There are very few epiphanal experiences in one's life, but last weekend, I had one, when I attended the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis.
The event, staged every 18 months by the organization freepress, brings together leading media experts from the fields of journalism and politics to give presentations on a variety issues related to the dangers posed by a small handful of large corporations controlling the flow of information to the public. The concern is that since these media conglomerates (often referred to simply as "Big Media") are not primarily concerned with serving the public interest, but instead take as their marching orders the maximization of profits and the maintenance of its influence over the government, citizens are deprived of a meaningful flow of information on which to base important decisions, such as who to vote for and what policies to support.
As much as Fox News would have you believe otherwise, freepress is a nonpartisan organization, and the conference did not allow the endorsement of any political party or candidate. Surely, most of the attendees had a progressive bent to their politics, but that says more about the liberal and conservative ideologies and how they view the battle over whether government should be serving corporations or the people, than it does about any partisan intentions of freepress. I'm not sure Howard Dean or any other Democratic Party leader would have been happy with the remarks of many of the speakers and questioners at the panels and presentations. There was a constant current of healthy skepticism that a Democratic Congress working with a Democratic president would actually embrace the steps necessary to enact real change in the media world.
In fact, the conference was all about getting past the petty partisan bickering exhibited by the Fox Newses of the world and concentrating on important media issues that affect the American democratic process. That didn't stop Bill O'Reilly from slamming Bill Moyers and Dan Rather for speaking at the conference. In fact, when an O'Reilly producer tried to ambush Moyers as he was leaving, the veteran journalist showed why he is so revered as he turned the tables on the poor sap, winning the confrontation by a clear knockout. And it was all caught on tape. (You can watch raw footage of the whole thing here, and Keith Olbermann did a fun little piece on it, which you can see here. I recommend the Olbermann version.)
What's the big deal about Big Media controlling what we see and hear? Well, coincidentally, shortly after arriving home from the airport last night, I turned on "The Daily Show," only to see Jon Stewart do a story on this very issue. You can watch the relevant clip here:
In a nutshell, Stewart notes (far more comically than I ever could) that a U.S. Senate committee released a report last week that found that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other high-ranking administration members in the run-up to the Iraq war "distorted the facts, or said things that were not supported by the facts, [or] said things they knew or should have known were not true," and yet, the mainstream media barely covered it. It didn't make the CBS or ABC evening news telecasts, and didn't appear on the home pages of CNN.com or FoxNews.com. NBC mentioned the report's existence without providing a single detail.
At the conference, I saw excerpts from the film "War Made Easy," which is based on a book by media critic Norman Soloman, who spoke on a panel. The documentary shows in stark detail how the mainstream media did nothing to challenge Bush administration assertions about Iraq during the critical period leading up to the war in an effort to protect their bottom lines. A series of news clips showed how one reporter after the other parroted the Pentagon's talking points without challenging them in the least. None of this should be surprising in light of the New York Times report on April 20 that the Pentagon had trained retired military officials to pose as unbiased experts on news shows in the run-up to the war.
Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, in his recently released book, made the same point, saying the media was complicit, by not investigating the White House's claims, in the administration's efforts to deceive the American public into getting behind the war.
That is why the timing was so perfect to see the Stewart piece on the night I arrived home from the conference. The decision on whether or not to go to war is one of the most morally and politically difficult choices a nation has to make. Citizens are being asked to send their sons and daughters into harm's way. Thousands could be killed, tens of thousands could be wounded, and hundreds of thousands could have their lives disrupted (financially, psychologically, etc.), sometimes beyond recovery. All of which actually happened in Iraq. And the nation's reputation and place in the world, really the very nature of what a country stands for, was at stake.
So the media's failure to challenge the government's use of false information to trick the American people into supporting the war in Iraq is indefensible, from the point of view of maintaining a viable democracy. And the reason that Big Media failed in this regard is directly related to the the flow of information being limited to a few sources, all of whom are financially entangled with the government.
Iraq was only one glaring example of the perils of media consolidation. One speaker discussed how when 1,200 radio stations dropped the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves after the trio's lead singer said she was ashamed that the president was from Texas, those 1,200 stations were owned by only two entities. Another speaker told the story of a chemical factory explosion in Minot, N.D., and how word about the tragedy could not be broadcast that night on any of the city's six or so radio stations, because all were owned by one or two national companies, who used canned broadcasts originating from locations well outside of Minot.
That was how the conference went. A parade of distinguished presenters, including a U.S. Senator (Byron Dorgan), members of the U.S. House of Representatives, two sitting FCC commissioners, university and law school professors, and leading journalists (such as Moyers, Naomi Klein and Dan Rather), took the stage to make the point of how important a free press is to the functioning of a democracy. Several of them noted that aside from the legal profession, the press is the only occupational field expressly protected in the Constitution.
(You can watch Moyers's rousing address here. It is also available on the freepress home page and the conference home page.)
The conference served as a call to action for me, reminding me how far things have deteriorated in this area and how important it is that citizens stand up and be heard. I was heartened at hearing about how the U.S. Senate, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, moved to overturn a decision by the FCC last year to get rid of the last shred of media cross-ownership limitation, involving owning newspapers and television stations in the same city. The House will take up the measure, and although Bush has promised to veto it, there is a chance Congress has the votes to override him. Either way, the message of the Senate was clear enough that no company has tried to make use of the new rule since the FCC promulgated it.
I started out this piece by saying that the conference was an epiphanal moment for me. Sure, I've always been concerned about issues regarding the ineffectiveness of the modern mainstream media and the insincerity of the administration. After all, I've been writing this blog for well more than a year. But the conference served so many purposes for my development, teaching me more about media reform, introducing me to the experts and the field, and, most importantly, allowing me to hone in on what the real overriding questions are in the field, not to mention the severity of the stakes, that I walked away with the knowledge that I had to stay on this issue and educate as many people as possible about it.
As I write in the coming weeks and months, I feel like I will be a new blogger. There will be the pre-conference Mitchell Bard, and the post-conference Mitchell Bard, one who is better informed and more focused. I'm sure this article won't be the last my readers hear about the 2008 National Conference for Media Reform. I think that's a good thing. In the time ahead, I hope you agree.