Corporate Media Control and Media Reform Struggles - A Presentation at Third Unitarian Church, Chicago
The following is the full originally planned speech given on "Corporate Media Control and Media Reform Struggles" at Third Unitarian Church, Chicago. An abridged version of the presentation was what was actually given at the church because of time constraints, but the full remarks deserve to be shared, and so I post the full presentation here.
The author Stephen Pinker aims high in his book The Language Instinct when he writes in the introduction of his book: "I want to debauch your mind with learning". And I hope that this presentation will likewise provide a debauchery of learning. The title of this presentation is "Corporate Media Control and Media Reform Struggles", so I will provide a capsule history of media in the United States, focusing on the corporate control of media in the United States and the struggles to counter that, running through the present day, even alluding to events that occurred last month. The presentation is divided roughly by medium: print and newspapers, the telegraph and telephone, movies, radio, television, what I call "cross-media concentration", and the internet, with some summarizing remarks at the end. I will keep a roughly chronological flow in this presentation though I reserve the right to time travel, jumping on occasion from the past to the future and back again.
But even in a capsule history, it's quite possible that you may find a lot of what I have to say overwhelming, perhaps in the sense of feeling helpless in the light of seemingly unending corporate control across generations, but also that my presentations have an all-you-can-eat approach to facts and details. The point is not to dazzle you with my knowledge of media and history, nor is the point to make you feel helpless in the face of a seemingly unbeatable foe. The point is to share a sampling of the work on struggling for a better media in the United States in the hopes of inspiring you to join in this work and empowering you with this story, especially given the central role media play in all struggles for a better tomorrow and the successes that we have won, with hopefully more to come. Some of what's here might be familiar; much of what I have to say will probably be unfamiliar to most of you, but I will be more than happy to elaborate on whatever points. With everything what I say today, I can go into MUCH greater detail; just see me after class. Moreover, I'm making this presentation available on the internet in both written and audio forms for subsequent review and sharing on my website at www.szcz.org
We begin our story with the founding of the first national media network in the United States, though many people today don't consider it a media resource, yet it was incredibly critical for forging an open and diverse discourse in the early United States for the better part of 70 years. I'm referring to the post office. Most of the post office's traffic before 1840 was newspapers; the percentage of postal traffic that was newspapers grew from 70% in 1794 to over 90% in 1832. Indeed, in the early days of the American republic, it was given that a democratic society required as wide a realm of discourse, and that the post office should be subsidized by the government to encourage that discourse. Some even thought that all postal traffic should be free, but a relatively modest tax was implemented to fund the post office subsidy. Indeed, many social justice movements of the early 19th century, including the growing abolitionist movement, credited these post office subsidies for their growth of their own efforts. That the government subsidized the relatively open medium of the post office lies in stark contrast to the history of the telegraph, which we'll discuss in a moment.
For much of the 19th century, in the larger American cities, a great many newspapers were published, making for a vibrant media scene. A city the size of St. Louis circa 1880 had as many as ten daily newspapers, and the barriers to entry were comparatively low so that it was possible for new newspapers to launch and succeed. I remember seeing a presentation some years back about Chicago newspapers circa 1910, and which showed a sampling of five Chicago Socialist newspapers published in Polish, and that's just the narrow subset of Chicago, socialism, and the Polish language, never mind other cities, other languages, other political points of view. Indeed, one of the most popular national newspapers of a left persuasion, a Socialist newspaper from Kansas called Appeal to Reason had two million subscribers at its peak. But the newspaper industry would face a change -- the involvement of commercial advertising, and the concomitant introduction of nonpartisan reporting. With the reliance on commercialism, the costs for maintaining a newspaper rose, reliance on sources of wealth grew as did corruption and outright lying, and newspapers that couldn't find those sources of wealth or refused to swim in this sordid sea wound up shutting down. Most American cities by 1920 became one or two newspaper towns. (Indeed, there are now fewer than twenty cities in the United States with more than one regular daily newspaper.)
