November 6, 2011

The Leading Media Democracy Stories of 2011

These are the prepared remarks for the presentation I gave at Media Democracy Day 2011 at Human Thread in Chicago.

This is a list of what I deemed to be the most significant media-reform-related stories of the past year. For our purposes, I'll define "the past year" to include the time since Media Democracy Day 2010 in early November 2010. There are nine main stories in all ordered roughly by the amount of attention they've received, from most popular to least.

One. Occupy Wall Street. The typical corporate template for covering left grassroots activism is to ignore it completely unless and until they grow too big to ignore, then belittle those efforts, thus dismissing those efforts in the broader public mind. Often, left grassroots efforts have too short a shelf-life to respond back so that approach usually works, but Occupy Wall Street didn't have that usual expiration date. The New York Times coverage of Occupy Wall Street, for example, saw the paper ignoring the story in its initials set-up and early weeks, then craven dismissal, but then coverage of protest continued, galvanized three times in the wake of three police attacks, followed by an op-ed of support, at the same time dozens -- and by now thousands -- of sister Occupy efforts sprung up nationwide. Occupy Wall Street efforts showed that in gaining media coverage, which can make or break many activist efforts, persistence pays off.

Two. Hackergate -- the resurgence of a six-year-old scandal where media owned by Rupert Murdoch got caught in voicemail espionage. In past years, that espionage was directed at celebrities, politicians, and Britain's Royal Family, but the story broke on July 3rd by the not-for-profit Guardian newspaper that the Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid hacked into and deleted voicemails from Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl murdered in 2002. The scandal shook the British establishment with whiplash speed: News Of the World was shut down in two weeks, at least thirteen officials connected with the scandal were arrested, and a proposed Murdoch buyout of Britain's largest pay-TV provider, BSkyB, was called off. Stateside, at least three official investigations in the U.S. of Murdoch properties are now underway, and at least one whistleblower has come forward to allege that voicemail and other espionage is also occurring at Fox News. Coverage of this scandal in the U.S. corporate media, while present has arguably been muted, perhaps since that similar shenanigans under Murdoch could also occur under other corporate media giants. And with talk that the broadcast licenses of Murdoch-owned TV stations could be in jeopardy, this is one story the corporate media are loathe to mention. We should do what we can to keep this story alive.

Three. AT&T's proposed buyout with T-Mobile, and the Department of Justice lawsuit to block the merger. When AT&T announced the proposed buyout in March, which would merge the second and fourth largest cellphone companies in the U.S, many thought the fix looked to be in. But AT&T made a number of missteps which media activists found, including AT&T getting caught in buying the support from a number of prominent national groups, and a key leak of AT&T internal correspondence. The usually pliant Department of Justice filed suit in August, which many analysts think has all but scuttled the merger even in the unlikely event the DOJ loses its suit.

Four. The Comcast buyout of NBC Universal, and the Baker controversy. In January, after a 13-month review, Comcast was able to win its controversial buyout of NBC Universal. But the glamour of the merger began to fade in May, when one of the approving FCC commissioners, Meredith Atwell Baker, resigned from the FCC to take a job as the head lobbyist of Comcast. As blatant as this seems, it's par for the course; FCC commissioners almost always leave the commission to take high-powered jobs in the corporate media apparatus; in April, former FCC chair Michael Powell became president of the NCTA, the main commercial cable TV lobby. Comcast and the cable industry has seen the number of cable TV subscriptions shrink. That, and the lackluster ratings of NBC has invoked the old saying "Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it".

Five. The formal death of the Fairness Doctrine. In 1987, the FCC announced it would no longer enforce the policy requiring broadcasters to break the tedium of views on broadcast radio and TV -- the Fairness Doctrine. But the law remained on the books, at least until August when the FCC, as part of a formal purging of a number of obsolete rules, formally removed the Fairness Doctrine from the books. While the Fairness Doctrine has been controversial, and may not have done its job as well as was intended, the emergence and growth of right-wing talk radio was possible once the Fairness Doctrine was out of the way, and efforts to restore its enforcement was discussed in Congress in recent years. A restoration of the Doctrine or something like it is unlikely to undo the damage that was done, but its dissolution highlights the corporate hammerlock on FCC policy in this country, and the fight for public views is one worth pursuing.

