As the dust settles following the controversy, it is time to confront the fact that Don Imus' remarks go far beyond one bigoted commentator. They are further proof that we must change the media system itself if we're going to improve journalism and media content in general.
Most of our TV and radio stations are owned by giant corporate conglomerates. They don't represent the views of most Americans -- and they make huge profits off the public airwaves. What we need are more diverse, independent and local media owners. The best way to stop this race to the bottom is to change who's sitting at the top -- and making the decisions about who's behind the mic.
Yet right now less than 10% of TV and radio stations are owned by people of color or women. But instead of addressing this national disgrace, Bush's Federal Communications Commission is actually trying to let the largest companies buy up even more stations.
According to one industry study, only 2.5% of radio stations have a person of color in the role of general manager, and only 4.4% have a racial or ethnic minority in the role of news director. The percentage of women in these jobs isn't much higher. No wonder shock jocks like Imus have been able to keep their jobs for so long.
Here's a short list of what we can do to create a media system you want:
1) Stop the Bush FCC's ongoing effort to let major newspapers own TV and radio stations (and vice versa);
2) Stop the FCC's current plan to sell off more of the public airwaves to the biggest phone companies. The sale, set to happen in the next year, ideally would include "open access" rules that would dramatically increase competition and lower costs for cell phone and Internet service;
3) Toughen rules so that Big Media must actually serve the public interest in exchange for their broadcast licenses, and enforce media ownership limits that are regularly "waived" by the FCC;
4) Take advantage of new full power FM radio licenses that will be distributed in rural areas of the country this October;
5) Create subsidies and tax breaks for minority ownership of media properties;
6) Ensure that the Internet remains "neutral", and is not sold off to the largest phone and cable companies with their 98 percent control of high speed Internet access.
In 2003, we stopped the FCC from allowing more media concentration when more than 3 million people took action. We can actually win these kinds of policy debates, and the Imus issue presents us with an opportunity to engage millions of people in them.
What Imus did is just the tip of the iceberg, and the answer is not censorship; it's getting millions of Americans to understand that without bold structural reform, our current media, owned by a handful of profit-crazed conglomerates, will continue to fail us and our democracy.
A special note about the First Amendment debate surrounding Imus:
For those who feel that the firing of Imus has been an affront to First Amendment free speech protections, consider this: Imus still is still a free person. He can start a blog or, in all likelihood, find another media company willing to employ him. He has as many free speech rights as you or I. If someone suggests the government should remove his free speech rights, I would be among the first to defend him.
But that doesn't mean that Imus has a First Amendment right to a national radio or TV program any more than you or I. When it comes to freedom of the press, the right and responsibility for what is produced, published and broadcast rests with the media company. MSNBC (General Electric) and CBS hold that First Amendment privilege for the most part, and the buck stops with them.
As Norman Lear recently posted on HuffPost, "This could be an historic, watershed moment if American leaders in every field, in every business, were to see the opportunity as well as the responsibility to use this incident as a teaching moment, an opportunity to hold up a mirror to Americans everywhere and show them the truth of racism in our culture. And then exercise their right to clean up the areas in which they have control -- and rid them of the demeaning and the dehumanizing hostility toward race and gender."