There's a big connection with the 19th century newspaper industry and the telegraph, which we'll see momentarily. The modern electric telegraph, most everyone knows was patented in 1844 by Samuel Morse. What's not so well known was that Morse was a professional portrait painter whose wife Lucretia had died and was buried while he was away on a business trip. Shortly thereafter, Morse threw himself into the then-infant field of telecommunications, and with the help of advances in the science of electricity and other technical advances, was able to perfect the single-wire telegraph, allowing for far faster communications than before. But the fate of its widespread use, unlike that of the post office, wasn't slated for nationalization by an indifferent Congress in 1844 and the growing power of capital in 19th century America, exemplified by the burgeoning railroad industry. Instead, the telegraph was itself subject to market whims, at first with more than 50 different telegraphy firms, which ultimately consolidated into a single firm, Western Union. The 19th-century robber baron Jay Gould wound up through some clever stock maneuvers, seized control of Western Union.
Critics had feared that a monopoly of the telegraph could lead to unfair advantages in stock transactions. But another problem regarding corporate control of the news also would emerge, starting from a coalition of five New York newspapers who pooled their funds in 1846 to share the costs of telegraph time for the transfer of urgent news. This group called itself the New York Associated Press, which grew over time to encompass the country, dropping the "New York" part of its name, becoming the Associated Press and working out an exclusive arrangement with Western Union and becoming the only newswire service in the United States.
Perhaps the most noted example of the power that Western Union held regarding news in the presidential election of 1876; Western Union, a pro-Republican company, supported Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden. Western Union telegrams reported uncertainty in the electoral votes in three states, though the popular vote suggested a Tilden win. But with newspapers and public sentiment following the Western Union lead, Hayes held the upper hand, and ultimately won the White House. A later Senate investigation (headed by a Republican) found that the key telegrams were never reviewed by Democrats but ultimately returned to Western Union and destroyed. Tilden supporters would punnily referring to the AP as the "Hayessociated Press".
From 1880 to 1910, calls for nationalization of the telegraph began to grow, as part of the general populist movement efforts in the United States around the same time, raising calls to break the "infernal bondage" between the AP and Western Union. In response, some seventy Congressional bills were introduced between 1866 and 1900, calling for telegram reform, usually calling for nationalization. Western Union lobbyists defeated all seventy of those bills. And the newspapers, especially those aligned with the AP, refused to accede to the question of nationalizing the telegraph, understandably so given the dependence on the telegraph for news. Around the same time, a new medium, one not primarily restricted to big newspapers, stock traders, and other effete groups, would extend to a greater portion of the population than the telegraph ever did. That medium ironically enough stemmed directly from attempts to advance the telegraph, one of whose pioneers was a professor of phonetics at Boston University named Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell (and particularly Bell's father-in-law Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who had far more of a nose for business than Bell did) wound up winning the patent wars for an advance for what was referred to as the harmonic telegraph -- the idea of transmitting multiple different telegraph signals, or "harmonics", across a single wire. But those harmonics instead also carry individual sound frequencies, like those of the human voice, and became known as the "telephone". By 1877, the Bell Telephone Company and its successor in the wake of a number of intervening mergers, the American Telephone and Telegraph company (or AT&T;) would become itself a behemoth thanks to the monopoly control of that patent.
But after the telephone patent expired in 1894, many many aspiring telephone groups and cooperatives entered the fray -- the independents as they were called, would go on to expand telephony service across the country, particularly in rural environments which were often ignored as not being enough of a lucrative market. The independents held some 40% of the overall telephone market at their peak and were starting to do something that AT&T; didn't do -- innovate. By 1908, AT&T; was in trouble. That's when AT&T; president Theodore Vail (whose career ironically included a stint in the post office) began to act -- he deployed a PR offensive with a slogan touting "universal service", buying out some of the independents, and "sublicensing" with others for technical preference. That, and a growing unease with "dual service" (note that the phone lines by AT&T; and by the independents were incompatible, thus requiring two phone lines for each household) helped to turn the tide. By 1920, AT&T; controlled 66% of the market, by 1932, it held 81% of the market and wouldn't look back until the 1980s when an antitrust settlement finally broke the AT&T; monopoly.
