November 7, 2009

Pushing the First Domino: Remarks at Media Democracy Day (Chicago) - November 7, 2009

This week marks seven years since the founding of the group I'm representing today, Chicago Media Action (CMA). A fuller recounting of CMA's history is online at, but one common theme to many CMA campaigns is I what like to refer to as "pushing the first domino". You can stand dominos on end in lines where a push of a single domino causes one domino after another to fall, and I think that is emblematic of a lot of CMA's work in the sense that we have taken media policy issues that were and are important yet not very widely known, even among activists, and worked to help raise their awareness. The hope is that increased popular awareness can lead to increased popular involvement at key points in media policy work, particularly when media policy on the whole tends away from public awareness and involvement.

This domino metaphor fails in one crucial respect. It's pretty easy to push a single actual domino. But pushing that first domino on media issues is pretty hard, since it can take a lot of effort to get even potential allies up to speed on media issues. Luckily, that has improved dramatically in the past seven years, and not a moment too soon, since we all face an historic opportunity in what media scholar Bob McChesney has termed a "critical juncture". A "critical juncture" is a rare and brief period in a society where it's possible to dramatically change the institutions that produce media, far more possible than outside a critical juncture. Critical junctures occur when any two of the following three phenomena occur at once:

1. There is a revolutionary new communications technology that undermines the existing system.
2. The content of the present media system is seen as illegitimate and discredited.
3. There is a major political crisis where the existing order is no longer working and there are major movements for social reform.

If we have all three of these phenomena at once, you not only have a critical juncture but one with a much higher potential for setting institutions that provide better media. So, do we have a critical juncture with all of these criteria?

There is a revolutionary new communications technology that undermines the existing system: the internet. The content of the media system is arguably seen as illegitimate and discredited. And there is a major political crisis: The financial system imploded over the past 16 months, affecting whole industries (including media) and whatever remains is propped up through massive government bailouts.

Are there major movements for social reform? The answer seems to be "maybe", considering the activism on, you name it: health care, the environment, foreign policy, the economy, and even media. Are they "major"? It depends on your definition; I think the definition should be: do we even have to debate the question? If we have to, the answer is "no, they're not major". If not, we have to work until a debate of the question is unnecessary, but there is reason for hope. So I would like to now list six media policy fronts that I expect to be spheres of work in the coming years, perhaps for CMA and hopefully for everyone here, to improve the odds for building those major movements.

1. Establish net neutrality. Congress and the FCC are poised to implement into law policies to preserve the principle of non-interference of content by internet service providers, or "net neutrality". Comcast, AT&T;, and Verizon will certainly lobby hard against it, but the momentum is on the side of the angels this time. But we have to keep at it.

2. Improve radio. It's very likely that Congress will pass the Local Community Radio Act, which coupled with upcoming FCC windows in high-power radio are poised to improve radio by expanding the number of locally responsive radio channels across the country. Odds are good on this front as well, but we have to keep the ball rolling.

3. Defend public access television. Access channels like Chicago's CAN TV are under threat by state video franchises over the past five years, which removed local control and local funding of cable franchises, ostensibly to reduce prices and increase competition but which do neither. There is momentum, including legislation introduced by Tammy Baldwin, to help turn this around, but more work is quickly needed lest we see outlets like CAN TV disappear. (And we've already seen a number of public access outlets already disappear.)

4. Establish non-profit journalism. Some seeds for this are being sown now, with non-profit journalism efforts like ProPublica and Democracy Now! But we can draw on nonprofit media efforts from overseas, and especially with a mismanagement crisis plaguing the American newspaper industry, the time is ripe for further efforts.

5. Expand activist efforts into other social and media spheres. The main motivation for founding U.S. network media was to cover boxing and the World Series, and sports remains a cash cow for major media. Also, the domestic video game industry now draws higher annual profits than Hollywood. But there are negligible activist efforts on sports media, the video games industry, and other such spheres long ignored by progressives. There are some incipient efforts, like those of the group Games For Change and sports columnist Dave Zirin, but we have to expand work on these fronts.

6. Establish public sector broadcasting. Commercial television broadcasting profits have dramatically fallen in the past year, to the point where major media outlets have begun questioning the idea of even continuing broadcast TV. The beginning of the end may happen soon: Comcast is currently in talks to acquire NBC Universal, and with NBC in fourth place in the ratings, Comcast if it completes the buyout could make NBC just another cable channel. And if Comcast does that, CBS might soon follow. The end result: what's been called "free TV" might disappear altogether in the coming decade, so anyone in America who watches TV would have to pay for it. But this fact can be the lynchpin of a nonprofit TV sector in America: After all, we're paying for TV, so why shouldn't we have our money go to broad-based public service broadcasting in the United States and have more of a say in our media, rather than to private unaccountable fiefdoms in the cable, satellite and telecom industries?

These are the stakes. Who will organize around these realms better in days, weeks, and months ahead? The more people get involved, the better our chances.

Thank you.