April 2, 2003

Report (and Thoughts from a Media Activist) on Midwest Forum on Media Ownership: April 2, 2003

Note: When I came home from this forum, I had heard word that an uncle of mine had died of a sudden heart attack. He was just 49 years old; I was one of his pallbearers.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this report are solely those of the writer, Mitchell Szczepanczyk, and do not necessarily reflect those of any groups he is or has been affiliated with.

The Midwest Forum on Media Ownership consisted of three panels: (1) Media and Democracy: The History of Media Regulation, (2) Media Input: The Effect of Media Consolidation on Access, (3) Media Output: The Effect of Media Consolidation on Programming Diversity. Each panel was followed by a question- and-answer interchange, and then by an opportunity for public comment. The entire event was taped by CAN-TV which will air the forum and will also, I'm told, make the forum available for download on the internet.

The event kicked off with a read statement of support from one of the few really left people really left in Congress, Representative Jan Schkowsky, 9th District (who gave her regards and had an assistant of hers read some remarks).

Michael Copps, FCC Commissioner and who helped to increase awareness of this issue, gave some remarks about how the FCC is trying to forge ahead with its deregulation proposal, to "let the genie out the bottle" as he put it. The problem of course is how to get the genie back into the bottle, which Mr. Copps said, you can't. Which is why these hearings and related actions are vitally important: as bad as things are regarding media quality, they're poised to get a whole lot worse.

Throughout the event, the audience of some 120 or so people appeared to be hostile to big business interest. I don't think that there was ANYONE in the entire audience who was supporting the profit rights of media conglomerates. Count that as a small victory to concerned activists and citizens who knew about (and helped organize!) the hearing and chose to come. When Michael Miner writes [scroll to the bottom] that the working press stayed home, he wasn't kidding.

The first panel, moderated by Craig Lamay of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was the smallest of the afternoon. It consisted of just two panelists: Gretchen Soderlund (University of Chicago media historian), and Steven Wildman (Michigan State University economist). Gretchen gave a capsule history of media ownership in the course of the history of the United States. Steven talked about the economics of the media, and the difficulty inherent to gauging slippery concepts like localism, diversity, and the public interest.

Steven pointed out that the intellectual framework for quantifying and specifying issues to media, like localism, diversity and the public interest, are still immature. Here's a future suggestion for media activists: We should be working to develop the maturity in these concepts and the tools; it can serve as an arguing point and a specific stick against private media interests and for popular media development.

The next panel, on media input, had six speakers. The first--Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, who in her talk told the story of how her local radio station in Maine fought tooth and cliche against Clear Channel to prevent them from buying up. Chellie's talk was immediately followed by a talk from Dave Crowl, Senior Vice President Midwest for Clear Channel Radio.

Crowl mentioned a handful of examples (probably the ONLY examples) of Clear Channel preserving and maintaining local diversity--not cancelling some local bowling shows, that sort of thing. And he prefaced each of his examples by saying that he had a "really great example" to buttress his point.

Well, in the public comment period, I had a really great example of Clear Channel's risk not just to our media environment, but as a public health risk: Minot, North Dakota, which saw a late-night chemical spill in December 2002. Clear Channel owned six radio stations and nobody was around for an hour and a half when police came by to asked them to broadcast an alert. That delay forced the hospitalization of some 300 residents who weren't notified in time.

This concern for responsive localism was echoed by the next panelist, Andy Meppen, Writer's Guild of America, who mentioned specifics of local media concerns on the East Coast. Andy was followed by Shaun Sheehan, Vice President of the Tribune Company (evil!) who said he also worked for 18 years as a lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters (double evil!).

With credentials like that, Sheehan wound up being--in my opinion--the day's biggest pinata. This quickly became apparent during the question and answer sessions and comment period. For example:

  • Sheehan said that if you don't like what the Tribune company or Clear Channel produce, you can go to someone else. The market (supposedly) accords that opportunity. But as Chellie from Common Cause noted to applause from the audience, it's hard to find an alternative because a lot of the time, there isn't one available.

  • In another exchange over the Tribune's "coverage" of the media forum itself, Sheehan defended himself by saying that it got mentioned in the business pages. To which came the reply: "That's right. In the business pages." The audience applauded.