During the early 20th century, both the growing telephone industry and shrinking telegraph industry were facing another rival that neither industry could do -- show moving pictures. The movie environment in the days of the silent film era from 1900 to about 1920 was markedly wide open, where neighborhood theaters sprouted up and the cost of producing short films was rather low. Thus, many people entered the game of producing and showing films, including a great many political activists making films related to one or another cause, including labor activism, women's suffrage, and political radicalism.
When I was in college, I read the book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and I thought to myself that maybe someday someone should make a movie based on the book. It so happens that someone did make a movie based on the book; the All Star Feature Corporation made a silent film adaptation of the book The Jungle -- in 1914! -- which even featured a cameo by Upton Sinclair himself. If you're hoping to see the film today on DVD or something, forget it; there are no copies of the full film known to exist. But it's an exemplar of the range of films available to filmgoers about 100 years ago. To be sure, nearly half of all films during this time were melodramas, but many political films, even of a very radical character, were certainly part of the landscape.
The first factor in the change of this environment was the Edison Trust, an effort to monopolize control of American film stock. But the Edison Trust was stymied by independent film efforts, the growth of new longer feature films, and the continuing growth of theaters to show those films. The victory over the Edison Trust was total; not only was the trust ultimately terminated by a court in 1918, by 1925 all of the companies comprising the trust went out of business. Yet those independents would from 1920 to 1930 become the new status quo, with an influence far greater than the Edison Trust ever held. I'm referring to the Studio System.
What became the Studio System began by an orphaned Hungarian emigre and furrier named Adolph Zukor. Zukor and his business partners opened a chain of film arcades along the East Coast, then organized a film production company (the Famous Players Film Company) then signed a distribution contract with Paramount and through various maneuvers secured control of all avenues of making movies -- production, distribution, and theaters -- far more than the Edison Trust ever held. Zukor's involvement with Paramount lasted clear through to the day he died in 1976 at the age of 103.
That formation of Paramount spurred a trend of consolidation within the film industry in the 1920s. And many of the main players in what would become the Studio System came from hardscrabble backgrounds like Zukor: Harry Warner, a founder of Warner Brothers, was an emigre clothier from Poland who got into films when a nickelodeon opened near his store and did better business than his clothing store. William Fox was another Hungarian emigre who got into textiles and sold a textile company to start his first nickelodeon. They and a handful of others like Carl Laemmle and Harry Cohn from Germany, and Louis Mayer from Russia, were among those who stood atop the eight film companies from the ensuing consolidation: the Big Five as they were known (Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (or RKO), and Loew's [the parent of MGM]) as well as three other "majors" -- Universal, Columbia, and United Artists.
As part of their effort against the Edison Trust, the independents used the production of longer feature films, which by virtue of their length, cost more and required more film. That among other factors resulted in forming barriers to entry in the film market -- films that could be produced for perhaps $1,000 in 1920 would by 1930 cost upwards of $40,000 (not to mention the new requirements for sound in films -- The Jazz Singer in 1927 cost $500,000 to produce). Plus, with the creation of elegant movie palaces by the Studio System across America, the ante for costs raised further. And labor unions and radicals simply couldn't afford to compete with such higher costs, compounded by the markedly reduced ideological range in films coming from the Studio System, meant many radical and oppositional filmmakers struggled to survive, and many did not.
Mind you, in 1928, this could have changed dramatically despite these attacks; a proposal by a movie electrician, Patrick Murphy, could have turned America's labor temples -- then about 1500 in number -- into the largest movie distribution chain in America. But labor leaders at the time were dismissive; they regarded this proposal as "secondary" to the work of "real" organizing efforts, not sympathetic with the potential of movies to inspire and encourage activism, and with labor rank-and-file not willing or able to force the matter on the table, the Studio System was triumphant (at least until the 1940s and 1950s when the Supreme Court ordered the breakup of production and theater chains). Ironically, Upton Sinclair who ran for governor of California in 1934 narrowly lost thanks to no small part because of a series of rigged newsreels produced by MGM and directed by Hollywood "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg.
