Last week, I was in Boston attending the National Conference for Media Reform, hosted by Free Press, a 10 year old organization to whom we owe thanks that the internet, thriving with creativity, connection, and diversity, does not resemble television. Although in a few days, that could change thanks to the latest from the 2011 Congress.
Ah, television! I remember it well from the days of Ed Bradley, with whom I worked at CBS. Now it's a ruined wasteland of dregs masquerading as programming: coarse reality shows, endless pharma ads, grade D movies, and of course that staple, Fox fantasizers. The two respites are TCM and the nature programs with wild animals roaming safe from so-called civilization (so long as their habitats are not on GoDaddy's Bob Parsons' travel itinerary.) But TV's barren-ness is all too apparent now that PBS is in re-runs, while under attack by the same folks that want to monopolize the internet.
Make no mistake about it. What we see on TV is not merely bad taste in programming; this is what Media Monopoly delivers. It drones out independent voices, and squashes consumer options. Whether it's 200 channels, 2,000, or 2 million, multiplying nada times any number still equals nothing worthwhile.
In all media, there's a similar pattern. Newspapers bought by conglomerates, were gutted. When new owners cut back their reportage, the papers were dropped by their readers, and then closed by their conglomerate publishers as insufficiently profitable. With the swallowing of T-Mobile by AT&T, the same pattern of acquiring, cutting back, and closing communications options is happening to wireless phone companies right now, according to Tim Karr, of Save the Internet. He predicts that the recent merger will "result in higher prices and fewer choices for wireless consumers," by eroding "what little competition exists in the wireless market."
And the same thing can happen to the internet unless millions of citizens ask their Senators to defeat passage of the recent House "Resolution of Disapproval," which according to Save the Internet, would "strip the FCC of its authority to protect our right to free speech online. The resolution would not just bar the FCC from enforcing its already weak Net Neutrality rule, but also from acting in any way to protect Internet users against corporate abuses."
As Congressional naysayers frowned their disapproval at yet another public good the majority of people want, several Congresspeople spoke at the NCMR, including representatives Ed Markey, Mike Doyle, and Donna Edwards. "No one should be guarding the gate on the Internet," Nancy Pelosi, who supports net neutrality (the code for internet freedom) told the NCMR audience of 2,500 activists, journalists, media mavens, policy experts, and scholars from throughout the U.S. They were joined by thousands watching via on-line streaming, still watchable here.
Commenting on the concurrent attack on the EPA, Representative Ed Markey said "Republicans are passing legislation to destroy the world wide web. And they're also pushing through a bill to help destroy the whole wide world.They're taking aim at Google Earth -- and setting their sights on Mother Earth. They trying to mess with the blogosphere -- and pollute the atmosphere ... Today's Tea Partiers are the "Alice in Wonderland" variety -- and there are lots of Mad Hatters.." For full transcript and video, go here.
"You can't try to appease the people who are trying to kill public and community media, the people who want to kill independent journalism, the people who are trying to keep you disconnected and in the dark," said Craig Aaron, the new president of Free Press.
Free Press is the organization that leads the charge for PBS, NPR, freedom and diversity on the Internet, low-powered community radio, and the reform of the Fourth Estate. According to two of its co-founders, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, authors of Saving Journalism: The Soul of Democracy, "Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States."
Just a few days ago, Democracy Now anchor Amy Goodman, who broadcast live from the conference, sued local Minnesota police departments for her arrest at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul Minnesota, even as she showed her press credentials. "We shouldn't have to get a record when we try to put things on the record," Goodman told NCMR journalists.
While the three branches of the federal government (executive, congressional, and judicial) are either stalemated, or under the influence, a recurring theme at panels and in private discussion was the shortfall of commercial media, which all too often lack the spine for courageous, or even accurate reporting, some speakers noted.
Echoing the oft-quoted Mark Twain bon mot, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," Nichols, who spent the last month in Wisconsin, critiqued The New York Times for a front page headline that unilaterally declared the defeat of the citizen's movement, on the very same day that "one hundred fifty thousand Wisconsinites gathered in the capital to make their voices heard." This spontaneous, sizable, and ongoing citizens' protest ultimately succeeded. "When we can create a journalism that includes all our voices, then we will realize the promise of a free press," Nichols predicted. "We won't have a free press -- until we have a real dialogue and debate."
"What's at stake is the future of democracy," Josh Silver, a co-founder, and the long-time President of the Free Press, said in an interview. Silver is leaving to helm the Democracy Fund, a new organization that will enlist citizen engagement in democracy to "challenge the influence of corporate lobbyists over government policy-making."
Most people don't realize that prior to the 1970's, there were no corporate lobbyists on K Street. But since that time, they have built an unprecedented web of power. "Even now, citizen action can still work," Michael Copps, a long time FCC Commissioner told the audience, "We need a media of, by, and for the American people. Sing to it, tweet to it, march to it. This must be done, this can be done, this will be done."
For an update and action links on the fate of the internet, go here. Interviews from conference presenters and participants are available from FreeSpeechTV. Find out more about upcoming Free Press initiatives.
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