  • I myself popped his balloon on two occasions. In the first, I asked a (somewhat vague, I'll admit) question to the panel about the trajectory that these giant media firms may take, which may include all kinds of Enronesque shenanigans. Sheehan said that financial impropriety can lead to jail time (great, you can balance the books in jail). In the second, I followed up on a passioned remark Sheehan made In his opening statement in which he accused incumbent politicians of impropriety by turning away the opportunity for free televised debates. I complicated the picture in the public comment period by saying that the corporate media lobby basically own all the politicians in Congress. Sheehan gave me a nasty look on his way out; I suspect our paths may cross again.

Sheehan was followed by Barbara Popovic, the Executive Director of CAN-TV, who mentioned that media consolidation would likely reduce the budget of CAN-TV. Interesting factoid: CAN-TV broadcasts on five channels on a total annual budget that's less than the cost of a single Super Bowl commerical.

After lunch, came the last panel of the day, one on Media Output: The Effect of Media Consolidation on Programming Diversity. Leo Henning, the VP and GM of WGEM radio and television in Quincy, Illinois, spoke about the benefits of media consolidation in Quincy. I remain skeptical; consolidation tends to put more and more media consumers in a network ghetto. Leo did put taste his shoelaces during the Q&A; when he remarked the decision for media content rests on the editors, not the owners. (I forget: Who hires the editors?)

Ed Marszewski, of Lumpen magazine and Select Media and VersionFest fame, was in my opinion the star of the panel. His forthrightness felt a bit out of place, but overall it proved to be much more of an asset than a liability. He remarked that if you have a narrow media system, you can "Kiss your democracy goodbye!" He followed up on an audience suggestion that Michael Powell's presence on the FCC Commission may prove to be a conflict of interest since his father is secretary of state (the confilct of interest involves favorable media coverage of the war). Ed offered the suggestion that citizens should work with attorneys at Northwestern University School of Law to begin impeachment proceedings.

Tom Carpenter, the National Director for AFTRA's news and broadcasting division, spoke next. As loquacious as I've been for everyone else, I must admit that I can't remember anything offhand from Tom's remarks offhand. My apologies, Tom.

Sherman Kizart of the Black Broadcasters Alliance was next. Sherman made the point that black-owned and black-run media was influential in campaigns of black politicians. Without WVON radio, there wouldn't have been a Harold Washington. (Ed followed up with this by saying that without a right-wing media machine, there wouldn't have been a George W. Bush.)

Then came Zemira Jones, president and general manager of ABC Radio Chicago, and a self-described "principled advocate of deregulation." He was the second biggest punching bag of the day, as most of the questions during the subsequent Q&A; period were addressed to him. Jones handled the most pointed questions heard that day, and he handled the questions cooly, usually but just ignoring or sidestepping the issues, among them:

Why isn't a camera crew from WLS here?
Why does Disney (which owns ABC) use third-world sweatshop labor for its products? (You won't see John Stossel touch that with a ten-foot pole.)
Why does ABC have to resort to using commericials?

To his credit, Jones offered a standing invitation to the audience to discuss these and other media issues. 190 North State St., 8th Floor. Or you can contact him electronically. Perhaps someone should organize a video shoot, perhaps create another Roger and Me. (Zemira and Me?)

Last was Jeff Holmes of Street Level Youth Media, referred to affectionately during the Q&A; by moderator Karen Young as the "quiet Beatle". Jeff's panel time was the shortest of all the panelists (he finished before his time expired). I spoke with him one-on-one after the forum ended and he struck me as knowledgeable and articulate. Perhaps not one for public speaking?

The longest question of the day was asked by the gentleman who sat right behind me asked the panel to grade the media's performance of fulfilling the FCC's mandate, from A to F. I swear it probably took about 15 minutes for all of the panelists to discuss the matter in turn and answer the question. The grades varied from A to F, depending on how corporate you were. Jones and Henning gave grades of A and B respectively. Tom gave a grade of an F, if I recall.

All in all, a most informative and uplifting afternoon. My kudos to Northwestern University School of Law and the organizers. Let's do this again after the FCC vote happens in June. We may need to.