It was around the same time when a new medium caught the attention of a nation and a movement for media reform struggles. The struggle over radio in the 1920s and 30s may have marked the high-water mark in media reform struggles in American history. Radio stations were once licensed by U.S. Department of Commerce, headed in the early 1920s by then Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover (who later became president). And radio in the 1920s was dominated by hundreds of nonprofits and universities. But a court ruling in 1926 invalidated all radio licenses since there was no Congressional authority to grant radio licenses, which led to a free-for-all of the radio spectrum. Congress in response hurriedly passed the Radio Act of 1927, which authorized a government commission, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), to authorize new radio licenses.
The FRC was dominated by commercial interests related to radio manufacturers and its general counsel was Tribune Corporation attorney Louis Caldwell, but there was a wide distaste for advertising on radio, and skepticism that advertising could even provide a viable funding base. Nevertheless, the FRC, joined up with the trade association of commercial broadcasting, the National Association of Broadcasters (which was founded in the Drake Hotel in Chicago in 1922), along with two incipient radio networks -- the National Broadcasting Company (the result of RCA buying AT&T;'s broadcasting properties), and the Columbia Broadcasting System (bought and nurtured by a Chicago-born cigar manufacturer's son, William Paley) -- to craft with almost no outside involvement a 1928 reallocation of radio licenses to give the choicest frequencies and strongest broadcast strengths to commercial broadcasters.
For the next seven years, a coalition of civic groups fought back, and included educators (like the Payne Fund and a coalition founded in Chicago in 1930, the National Coalition for Education on Radio), as well as organized labor (exemplified by WCFL, a Chicago radio station owned and run by the Chicago Federation of Labor) along with religious groups (exemplified by the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle of New York, better known as the Paulist Fathers, who ran their own station WLWL), all inspired by the positive potential of radio and examples of national nonprofit radio broadcasters like the BBC in Britain and the CBC in Canada.
The U.S. commercial broadcasters responded back fiercely -- undercutting the opposition, setting up front groups, granting broadcast time to politicians, seeing their audience widen while the opposition's audience shrank, winning the critical support of the newspaper industry, and defeating efforts in the early 1930s on Capitol Hill for broadcast reform. Reform efforts nevertheless continued, including a 1934 amendment which would have allotted 25% of all radio frequencies under nonprofit use and which came very close to becoming law. But the commercial lobbying blitz was able to defuse those efforts, including the use of a rigged 1934 hearing and the 1934 Communications Act which replaced the FRC with a new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and placed as sacrosanct the commercial bias of broadcasting. The coalition of civic groups unraveled, some disbanded, and the dream of national nonprofit radio was dead.
But the complaints continued and the FCC was shamed to some reform actions. Antitrust sentiment in the 1940s resulted in an FCC Report on Chain Broadcasting which led to NBC spinning off one of its radio networks to become the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). And a portion of the new FM radio band was allotted to noncommercial broadcasters; that's how the Pacifica radio network began in the 1940s by Quaker pacifist Lew Hill, and would serve as a beacon for improving radio and ultimately broadcasting. But as focus turned from radio to television (and I'll be talking a LOT about TV momentarily), the relative influence of radio shrank and radio stations starting gaining more local autonomy but still remained for the most part commercially biased.
The 1980s saw the emergence of low-power FM radio (LPFM), thanks to the reduced cost of radio broadcasting equipment, and to noted radio activists like Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer, and a blind activist, Mbanna Kantako, who used a one-watt radio transmitter to broadcast to his public housing project in Springfield, Illinois. The FCC cracked down on the burgeoning unlicensed (so-called "pirate") broadcasters. But it was too easy to start a new LPFM station and the FCC found it increasingly harder to crack down. So the FCC ultimately proposed a licensed LPFM service which passed Congress in 2000 but, thanks to a sneaky lobbyist maneuver enacted literally in the dead of night, the number of potential stations was reduced from thousands to hundreds. Nevertheless, LPFM supporters were undaunted, despite two subsequent failed attempts to restore those stolen LPFM stations over a decade of struggle, and finally, on December 18, 2010, Congress approved the long-overdue expansion of LPFM.
