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Media critics with a goal in mind

COMMENTARY | June 04, 2008

The Free Press media reform group, holding its annual convention in Minneapolis this weekend, has corporate control of news organizations as a main target.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

More than 3,000 people are expected in Minneapolis this weekend for the annual National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) organized by the nonprofit  Free Press. The gathering will tackle press coverage, media policy, new media and other topics in over 70 panels. Journalists Bill Moyers, Dan Rather and Amy Goodman, Federal Communication Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist, will be among the speakers.

The major goals of Free Press are to “stop media consolidation,” secure “an Internet that is fast, accessible and open” and a “vibrant, independent and well-funded public media,” said Josh Silver, the organization’s executive director. Silver co-founded Free Press with Robert McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Nation correspondent John Nichols in 2002. 

The organization sees media consolidation as responsible for the decline of hard news, the explosion of junk news, shrinking local coverage and a continuing lack of minority and female ownership in the sector.

In the past five years, Free Press has scored several important victories against telecommunications giants and has been a fierce critic of the FCC under former chairman Michael Powell and current chairman Kevin Martin. In 2003, Free Press campaigned against FCC’s decision to increase the share of the national market that television networks could own and to lift the ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market. The FCC was overruled in federal court and last month the Senate passed “a resolution of disapproval” of the Commission’s latest attempt to eliminate the cross-ownership ban.

Free Press is perhaps best known for raising public awareness about Net neutrality. It led the SavetheInternet.com coalition that gathered a million and a half petitions to Congress and helped defeat the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006. The bill, lobbied for by AT&T and Verizon, would have allowed national cable franchising and had weak Net neutrality protections. Critics feared that the legislation would have made it easier for Internet service providers to establish “fast lanes” for some Web sites, charging extra, and to block content deemed undesirable. The bill passed the House but was defeated in the Senate following a public outcry as well as opposition from Google, Amazon.com and others in the private sector.

SavetheInternet.com was judged the best public service Web site at the 2007 Webby Awards, and its “Independence Day” video has been viewed over 560,000 times on YouTube.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, “By mobilizing the progressive left to focus on media and telecom issues, Free Press has effectively blocked some of the most-wanted issues on the corporate wish-lists.” The Bush presidency, particularly the war in Iraq and media coverage of the war, has certainly intensified calls for media reform from the left. For its part, Free Press sees media reform as a bipartisan issue. “In the policy fights, we find a lot of support from conservative groups,” said Silver. The SavetheInternet.com campaign, for example, includes the Christian Coalition of America and Gun Owners of America as well as the Feminist Majority and MoveOn.org. Free Press’s annual conference, however, “tends to lean liberal,” admitted Silver and that, in turn, “does sometimes scare away our natural allies” on the right.

Based in Washington, DC and Florence, Mass., Free Press has 500,000 people on its “e-activist” list, 8,000 individual member donors, a staff of more than 30 and annual budget is $5.5 million, according to Silver. The Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute and the Streisand Foundation are among its major funders.

Last year’s NCMR conference in Memphis was attended by more than 3,500 people and the organizers predict a similar turnout this year. [Click here for NiemanWatchdog coverage of the Memphis conference.]

“This conference is focused more on emerging technologies and the Internet” than the past ones, said Silver. “From Broadcast to Broadband,” “New Media, New Models, New Journalism” and “Spectrum 2.0: How We Use Public Airwaves to Build the Future of the Internet” are some of the panels that address the increasing importance of online independent media and the ongoing policy battles over Net regulation. According to Silver, the lack of public input in the policy debates during the early years of radio and television resulted in large corporations crafting laws that served their financial interests at the public’s expense. “Right now is that three-to-five-year policy window for the Net,” said Silver. Net neutrality advocates expect that interference by Internet service providers, such as Verizon’s decision to block Naral Pro-Choice America’s text messages last year, will increase if appropriate legislation is not passed. There are several Net neutrality bills in Congress right now, including the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007 introduced by Senators Dorgan and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and co-sponsored by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  

Silver hopes that after years of working to stop “bad” media policies, Free Press can now “push proactively rather than defensively” on Net neutrality and other issues. Along with the high-profile speakers, there will be panels on fundraising, coalition-building and media strategies on offer for the activist crowd in Minneapolis. “Free Press is building a movement,” said Silver. “The media are central to understanding and participating in every issue people care about…We can’t have a functional democracy unless we have a functional media.”

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