Six. The Net Neutrality roller coaster ride. The FCC in December finally passed a net neutrality bill, but one which has been criticized as brittle and full of loopholes, and doesn't extend net neutrality to wireless. Big ISPs promised and delivered a lawsuit which challenged the FCC's authority. Media reform groups like Free Press and the Media Access Project also sued the FCC claiming that the FCC didn't go far enough. And in the worst of all possible worlds, all of the net neutrality lawsuits -- six of them, for and against -- were consolidated into a single lawsuit, and a lottery was set up to assign which circuit court of appeals the combined challenges would be heard. The winning circuit, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in DC, is a very-pro-corporate court that, as I once wrote, "is full of pro-corporate hacks cleverly disguised as judges." Plus, as soon as next week, Congress may take up the question of a resolution of disapproval against net neutrality in a vote that's expected to be close. We'll continue struggling on this front but hopes for the short term on this don't look very good.

Seven. The Local Community Radio Act. At Media Democracy Day 2010, Shawn Campbell from the Chicago Independent Radio Project referred to the Act and said there was a chance it might pass. It did pass, and the story of its passage is inspiring; it showed that a grassroots lobbying effort can defeat even a well-connected, well funded, pro-corporate lobby. Radio Summer launched this past year, encouraging local groups nationwide to start their applications for LPFM radio stations to be ready when the filing window opens, probably sometime next year. That's not to say that it's all smooth sailing ahead, but some very big obstacles have been won, and not a moment too soon; Clear Channel communications announced in the past two weeks that they're laying off perhaps a fifth of their staff and consolidating resources further; in some cities, there soon won't be ANY staff running Clear Channel radio stations.

Eight. Advances in supporting public access television. A study released this past summer found that more than 100 public access cable television centers across the US have closed down due to state cable franchising laws going back to 2005. Efforts are underway at the federal level to overturn those laws. American Community Television, a new lobby on behalf of public access centers, has set up a single goal for itself -- passing legislation to overturn all those state franchising laws and restore local control and local funding to public access television. ACT earned a big win back in May; the model legislation, the Community Access Prevention Act (the CAP Act), has now been formalized, the first step on its way to law. We should do what we can to help, and quickly. On the local front, CAN TV is in the middle of once-a-decade contract negotiations with Chicago's servicing cable companies, and is currently at an impasse with RCN. I urge you to contact RCN and demand that they support CAN TV.

Nine. A big win in the media ownership wars. In 2007, then FCC chair Kevin Martin overturned a number of media ownership rules, which was sued in court. There was hope for a win on this front; the 2003 attempt by then FCC chair Michael Powell which engendered a firestorm of protest was rebuffed in the courts. Back in July 2011, the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia rendered its verdict. Corporate media attorneys outnumbered the attorneys for media reform activists by a ten-to-one ratio, but lost again. The 2007 attempt by the FCC to water down existing media ownership rules was struck down again. Unfortunately, it may be too late. We're now seeing the effects of what's called "covert consolidation", where TV stations are outright sharing content, sometimes whole reports, and laying off staff as a result. In September, I took part in a conference call involving folks in Peoria, IL, and Rochester, New York, whose two main local TV providers were sharing content in TV stations in both cities and laying off workers in both cities; in one case, one employee in Rochester working since 1975 was recently laid off in this covert consolidation wave. This will be the next terrain of struggle: to prevent these corporations from wriggling off the hook.

In sum, it's been a big year, with hopefully more to come. There have been more advances than setback for a change, and a bit of hope for a better future. I encourage you to stay involved and stay informed, and if there's anything I can do to help, let me know.