a parallel to the state of radio before this regulation to what it could be if the recent FCC proposal to allocate licenses to thousands of low power radio stations was enacted. Many of the participants were excited about the demonstrations in support of low power radio at the a meeting in San Franciso of National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), who have lobbied intensely against the FCC’s proposal. McChesney called the size of the demonstrations, which numbered in the thousands, “unprecedented” over a media issue.

The protest in San Francisco is evidence that there is a growing awareness of the importance of media which supports democracy and functions as a commons rather than a marketplace. McChesney, in closing his rather sobering assessment of the state of the media and the challenges facing media in the public interest, was quite hopeful because of this growing awareness of what is at stake.

Perhaps the conference’s most poignant moment and clearest expression of what is at stake when discussing democratic media came when FAIR’s Jackson stunned the audience into silence when she quoted Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin (CNN 1/2/00) who said he forsees a world where media business is “more important than government… more important than educational institutions and non-profits” and that corporate dominance “is going to be forced anyhow because when you have a system that is instantly available everywhere in the world immediately, then the old-fashioned regulatory system has to give way.”

Author: Alan Bushnell

News Service: DC-IndyMedia

URL: http://dc.indymedia.org/display.php3?article_id=4172