Something's out there - or should be

February 11, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

American media consumers - TV watchers and newspaper readers in particular - are like the woman who didn't realize her husband had a drinking problem until one night he came home sober. She knew there was a problem, but she needed something to make clear what the problem was.

As for consumers of media, people are beginning to see the problems - and the stakes. They were taught in high school that a vigilant, independent press is essential for democracy to survive, particularly in wartime, when there is pressure to suppress civil liberties and limit press freedom.

"The Constitution is at risk," says former TV talk-show host Phil Donahue, a leader of the new media reform movement. "It's a living thing, and if it's not attended to, it will die. ... We've got an administration that thinks right now you should shut up and sing."

Mr. Donahue's experience was the centerpiece of a recent media reform conference in Memphis, Tenn. His latest venture in broadcast television ended, he says, when MSNBC worried about his probing interviews with officials of the Bush administration and their critics - while MSNBC's competition was "waving the flag."

Though his new program had promising viewership, it was canceled.

Stories of that sort - confirmed by confidential MSNBC memos published in The New York Times - are but one provocation noted by Americans who are discovering they're members of the reform movement without realizing it.

And, he says, there is definitely a movement. Three yeas ago, fewer than 1,000 came to the first media reform gathering. More than 3,200 men and women convened in Memphis on the eve of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. That's more than a core group, he says.

"Media reform" is a term that encompasses many, if not all, the concerns that Americans - regardless of political attitude - have about the content, political bent and ownership of media in America. Illustrating the reach of the concerns, member organizations include the Consumers Union and the Gun Owners of America. Actors Geena Davis, Danny Glover and Jane Fonda were there, along with two members of the Federal Communications Commission and Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the new chairman of the House communications committee.

The goals are many and complex. The reformers want to preserve "net neutrality" - equal and relatively free access to the World Wide Web, with no corporate tollbooths where fees could be extracted for access. They want to re-energize the fairness doctrine requiring political balance in broadcasting, set aside during the Reagan administration.

The convention delegates want answers to these questions, among others: Are corporate broadcasters capable of programming that examines important issues? Are they obligated by law or regulation to operate in the public interest, or are they free to concentrate on profit-making? What happened to television coverage of state and local political races? Is it true that news directors see politics as "ratings poison"? Is that what crowds out substance and leads to this rule: "If it bleeds, it leads"?

And where is a press freedom fighter like the 18th-century New York journalist John Peter Zenger, when we really need him (or her)?

The current embodiment of Zenger, University of Illinois professor Robert W. McChesney, was in Memphis, along with Amy Goodman, reporter and anchor of the radio show Democracy Now. Mr. McChesney is president of the convention's organizing body, Free Press.

The keynote address came from award-winning journalist Bill Moyers, who continues to lament the media's decline as a corrective force in American life. No one does investigative reporting better than newspapers, he said, but the reporting talent gets laid off as Wall Street demands greater profits and newspapers respond by cutting staff.

Concern about the erosion of probing investigations and unfettered criticism was a primary motivator for those who trekked into Memphis for three days of networking - and venting about their favorite outrages by media giants.

The reformers collide sharply with the journalism establishment. They want more license for reporters to call things as they see them. The establishment press hews to objectivity. Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now put it this way in an interview during the conference: "People might be better served by a press that identifies itself for what it stands for, and then people can choose between the varying viewpoints rather than an omnipresent journalism that claims to represent all points of view. [Such variety is] better than a single dominant newspaper idea that ends up responsive to the dominant economic and political elite."

Let a vigorous argument proceed.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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