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Media Reform conference opens in Minneapolis

COMMENTARY | June 08, 2008

Focus in part is on charges of failure of corporate-owned media to fulfill the press’s watchdog role and on concern over threats of telecom control of Internet content, speed and pricing.

Click here for a transcript of a talk by Dan Rather and a YouTube of a speech by Bill Moyers.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

MINNEAPOLISThe three-day National Conference for Media Reform opened here Friday. Speakers wasted no time before getting to one of the group’s favorite subjects: corporate-ownership.

Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-MN), the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress, was among the opening speakers before more than 3,000 attendees at the conference organized by the nonprofit Free Press.

“With the consolidated, corporatized media, we will know something is desperately wrong with America, but we won’t have any of the details…We won’t know about the $12 billion a month being squandered in Iraq. We won’t know about the $1.6 trillion we need to revamp the infrastructure of our nation because it is crumbling after years and years of Republican neglect because they don’t like government,” said Ellison, who questioned the legitimacy of conservatism.


[Video of speeches by some of the major speakers as well as audio of the panels will be posted here as they come available. The event is also being streamed live.]  

Ellison stressed the press’s role in protecting the First Amendment and suggested that “maybe we should even incentivize good old newspapers.” He also praised media reform activists for last month’s Senate vote overturning FCC’s decision to lift the ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market. “Politicians tend to see the light when they feel the heat,” Ellison said. 

And speaking of feeling the heat, one just couldn’t get away from that Scott McClellan book. The former White House press secretary’s condemnation of the press for being too easy on and too easily manipulated by the likes of him found its way into the speech of Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press. [Click here for the transcript] “The corporate media is not a watchdog protecting us from the powerful, it is a lapdog begging for scraps,” said Silver.  

The viability of Internet to offer alternatives will depend on the outcome of the policy debates going on right now, according to Silver. In the doomsday scenario, cable companies will control content as well as speed and price, compromising the Internet’s democratizing potential. “In this high-stakes debate over the future of the Internet—the future of virtually all media—it’s either open or closed. It’s all or nothing. It is a clash between democracy and plutocracy,” said Silver. 

The crowd especially cheered the words: “The future of our media does not belong to Rupert Murdoch…The future of our media belongs to us. All of us in this room and every person across this country.”   

This year’s conference theme is “media reform begins with me” and in an Ernest Hemingway-like exercise, participants were asked to sum up their thoughts on the subject in five words. The video-montage of responses ranged from the inspiring “all power to the people” to the humorous “don’t let big media supersize” to the less-than-diplomatic “Bill O’Reilly…kiss my ass.”

Some of the highlights thus far:

  • Robert Greenwald, president of Brave New Films, focused on the Real McCain series on Youtube. One video, on Rev. Rod Parsley’s anti-Muslim statements, was picked up by the mainstream media and eventually resulted in McCain’s rejection of the pastor’s endorsement. The Real McCain series has been viewed almost two million times so far on YouTube.
  • The nonprofit Center for Independent Media is an example of how the Internet is providing a way to do investigative reporting at the local level. The organization trains bloggers in reporting skills and runs six Web sites throughout the country. Jefferson Morley, the Center’s national editorial director and a former Washington Post reporter, discussed the reporting that led to an article about a private security company Sovereign Deed LLC that received enormous financial incentives from the government to set up a disaster-response service in Michigan.

Panelists had diverging ideas about the role of activism in independent media. Political blogger Jane Hamsher sees herself as “acting between activism and journalism” and said she was drawn to the blogosphere because she saw “an organizational possibility for the left.” Greenwald thought that the technology made it possible to target different things for different audiences and noted that YouTube wasn’t interested in party affiliation. Morley, who said that “journalism has lost its way,” didn’t see himself as an activist. “My goal is not to do advocacy but to build a credible news organization…I want to be talking to people who don’t agree with me,” said Morley.

The panelists on the “Changing Role of Media Critics” saw their roles unchanged in the new media and noted the bigger tool box at their disposal.

They also applauded the liberalization of the field with the new media. What the “blogosphere has shown is that anyone can be a media critic,” said Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Boehlert said that bloggers took an interest in exposing poor journalism early on and that the immediacy of their online critiques broke the “gentlemen’s agreement” about once-in-a-while public shaming of journalists in publications like Columbia Journalism Review

A love of the media, solid research and reporting skills and an ability to explain sometimes complex concepts were listed among the qualities that make a good media critic by the panelists.   

“The main thing I’m doing is explaining the fiscal realities of the media,” said Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times. Deggans argued that blaming the ills of the media on corporate ownership is “simplistic” and noted the importance of being “accurate” when discussing the financial pressures.

Center for Media and Democracy senior researcher Diane Farsetta said that it is important for media critics not just to highlight “flawed reporting” but to expose the “vested interests” that prey on the media’s “structural weaknesses.” PR firms, for example, supply content to time-strapped reporters which is then passed off as news to an unsuspecting public. The Center for Media and Democracy runs a Web site called SourceWatch.

The issue of media activism elicited different responses. Janine Jackson, the program director at FAIR, argued that an implication of a wrong also implies that “you want to make it right.” Boehlert didn’t see activism as a problem as long as the bar for content is set high and argued that it has been set high on the left. Deggans saw his activism as being more the “journalism values that I hold dear.”

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