But radio back in the 1950s was the sideshow to the main media phenomenon -- television, a medium long hyped with positive potential. My favorite quote is that of David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC, who in 1939 said "It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation." And there was some struggle over the direction of TV, but from which industry would call the shots -- would it be the radio industry who had the leg up on one-to-many broadcasting, would it be the movie industry which was versed in the visual oervre? The public was barely involved in the decision, and the result was shamefully corrupt: In 1946, FCC chair Charles Denny (a Democrat!) pushed for a plan giving near-monopoly control of TV to NBC and CBS; six months later Denny left the FCC to become an executive and general counsel at NBC, tripling his salary.
But efforts to chip away at that monopoly control continued in the coming years, including ironically from the FCC itself. In the 1940s, the FCC proposed a strict proposal of public interest broadcast obligations called the Blue Book, which helped to lead to policies like the Fairness Doctrine which sought to break tedium of perspectives on the airwaves. Newton Minow, FCC chair under President Kennedy and Northwestern University alum and later faculty, gave a 1961 speech entitled "Television and the Public Interest" to the National Association of Broadcasters, where he decried television as a "vast wasteland." (TV producer Sherwood Schwartz later admitted to naming the S. S. Minnow from the show Gilligan's Island as a jab against Minow the FCC chair.) Minow pushed through a mandate that all TV sets receive UHF signals, thus opening the possibility for more stations. That, as well as the burgeoning social movements in the 1960s, and a critical 1967 report by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, helped break the resistance of the NAB to the establishment of public broadcasting in the U.S., resulting in the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, only 45 years after the establishment of a public broadcaster in Britain.
But the independent financing potential of public broadcasting in the U.S. was muted when a proposal to fund public broadcasting using an excise tax from the sale of TV sets wasn't included in the final act. Public broadcasting thus became the ugly stepsister to its commercial brethren, getting that programming that the commercial broadcasters can't make any money off of. Some of that potential was ultimately realized with the establishment of public access broadcasting on cable TV which did accord more independent funding and thus greater autonomy (this is of particular interest to me since it was a public access TV show in Michigan that awakened my own involvement in media and media policy). And cable TV, along with satellite television later, widened the number of ostensible TV channels available to a wider public. But concurrent with that trend there occurred another trend from about 1980 on of the shrinking of ownership across the entire media landscape -- to the point that (quoting from a USA Today article) just "seven companies -- CBS, Disney, Discovery, Fox, NBC Universal, Time Warner and Viacom -- account for about 90% of all the professionally produced video that people watch."
As we've seen, there was media concentration before the 1980s but for the most part that concentration was restricted to a small number of players within a given media industry. In the 1980s, companies started to build conglomerates across media industries, so that it wasn't just a TV producer or film studio or newspaper publisher -- it was a TV producer and film studio and newspaper publisher, and much more besides. The raison d'etre was, as usually is, profit -- more profit can be generated by producing content once and then redistributing it across all one's channels, so then a race was underway to consolidate media across industries, aided by zealots in government subscribing to supposed "free market" principles but instead aiding and abetting the greatest media monopolies heretofore seen.
The greatest chronicler of this new consolidation trend was Ben Bagdikian, former editor at the Washington Post and dean emeritus at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. In 1983, Bagdikian published a book called The Media Monopoly which noted that just 50 companies commanded the lion's share of American media and that the trend was to consolidate further, perhaps to as few as six media companies. The book was republished in updated editions seven times in the next two decades to chronicle the continuing changes in the American media landscape; by the time the seventh edition came out in 2004, Bagdikian was wrong in one respect: it didn't get down to as few as six media companies, in that book he listed just five.
