November 11, 2008

Obama and media reform?

Filed under: Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , , , , — Melanie @ 2:31 pm

As information diversity shrinks in a media landscape that is owned by fewer and fewer entities, a call for media reform has been an overlooked political issue.

In May 2008, The Nation reported on the media crisis and Obama’s presidency as the opportunity for media reform:

Recently we have seen an acceleration of the collapse of journalistic standards. Veteran reporters like Walter Cronkite are appalled by the mergermania that has swept the industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news and gutting newsrooms. Rapid consolidation, evidenced most recently by the breakup of the once-venerable Knight-Ridder newspapers, the sale of the Tribune Company and its media properties and the swallowing of the Wall Street Journal by Murdoch’s News Corp continues the steady replacement of civic and democratic values by commercial and entertainment priorities. But responsible journalists have less and less to say about newsroom agendas these days. The calls are being made by consultants and bean counters, who increasingly rely on official sources and talking-head pundits rather than newsgathering or serious debate.

The crisis is widespread, and it affects not just our policies but the politics that might improve them. There are two critical issues on which a free press must be skeptical of official statements, challenging to the powerful and rigorous in the search for truth. One of them is war–and in the case of the post-9/11 wars, our media have failed us miserably. (Even former White House press secretary Scott McClellan now acknowledges that the media were “complicit enablers” in the run-up to the Iraq invasion). The other issue is elections, when voters rely on media to provide them with what candidates, parties and interest groups often will not: a serious focus on issues that matter and on the responses of candidates to those issues. Instead, when the Democratic race was reaching its penultimate stage, the dominant story was a ridiculously overplayed discussion about Barack Obama’s former minister. Before the critical Pennsylvania primary, studies show, the provocative Rev. Jeremiah Wright got more coverage than Obama’s rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton. And forget about issues–the most covered policy debate of the period, a ginned-up argument about whether to slash gas taxes for the summer, garnered only one-sixth as much attention as Wright.

Viable democracy cannot survive, let alone flourish, with such debased journalistic standards. Despite some remarkable recent victories by grassroots activists, our media still fail the most critical tests of a free press. This is an impasse that cannot last for long, and in all likelihood the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will go a long way toward determining which side, the corporate owners or the public, will win the battle for the media. The stakes could not be higher.

The next President will make two important decisions. The first will be whether to accept media reform legislation or veto it. There is little doubt that Congress has shifted dramatically as a result of popular pressure. Corporate lobbyists who used to worry only about battling one another for the largest slice of the pie know the game has changed. The 2008 elections will almost certainly increase support in both houses and from both parties for media reform.

Second, the next President will appoint a new FCC chair who will command a majority of the commission’s five members. This is a critical choice. The right majority would embrace the values and ideals of the thousands of media critics, independent media producers and democracy activists who will gather June 6-8 in Minneapolis for the fourth National Conference for Media Reform. Dissident commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who have battled the FCC’s pro-Big Media majority on issues ranging from media ownership to net neutrality and corporate manipulation of the news over the past four years, will both address the conference. If Copps, the senior of the two, is named chair, this savvy Washington veteran is prepared to turn the agency into what it was intended to be by Copps’s hero, Franklin Roosevelt: a muscular defender of the public interest with the research capacity and the authority to assure that the airwaves and broadband spectrum, which are owned by the people, actually respond to popular demand for diversity, competition and local control. After years of battling to block rule changes pushed by corporate lobbyists, Copps has called for a New American Media Contract, saying, “I’m sick of playing defense.” In these pages on April 7, he urged that we “reinvigorate the license-renewal process” by returning to standards set during Roosevelt’s presidency, when “renewals were required every three years, and a station’s public-interest record was subject to FCC judgment.”

Why Barack Obama’s administration has the ability to reform:

Barack Obama is different. Obama’s campaign has produced the most comprehensive, public-interest-oriented media agenda ever advanced by a major presidential candidate. Like Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator has been an outspoken defender of net neutrality. The Obama camp’s position paper on media issues echoes Copps when it says that as President, he “would encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.” In a recent speech Obama called for strengthened antitrust enforcement, specifically warning against media consolidation. An Obama presidency would, he and his supporters say, use all the tools of government to promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve. Like Copps, Obama favors investment to connect remote and disenfranchised communities to the Internet and to make public broadcasting a more robust voice in the national discourse.

While a President Obama would almost certainly be different from a President McCain on media issues, the extent of the difference remains open to debate. Would Obama actually make Copps or someone like him FCC chair? Would Obama move immediately and effectively to break the stranglehold of media lobbyists? That is by no means certain. While his stated policies are encouraging, competing forces are struggling to influence the candidate. Industry money is going to Obama in anticipation of his victory. He is a self-styled party centrist, and in recent Democratic Party history, “centrism” has usually meant putting the demands of moneyed interests ahead of those of rank-and-file citizens. The good news is that many of Obama’s younger advisers are products of the media reform movement or have been influenced by it. The bad news is that others, like Clinton-era FCC chair Kennard, have records of compromising with the telecom industry. So while some Big Media will be betting on McCain, they won’t give up easily on Obama.

What Obama’s candidacy offers, then, is an opening and–if we dare employ an overused word from this campaign season–a measure of hope. The proper response to that opening is not celebration but vigilance and determination. Obama’s positions, while sometimes vague, do allow us to imagine securing increased funding for public and community broadcasting, a broadband build-out that allows all Americans to realize the promise of the Internet, and a new approach to the licensing and regulation of the people’s airwaves that respects the public interest more than Rupert Murdoch’s bottom line. We can anticipate the development of creative policies to promote and protect viable independent journalism and local media. The right President will make achieving all these ends easier. The right Congress will make the task easier still. But above all, we will need the right media reform movement–one that is aggressive in its demands regardless of who sits in the White House, savvy in its approach to the FCC and Congressional committees, bipartisan and determined to build broad coalitions, and focused not just on playing defense but on shaping popular media for the twenty-first century.

In a culture saturated with media outlets that spit out similar versions of truth, information diversity and media ownership becomes a valid democratic issue. Obama has been regarded by media reform activists as the first viable choice to tackle these issues.

Free Press issued a statement in it’s newsletter yesterday that, if Obama lives up to his promise, the nation could experience an authentic shift in the media in the United States.

Free Press spells out those possibilities:

Unlike George W. Bush, the president-elect is a strong supporter of Net Neutrality and universal, affordable Internet access. He is opposed to further consolidation of media ownership, and he is a friend to public broadcasting. Obama’s election represents a sea change in leadership that allows us to go from playing defense to offense. These are exciting times.

Free Press is leading the way in making sure that Obama fulfills his promise.  If this promise is fulfilled, we should expect an unprecedented transformation in the way the media engine runs, the information that is disseminated and the people’s access to that information.

Indeed, these are exciting times.

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  1. […] This is an impasse that cannot last for long, and in all likelihood the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will go a long way toward determining which side, the corporate owners or the public, will win the battle for the media. … Read more […]

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