Info Tech, Law, Politics

A recent article in The Nation starts with an account of the grass-roots mobilization (from both the right and the left) against further deregulation by the FCC. This was old news for anyone reading the blogsphere, but what interested me came at the end of the article: a concrete list of proposals for what needs to be done now in order to make things better.

What we need is an agenda to make things better.”

What are the pieces of that agenda?

– Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is right to argue for a renewed look at antitrust initiatives. Competition and diversity have been under assault for more than two decades, and it is time to consider the effect on the marketplace of ideas when reviewing media mergers. It is time, as well, for the federal government to engage in a period of study and debate leading to agreed-on caps on media ownership that are considered appropriate for a democracy. The current system of case-by-case review of proposed mergers, which frequently results in the making of exceptions for individual firms and then whole sectors of media, is an abject failure.

– Congress should roll back the number of radio stations a single firm can own. Senator Russ Feingold is considering sponsoring such legislation. Congress should also be pushed to pass legislation prohibiting media cross-ownership and vertical integration. There are tremendous economic benefits to media conglomeration–but they accrue almost entirely to the media owners. The public gets the shaft.

– The regulatory process, which is in disarray and awash in corruption, must be reinvigorated. Commissioner Copps will hold a series of town meetings this fall designed to draw attention to the power that citizens still have to challenge the licenses of local broadcast outlets. “Most people do not even know that they can challenge the renewal of a local radio or television station if they believe that the station is not living up to its obligation due to a lack of local coverage, a lack of diversity, excessive indecency and violence, or for other concerns important to the community,” says Copps. Activism needs to be directed at the hometown level, where broadcast licenses can be challenged.

– The promised expansion of access by not-for-profit groups to low-power FM radio-station licenses, which was scuttled by a back-room deal in Congress several years ago, must take place. Parallel to this shift in policy, tax incentives should be created to aid in the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets.

– Funding for public broadcasting must expand dramatically. Only about 15 percent of funding for public radio and television comes from federal subsidies. And what funding does come from Congress is subject to great political pressures. Public broadcasting at the federal and state levels has the potential to provide a model of quality journalism and diversified cultural programming. But that won’t happen if cash-starved PBS and NPR outlets are required, as some propose, to rely on the same sort of thirty-second spot advertising that dominates commercial broadcasting.

– Broadcasters must be forced to give candidates free air time. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, the authors of the only meaningful campaign-finance-reform legislation of the past decade, are now proposing such a requirement. Their initiative is essential to making not just better campaigns but better media. Currently, media conglomerates are among the most powerful lobbyists against both campaign finance reform and media reform. The system works for them, even as it fails the rest of us.

– Media conglomerates must not be allowed to impose their will on the United States and other countries via international trade deals. Media firms are currently lobbying the World Trade Organization and other multilateral organizations to accept a system of trade sanctions against countries that subsidize public broadcasting, that limit foreign ownership of media systems or that establish local content standards designed to protect national and regional cultures. They want similar assaults on regulation inserted into the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Representative Sherrod Brown is right when he says Congress should not pass trade agreements that undermine the ability of Congress to aid public broadcasting and protect media diversity and competition.

– Beyond specific regulatory and trade fights, the media reform movement must address what ails existing media. Still top-heavy with white middle-class men, TV news departments and major newspapers remain in thrall to official sources. Their obsessive focus on crime coverage and celebrity trials leaves no room for covering the real issues that affect neighborhoods and whole classes of people. Coverage of communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, rural folks and just about everyone else who doesn’t live in a handful of ZIP codes in New York and Los Angeles is badly warped, and it creates badly warped attitudes in society. Those attitudes shape the public discourse and public policy. Thus, media reformers must support the struggle to expand access to the airwaves and to assure that independent and innovative journalists, writers and filmmakers have the resources to create media that reflect all of America.