Bagdikian and many others also chronicled the negative consequences of such concentration: increased commercialism, less journalism, less independence from the bottom-line, more conflicts of interest, fewer diverse perspectives, and even life-or-death situations, as was the case in the city of Minot, North Dakota, which in 2002 saw a chemical leak from a train derailment cause hundreds to be hospitalized and when local police tried to get on the radio to alert the public, they found six of the seven Minot radio stations controlled from a single Clear Channel office which was unstaffed at the time of the leak.
The response to this trend of media concentration crystallized arguably the most dynamic, successful, and inspiring media reform effort in a generation: the media ownership uprising of 2003. The trend towards greater media concentration was critically enabled at the federal government, spurred to greater heights (or depths, as it were) through the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the FCC of George W. Bush, headed for four years by market zealot Michael Powell (son of former secretary of state Colin Powell). The Telecom Act required the FCC to review its media ownership rules every four years, and in 2002 the FCC to little fanfare announced that it would likely amend a number of critical media ownership rules in part of its continuing effort to "deregulate" the media, which would have made the trend of consolidation seen thus far look tame by comparison. And with key pro-big-media Republicans in key points in the government, the major media virtually mute so as to cash in big, and a considerable history of media reformers' hopes dashed from one medium to the next, the fix looked to be in.
It was this fight where I first cut my teeth on media reform struggles, but what happened wasn't just me and didn't just happen overnight -- it was the efforts of scholars and activists, well before I joined the fray, going back decades. But I arrived when this fight found a moment to crystallize. Small groups throughout the country including here in Chicago started organizing; five of us in Chicago met a week before the FCC announced its media ownership rule revisions. This coincided with the formation in Chicago of the group Chicago Media Action and efforts like a Halloween walking tour of Chicago, helping to organize an unofficial hearing at Northwestern University, sending a team to Richmond, Virginia, to the only public FCC hearing on the matter, getting on CAN TV and in community newspapers to discuss the issue, and of course using the internet, without which the effort to stop the FCC may never have happened at all.
After months of nonstop outreach and activism, what did it amount to? On its face, the FCC nevertheless to little surprise voted 3-2 on June 2, 2003 to its proposed rule changes. But the public outcry was palpable, breaking FCC public comment records by orders of magnitude, as the issue ranked as the second-most popular news issue of 2003 (trailing only the launch of the War in Iraq), and the corporate media were caught flat-footed, facing losing votes in Congress and on September 3, 2003, an emergency court order stayed the FCC decision, just one day before the rules were slated to go into effect. That court order remained in effect for seven years, and it's no exaggeration to say that it prevented a bad media system from becoming far worse. The Tribune company, which gambled its future on the media ownership rules, whined on its editorial pages over the outcome. Indeed, that stay indirectly resulted in a shareholder revolt forcing a change of ownership leading to local billionaire Sam Zell taking charge and later running the company into bankruptcy -- a situation the company finds itself mired in more than two years later.
But the whole episode was revealing and inspiring. Activism works, even on something as seemingly abstruse as media policy where seemingly few outside of those who stand to profit from such policies seem to understand or care about such policies. The key to victory has been, ironically enough, the very thing that make the media unique on this issue -- they're the only ones who command the ability to debate their own politics. As a result, those politics are immensely corrupt, so bringing wider awareness to them, by any and every means at your disposal, turns out to be an effective tactic (sunlight really is the best disinfectant).
The lessons learned by media reform activists in 2003 came into play again in 2006 during what's called the Net Neutrality wars over the internet. That struggle came in the wake of a number of policy decisions involving the internet -- including what some scholars deem to be a key 1990 invitation-only gathering of government and tech firms at Harvard University which apparently resulted in the government privatizing part of its internet backbone. The Michael-Powell-led FCC took another step in 2002 by reclassifying the internet in such a way that weakened common carriage provisions of internet content. And when a court challenge to undo that reclassification failed at the Supreme Court in 2005 in the famed Brand X case, corporate ISPs salivated at the chance to pass legislation in their favor to establish a "two-tiered" internet as it's called.
