Perceptions of Reality on the Eve of Disaster

Three days from now the FCC is expected in a series of 3-2 votes to approve changes to media ownership rules allowing further consolidation. Where radio saw its near-destruction as a useful information source following the Telecom Act’s passage and the consolidation that followed, we have not learned from this mistake, and now much of the same damage will be done to other media outlets.
If you’re inclined to watch the mess as it unfolds, the FCC streams video of its meetings online. I hope to have choice cuts of each Commissioner’s comments available for download in MP3 format later in the day on Monday.
As we stand on the eve of what is likely to be a big step backward in the fight for media democracy, it’s important not to give up hope, especially when the evidence continues to mount that this fight was long rigged in favor of corporate interests. It was heartening to see some evidence this week – from the corporate media itself – that paints a brighter view of the future.
The first bit of news came from Reuters, who interviewed Powell as he stumped in support of media consolidation. In Mikey’s world of media, the state of radio has only gotten better since 1996. Quoting Powell:
“The radio industry was dying,” he said. “When there was a proper amount of consolidation permitted, a lot of it restored health to the radio industry.”
Later Powell states his belief that increased consolidation and cross-ownership between newspapers and TV stations will lead to “the promotion of additional news content.”
Contrast that with a story published the same day in that paragon of fifth-grade level journalism, USA Today, which reported that only one in three Americans completely trust the news they receive from the mainstream media. Unlike Powell, it would seem that the public recognizes “additional” news content – provided most recently by the proliferation of cable TV news networks and even this wonderworld of the internet – does not necessarily mean “better” content.
I have never been one for polls, but I believe the notion that two out of three Americans have issues with the media. As we have seen in the swell of opposition that coalesced late in the FCC game, issues of corporate power over the media cut across political lines.
If mass discontent exists, then change is almost certain. Congress and the courts will be the next battlefields for reformers, and there’s always a need for more independent media.
It is disheartening to see the spate of last-minute advertising campaigns against the FCC’s pending decision, as the money spent on them only goes to feed and strengthen the enemy. They are also unlikely to change the minds of the Commissioners themselves, much less provoke last-minute Congressional intervention. It could have been much better spent on actual education and outreach efforts, like media literacy and grassroots journalism training, or even on the support of alternative media outlets.
Changing the rules is just one facet of the drive to improve the media environment. Any time one advocates for change, skeptics and supporters of the status quo will always pull out the standard (and sometimes quite effective) rejoinder, “What’s your alternative?” If this newly-intensified drive for media reform doesn’t spend adequate time and energy to build and demonstrate alternatives, can it honestly answer that question?
Two critical factors for making this happen involve education. First, we must work harder to dispel the myth that a commercial media system is the only “true” way to disseminate news and information in a “free” society.
Second, Americans need to be empowered to look at themselves as more than just consumers of news and entertainment. Decades have gone into the creation of a passive audience. It has not always been this way, and it does not have to continue to be so. Signs like the aforementioned poll show that the public is waking up to this fact; the time is ripe to further open the eyes.
Achieving these goals take a lot more effort than lobbying campaigns ever will. As things head from bad to worse let’s hope that our new-found friends on both the right and left commit to this fight over the long haul.