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2007-01-12

As Thousands Gather in Memphis for National Media Reform Conference, A Look at the State of the U.S. Media

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Joe Conason, national correspondent for The New York Observer, columnist for Salon.com and head of the Nation Institute Investigative Fund.. His latest book is "It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush."

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We broadcast from Memphis, Tennessee where several thousand people are gathering for the National Conference on Media Reform. Speakers include Bill Moyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Phil Donahue, Jane Fonda, Helen Thomas and scores of others. We take a look at the state of the U.S. media with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney. [includes rush transcript]

Several thousand people are gathering here in Memphis this weekend for the National Conference on Media Reform. Speakers include Bill Moyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Phil Donahue, Jane Fonda, Helen Thomas and scores of others. The conference comes just weeks after media activists won a victory in the fight over the future of the Internet.

The telecom giant AT&T recently agreed to adhere to net neutrality–the concept that everyone, everywhere, should have free, universal and non-discriminatory access to the Internet. AT&T made the pledge as part of its efforts to win FCC approval for its merger with Bell South. The two Democratic commissioners on the FCC agreed to back the merger after AT&T’s pledge.

This year’s National Conference on Media Reform is also taking place as the FCC considers rewriting the nation’s media ownership laws to allow major corporations to purchase more radio/TV stations and newspapers.

To talk about these issues two guests join us here in Memphis:

  • Jonathan Adelstein, commissioner of the FCC. He has served on the Federal Communications Commission since 2002.
  • Robert McChesney, co-founder of the group Free Press which runs the National Conference on Media Reform. He is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Robert’s most recent book is "Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about these issues, we’re joined by two guests here in Memphis: Jonathan Adelstein, commissioner of the FCC, he’s served on the Federal Communications Commission since 2002; and Robert McChesney, the co-founder of the group Free Press, which runs the National Conference on Media Reform. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Bob McChesney’s most recent book is called Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell War, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy . We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Bob, start off by talking about the significance of this conference.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, there’s a reason why the right to assemble is in the First Amendment. It gives people extraordinary power to come together and see other people, share their concerns, talk to them, and map strategies to deal with the problems they have. And I think with media, that’s what’s happening here. We have literally 3,500 people coming from all 50 states to talk about their concerns about the decline of journalism, about corporate-concentrated power over the media system, about the commercialization of everyday life, and what we can do about it, what the policy options are, because our media system isn’t natural.

It’s not a free market system. It wasn’t ordained by the Constitution. It’s a result of policies that have been made in our name, but generally without our informed consent. And this movement is all about democratizing the policy-making process, putting sunlight on it, letting people get involved. And we think the more people that are involved in media policy-making, the more likely we’re going to have policies that serve our interests and not the interests of powerful lobbyists behind closed doors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the growth of this movement? I know this is like the third such conference now organized. Compared to the others, how do you see the growth of the movement?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: It never ceases to amaze me. And I’m a participant, and I’m amazed. I can only imagine what it looks like from the outside. The first conference was three years ago, and we blew our minds with 1,700 people coming almost out of nowhere to Madison. The second conference was 2,300 people in St. Louis. This one will be 3,500 people. Also, the entire conference will be streamed at the freepress.net website, and we’re expecting at least 100,000 or 200,000 people who will be participating online over the course of the weekend. The growth is simply tremendous.

