Van Jones, one of our nation's most dynamic and insightful orators, perhaps put it best before a fired-up Netroots Nation. "It's naïve to expect the next president to fix everything that's broken," Jones told digital activists assembled in Austin not too long ago. "In fact, I don't think we even need a president to fix all our problems. All we really need is a president who will stop breaking everything -- then maybe we can fix all our problems ourselves!"
Jones' remark, while meant as a general observation, can also be specifically applied to the many media problems facing our democracy -- and the next president, a self-styled 'change agent" (but then, aren't they all?). Given that the outgoing gang in the White House has been among the most horrific on record when it comes to both its assessment and treatment of the press, it would be hard to imagine any succeeding administration could be worse.
The Bush Administration's default approach toward journalists has been to use them when necessary and bypass them when not -- while meanwhile employing a panoply of measures aimed at co-opting, intimidating, misleading, minimizing and even impersonating them. From the Pentagon's penchant for "information dominance" and regard for the Fourth Estate as a "fourth front" in the interminable war on terror, from paid punditry to propaganda-as-news, and from phony video news releases to "controlling the message," the last eight years have seen a downward spiral in the presidential/press relationship that has left public opinion of, and confidence in, both institutions at all-time lows.
The annual Gallup assessment shows that fewer than one of four Americans now have "a lot or a great deal of confidence" in traditional news media such as television or newspapers -- down from about one of three just four years ago. What's worse, public confidence in the media eight years into a disastrous administration is even lower than that in the presidency itself -- although the media did at least manage to attain a higher trust rating than Congress...
So, in addition to his other accumulated troubles, the next president will have a full press plate awaiting him. Items needing urgent action include, but are not limited to:
- combating the pernicious effects of decades of relentless media deregulation and consolidation;
- correcting the vast preponderance of conservative opinions on the radio airwaves by somehow leveling the unbalanced distribution playing field;
- ending the hate speech spewed regularly on the public airwaves by talk radio's leading shock jocks; (Link to www.shockjocks.org)
- finding a way to encourage more localism and diversity -- resulting in more choices and voices -- on the public airwaves;
- returning fairness, balanced discussion and coverage of important issues to those airwaves, while dealing with what the industry trade journal Broadcasting & Cable rightly termed "the manufactured crisis" of the rumored return of the Fairness Doctrine;
- passing a federal shield law to protect journalists, their sources and the public's right to know;
- rationalizing the current content crackdown and FCC obsession with supposedly "indecent" material;
- freeing public broadcasting by ending Rovian political partisanship and content coercion within the Broadcasting Board of Governors and CPB, and hence PBS, NPR and other outlets;
- finding a mechanism to deal with the declining economic health of newspapers -- and along with them, investigative and public service-focused reporting -- by recognizing and countering the ongoing crisis in journalism, and hence in democracy, occasioned by the "lost revenue model;"
- embracing the fact that producing, identifying and sharing credible, trustworthy news and information is a public good -- and treating it as such;
- helping to support independent media and journalism -- economically and otherwise -- as a necessary counterpart to more establishment forms.
Obviously the list is long and growing ever longer. Add in the ongoing online battleground, where large media companies are trying to expand their brand reach; net neutrality; web privacy issues and ads delivered to your virtual doorstep; the impending transition from analog to digital broadcasting, which will take place shortly after Inauguration Day... Clearly the new president will have to have his media game face on. Some observers will argue that, facing a meltdown of the entire economic system, two unsuccessful wars, the eternal struggle to somehow fix our broken health system, and other "more important" problems, media issues will just have to be placed on a back burner.
But such an approach would be shortsighted in the extreme. Whatever the story is, the "other story" is always the media story. Should we be surprised, for example, that our recently deregulated media system totally missed the story of what impact deregulation would have on our financial system? Of course not -- and that's why, in order to finally see true media "change we can believe in," we'll need an even more robust and active media reform movement that will dedicate itself to keeping the president's feet to the fire. More importantly, as per Van Jones, we really need to begin focusing energy on fixing some of our media problems ourselves -- provided, that is, that the new president at least stops breaking things!