Summer's end signals the official start of the 2006 campaign season and, as Congress returns from the August recess, the stakes couldn't be higher for the upcoming mid-term elections. The Iraq war is, of course, the leading campaign issue.
Still, a host of domestic issues — energy, immigration, environmental protection, voting rights, health care, national security and the economy — are gaining traction with the electorate. To this laundry list of campaign issues, I suggest we add media reform.
Why media reform? For the basic reason that democracy requires news, information and culture that supports discussion, debate and informed self-governance. And without putting too fine a point on it, the current media system is doing a lousy job of promoting an informed and engaged citizenry.
But don't take my word for it. Recent studies illustrate just how poorly the media serves our democracy. For instance, public opinion polls continue to find that significant minorities of Americans believe Iraq was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Findings like this demonstrate just how misinformed an alarming number of our fellow Americans are. It also reveals how effective the Bush Administration has been in managing public perceptions of the Iraq war — a task made easier by a compliant and uncritical press corps.
Then there's a Zogby poll that finds Americans far more knowledgeable about popular culture — TV shows, the personal lives of celebrities, Hollywood films and the like — than they are about current events, U.S. history or elementary civics. For example, fewer people could name the three branches of government than could recall the names of the Three Stooges. As the late Neil Postman observed, we may be "amusing ourselves to death."
How, you might ask, did it come to this? That's a question best left to historians and social scientists. The rest of us face a far more daunting challenge: What are we going to do about it?
For a growing number of Americans from across the political spectrum, making media reform a political issue is the first step toward creating a media system capable of sustaining a democratic culture. But this isn't going to be easy.
For one thing, politicians and Big Media enjoy a cozy relationship, and neither the political class nor the corporate media are likely to give it up without a fight. Consider the massive amounts of money political candidates spend on advertising every election cycle.
By some estimates, $1.6 billion was spent on political ads for local television in 2004. That's quite a windfall for the television industry. But the electorate certainly doesn't benefit from a system that rewards the candidate that spends the most money on campaign advertising.
And the distortions and incivility of political ads don't do much to improve the character and quality of political discourse these days. The sole beneficiary of incessant political advertising is Big Media. Small wonder campaign finance reform doesn't get much play on the nightly news.
The lack of substantive press coverage of communication policy debates is yet another obstacle media reformers face. Forget the fact that communication policy has a profound influence on the way Americans use media — for news, opinion, and entertainment — each and every day. It is simply not in Big Media's interests to draw attention to a political process that benefits a handful of powerful corporations and their flunkies on Capitol Hill.
For advocates and apologists of the status quo, a "free market" approach to communication policy is the only way to organize a media system. From their perspective, communication policies that support a viable, independent, noncommercial, public media sector is unthinkable — and downright un-American.
In this climate, even public broadcasting — a system that has operated admirably despite chronic funding shortages and a highly politicized appropriations process — is succumbing to the pressure of market forces.
Rather than give up on public broadcasting, we must reclaim public media. This means demanding federal policies that insulate public radio and television from market pressures while simultaneously calling for greater public participation in station governance, operations and program production.
What's more, we need to expand our definition of public media to include provisions that support the growth and development of public, educational and government (PEG) access television, LPFM, community WiFi, and other noncommercial, community-based alternatives. Freed from commercial constraints, journalism serves the public interest with high-caliber reporting, diverse perspectives, and incisive analysis. We need more independent media!
For far too long, U.S. communication policy has been the domain of a handful of powerful corporations, with little to no meaningful public participation. If we are serious about creating a media system that is responsible and accountable to the American people — one that puts the public interest before the private interests of corporate shareholders — then we need to make media reform a political issue.
As I say, this isn't going to be easy. But it isn't outside the realm of possibility, either. As sociologist Paul Starr observed in his exceptional history The Creation of the Media, "Powerful tendencies have been built into the institutions, but the lesson of the past ... is that we can still make new choices about them — and politics has been, and continues to be, the primary means of making those choices."
In times like these, times of technological innovation, political turmoil, and democratic crisis, a media reform movement is not only possible — it is essential. The choice is ours.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
- Center for Digital Democracy
- Center for Media & Democracy
- Center for Social Media
- Media Access Project
- Reclaim the Media
- Stop Big Media