And what’s really been striking about it — and I think that’s why we’re doing it in Memphis — this is not sort of a stereotypical cliché sort of progressive community, strictly, that’s coming out and organizing. This is all 50 states. One of the striking communities that’s going to be at this conference, that wasn’t really at the first conference, is the journalist community. There’s a crisis in journalism in this country today, as commercial interests, corporate interests, big media owners basically have said journalism doesn’t make sense to our bottom line. And working journalists across the country are alarmed at this. They’re saying, "We’ve got to do something about this," and they’re in the front ranks of this movement now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Commissioner Adelstein, obviously there has been a lot going on at the FCC recently. Could you talk a little bit about the victory that was won in terms of net neutrality and what the fault lines were on the Commission itself?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, Juan, they said it couldn’t be done. The big telecommunications companies said they couldn’t live with net neutrality. They told us they’d rather walk and not do their merger than do net neutrality. And then, all of the sudden, a miraculous thing happened. We have a three-two margin, Republican over Democrat, on the Commission. I’m one of the Democrats. The Republican member, the newest member, used to work for a trade organization that was involved in this, so he recused himself. The chairman tried to bring him back in, but when he announced that he wasn’t going to participate, lo and behold, AT&T came back to the table and said, "Let’s talk. Let’s talk tonight. Let’s talk right now." We said, "Well, let’s talk net neutrality." And all of a sudden, they were open to negotiations. We worked through the — over the holidays and Christmas, and right up until New Year’s Eve, when we got the deal cut, right before the end of the year, which was a real breakthrough on net neutrality. They actually agreed — no discrimination — from the backbone all the way to the home, which is something they said they wouldn’t do.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who are not quite that literate in this web jargon, what exactly do you mean by "net neutrality"?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: What we mean is that we’re going to preserve the open nature of the internet that has been its hallmark and what’s made it so powerful. We are going to ensure that these big companies — in this case, just one, AT&T, the only one beholden to this agreement — can’t basically change the speed at which things travel over the internet from an applications provider, like a Google, to your home, or even some small application coming out of somebody’s garage. They want to send something out, it’s going to go from that company, YouTube or wherever else, and it’s going to come right to your home without AT&T charging them or saying that ’we’re going to change those bits around,’ or you can’t get an internet phone service, because they’re going to mess it up so that it doesn’t work for you. We’re going to make sure that you can navigate wherever you want to go on the web, so that its power as a tool of the free flow of information in this country can’t be inhibited by the gatekeepers, the companies that control the pipes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There already were companies like Cisco Systems that had developed applications to be able to break the delivery systems into sort of premium, first class, second class or third class on the internet, very much like the airlines. They wanted to make the internet function that way, as well, right?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: That’s right. It would be like toll lanes on the internet, and we said there can be no toll lanes. We said that information has got to flow freely, like the interstate system: let the traffic go, let it move, no stopping, no lights, nobody goes faster than anybody else, everything moves at the speed that it should.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, Free Press participated in this negotiation. And what does it mean to say it’s for two years? I mean, AT&T, BellSouth — I don’t know if it’s a marriage forever — but they are planning to make a lot of money, and they are very big. What’s two years to them?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: In merger deals, you don’t make permanent conditions, as I understand it, so it’s always time-dated, what conditions you put on it. So it’s — two years is the condition we were able to get. That means we’ve got a two-year window now to go to Congress and force Congress to basically put this into writing, that we will not allow the big cable and telephone companies — there are only a handful now that deliver internet access to the vast majority of Americans, pushing 99%. This is basically an effort to privatize the internet, for them to say, 'We pick which websites you can see and which ones go on the dirt path,' and take away its entire public character, which is responsible for its genius and its growth.

And I think that’s our challenge now and one of the tasks of the Media Reform Conference here in Memphis. A lot of our energy is going to talking about the strategy to organize a popular campaign to absolutely demand Congress to pass a law making net neutrality forever the law of the land to keep the internet open and free, so to make the First Amendment a living document for everyone, not just for media owners.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the net neutrality issue is obviously only one of the many that you’re facing. You’ve been going all around the country with Commissioner Michael Copps and holding town hall meetings and unofficial hearings on the whole issue of the rewriting of the ownership rules that the FCC is now considering. Where is that right now?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, we went all across the country back in 2003, when the chairman, Michael Powell, tried what was the most destructive rollback of media ownership protections in the history of American broadcasting. He rolled that over us, over me and Mike Copps, on a three-two vote. And miraculously, the public responded in droves. 3 million people contacted the FCC. There was an uprising across the country. And the courts actually threw it out and sent it back to the FCC.