That legislation came in 2006, entitled the COPE Act, and not only would have changed the internet as we knew it, it would also irreparably affected public access television through the establishment of a single national cable franchise. The bill sailed through the House, aided to no small extent by Illinois' own Bobby Rush, the bill's first Democratic co-sponsor (who it was reported got a $1 million gift from SBC to establish a community internet center in his district -- a center that as far as I know has yet to be built nearly five years later). Nevertheless, awareness of what was going on started to build and widen, mostly using the internet and this newfangled technology called "blogs". Plus, protests were gaining more and more attention, including a national series of protests in May 2006 which began in Chicago called the National Day of Outrage.
The house passed the COPE Act, but when it got to the Senate, internet freedom advocates with the wind at their backs were able to egg some Senators on to ask critical questions about the COPE Act, which led to a famous rambling response by the Senate's lead shepherd on telecom policy, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, in which he called the internet a "series of tubes". Note that Stevens actually achieved his goal -- he got the COPE Act out of committee in the Senate, yet the PR fiasco of his remarks made the legislation too volatile to bring up to a full Senate vote, and the COPE Act died through inaction in the end. Remember though that we saw the same recipe for victory with the COPE Act as we did in 2003 with the FCC's media ownership rules -- building public awareness to build public involvement when public awareness and public involvement are lacking, and letting the chips fall where they may.
In 2006, then Illinois Senator Barack Obama noted his support for network neutrality, which he reiterated on the campaign trail for the White House. In 2009, then President Obama appointed former telco executive Julius Genachowski chair of the FCC and tasked with approving a network neutrality bill, particularly since the FCC lost its authority to enforce network neutrality in March 2010 after the FCC tried to enforce network neutrality against Comcast in 2007 and Comcast sued and won to overturn the agency's authority. And just last month, on December 21, 2010, the FCC implemented a net neutrality rule, but one which has been roundly criticized as being too weak and full of loopholes. The struggle on this will continue, as it always does.
So now that I have debauched your mind with learning, what are some of the "big picture" points that can be raised? Let me mention five lessons.
Lesson Number One: The problems with the media that people complain about are problems are nothing new. Consolidation of the media, the creeping influence of commercialism, exclusion of whole areas of debate and of communities to have a say, people were worrying about this in 1869 as they were in 2011.
Lesson Number Two: American media don't just fall from the sky. They're the result of a number of factors -- most critically, the policies that help to shape the media. While the major media would like you to believe that the media spring from "natural" processes, there's nothing natural about them; they're often very bitterly fought.
Lesson Number Three: People can affect those policies, and I'm not referring to high-paid well-connected lobbyists -- everyday normal people can affect those policies. Indeed, a number of defeats that we had seen in points of the media reform struggles were by narrow margins and if things had gone slightly differently those losses could have been wins. On the other hand, a number of reform wins that we can claim, especially in recent years, came when those efforts had no right to do so, but because people were willing to do the work in organizing, outreach, smart planning, and in a word, getting involved. The more people get involved in shaping those media, the better our chances for success.
Lesson Number Four: Don't dismiss the power of media and media policy in whatever activist work you are interested in; very often, the connections are just begging to be made. That labor leaders who dismissed Patrick Murphy's proposal to turn America's labor temples into a movie distribution chain were wrong: media work is real work. Indeed, so many social justice efforts hinge on public awareness and involvement for their success, so media work may be as real as any issue ever is.
Lesson Number Five: We have to work to changed institutions that affect media but aren't media. We seem to be stuck between two obsolete institutional frameworks that have affected media and much else for centuries -- a single government, the state, in the political sphere, and a single market, spawning corporations, in the economic sphere. Much of the struggle for a better media have meant struggling in one, sometimes both, spheres. In order to ensure a better media, and much else besides, those institutions must be changed, at the very least rethought. There has been a rich tradition of thinking on this front, and a great many new theoretical developments, much of which has been maligned as heretical understandably by those with power. But I think that a better media requires better political and economic institutions. What those might look like, how the media would look and operate in that front, and how such institutions can be achieved fall outside of the scope of this presentation. But we do ourselves no favors to ignore the question forever; indeed, by tackling this, we may well be on our way to far greater successes tackling corporate media control and winning in media reform.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions and comments.