The summer heat isn't the only thing that has Americans looking for relief. Across the country, people are mobilizing against Big Media and all that it represents: an anemic public culture punctuated by crass commercialism and shoddy journalism.

In recent weeks, thousands of so-called "ordinary people" have organized to slow, if not stop, an industry-led, lobbyist-financed juggernaut that threatens to decimate public access television and turn the Internet into an "information toll road."

Grassroots campaigns, like Save The Internet, put both the Congress and the Federal Communication Commission on notice: people from across the political spectrum want the public interest upheld in matters of communication policy.

While a good deal of this organizing takes place online, media activists met face-to-face last month to promote a more democratic media culture. What was striking about these meetings was the passion, ingenuity and wherewithal of media reformers, independent producers and others working toward a more responsible, and responsive, media system.

Two of these meetings — the Media Giraffe Project's (MGP) inaugural conference at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and the annual meeting of the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), held this year in Boston — demonstrate the necessity of, and possibility for, media reform.


Housed in the journalism program at U-Mass/Amherst, the MGP is a new initiative dedicated to fostering "participatory democracy and community" by celebrating the efforts of individuals "making innovate, sustainable use of media." Also known as giraffes, these "above the crowd individuals" work in commercial, public service and independent media and aren't afraid to speak truth to power.

Headlining the MGP conference was none other than Helen Thomas, the former United Press International correspondent, promoting her new book Watchdogs of Democracy?

For years, Ms. Thomas's quick wit and incisive questions were the only signs of intelligent life in the White House press corps. These days she's raising hell in her columns and on the lecture circuit, calling out presidents and journalists alike for misdeeds and misplaced loyalties.

Also on hand was former 60-Minutes producer Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity. Not one to pull punches, Lewis spoke eloquently about the dearth of investigative journalism in U.S. media these days: a condition that threatens to undermine our democracy. Lewis observed that in the absence of a robust press willing to challenge authority, citizen journalists have taken up the slack.

Take for instance the work of Ilona Meagher. An Illinois-based writer, her reports on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for e-Pluribus Media illuminate the difficulties facing returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The problems faced by today's vets rarely receive ongoing, let alone substantive, press coverage. Meagher's Website, "PTSD: Winning the War Within," not only covers this story in-depth, but also provides resources for returning combat veterans, as well as action alerts that encourage readers to learn more and to get involved.

Then there was Michael Skoler, the Managing Director of Minnesota Public Radio's experimental project called Public Insight Journalism (PIJ). At a time when public broadcasting's credibility is sinking right along that of its commercial counterparts, PIJ reminds us just how vibrant and informative public radio can be when journalism is relevant to the everyday lives of ordinary people.

While PIJ seeks to include community members in newsgathering, the project limits public participation in setting the news agenda. Nonetheless, PIJ indicates that putting the public back in public broadcasting is a winning strategy: one that makes public broadcasters more accountable to local communities and helps ensure public broadcasting's long-term viability.


Whereas the Media Giraffe Project is a new and promising venture, the Alliance for Community Media has a long and storied past. An organization that was once principally concerned with public, educational and government (PEG) access television, ACM has embraced community media in all its forms.

This year's ACM meeting featured workshops on blogging, municipal Wi-Fi and Low Power FM.

Not surprisingly, media reform figured prominently in all of these discussions. Representatives from various organizations — Common Cause, Free Press, and the Media Democracy Coalition, to name but a few — weighed in on a host of policy questions, including media ownership, telephone and cable franchising, and copyright law, as well as political advertising and campaign finance reform.

A clear consensus emerged from these meetings: the time is ripe for a national media reform movement. Our media landscape is undergoing a profound transformation, and U.S. communications policy must shape this new environment to serve the public interest. But as federal law is being rewritten, Big Media and their congressional allies are doing their best to keep the public out of the picture.

That's where media reform advocates are making a difference. Through education, advocacy and coalition building, media reform groups encourage ordinary people to get involved in communication policy making.

Sydney Levy of the San Francisco-based Media Alliance put it best. While the particulars of media regulation can be intimidating to the general public — and often incomprehensible to all but a few policy wonks — the principles of communications policy are quite simple. A democratic society depends upon a media system that encourages civic engagement, community development and popular participation in public debate.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at