So now we’re back at square one. Starting from scratch, we have the opportunity to rewrite the rules. Hopefully we learned the lessons of the public uprising that we had. The law says we’re supposed to follow the public interest, not the interests of the companies that we regulate. Too often, I think, that’s forgotten in Washington. So that’s why we go out to the people, we talk to them, and we try to make sure that we operate these media companies in ways that benefit the public.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jonathan Adelstein, who is an FCC commissioner, one of two Democratic commissioners now. It’s got the full roster of five commissioners — three are Republican. And Bob McChesney, who is co-founder of Free Press, that is running this third National Conference on Media Reform. Juan is the past president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The whole issue of media consolidation and who owns the media, where people of color, women fit into that ownership?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Right now, I think the levels of ownership by minorities, including Hispanics, blacks, are at the lowest levels we’ve ever recorded in American history. The problem is that as these media companies get bigger and bigger, it gets harder for small business people, people without access to a lot of capital, to own their own outlets. And so, you see, they can’t communicate with their own communities. They can’t find that their issues of concern are addressed. They find that there’s stereotyping going on, that the kind of images that are portrayed on the news and in the programming isn’t reflective of the contributions of the African Americans to American society, or Hispanics. And we have to turn this around. We’ve got to make it so that there can be more minority ownership, so they can have their own unique voices heard. And the last thing you want to do is allow more media consolidation to let that happen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bob McChesney, Free Press recently did a report, because the FCC wasn’t tracking this. The Department of Commerce has stopped doing reports on minority ownership. And you — what was it —- in September -—

ROBERT McCHESNEY: That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: — issued a new report on the state of minority ownership.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Yeah, we did. Free Press, our research staff, put together a report. We crunched the numbers that were — the government had the data. They just weren’t dealing with it. And we discovered that, as the commissioner said, African American and women ownership of broadcast media is plummeting in this country in the past decade. I think it’s almost arguable, that you could say there’s less African American ownership in media today than there was during the Jim Crow era. I mean, we’re really at a nadir in terms of that. It’s an outrage.

And it’s part of a broader pattern, too, that I think the commissioner is wise to bring up, which is, just small ownership, local ownership is basically being wiped out in this country. And I think if the rules changes proposed by Kevin Martin, are being discussed by the FCC now, go through, we will see the end of local ownership entirely. We’re going in the exact opposite direction. We need a popular campaign to say, no, we want local owners, we want owners from minority communities in this country, we want women owners. We want a diverse ownership, because it’s a diverse country. That’s not a negotiable demand; that’s a necessary demand in a free society.

And right now, as a matter of fact, on Tuesday, January 16 is the deadline for people to make that statement to the FCC. They’re taking public input, and the deadline is coming this Tuesday. And I urge everyone that’s concerned about this issue, if you go to stopbigmedia.com — it’s the coalition website of all the community groups that care about this issue — they’ll have just one-stop shopping: you can go there, see where you go to punch in your message, send to the FCC. As the commissioner will be the first to tell you, when you get a lot of these in, it makes a huge difference, not only with the FCC, but as importantly with Congress and the courts, eventually, because these always end up in the courts.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Commissioner Adelstein, I’d like to ask you about another issue: the cable systems. Obviously, cable has become a huge force in terms of supplying entertainment and news to the American people. But there’s been a big battle now, as the phone companies get into delivering video service that the cable systems want to get out from under all of these municipal agreements, where they have to provide certain public service channels to local municipalities and to local public interest groups. What’s the status of that whole issue of the battle with the cable systems?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, the good news is that the big telephone companies, like AT&T, want to get into the video business and they want to compete with the cable companies. Cable prices just keep going up and up. We’re hoping that some competition will keep a lid on those prices.

But what price does that competition come at? Unfortunately, there’s been an effort to use this positive development to roll back all the local community control of the media, including access by public, educational and governmental channels in local communities that provide good local content that communities really crave, because they don’t get it on their local news anymore. They say, "Well, let’s get rid of that. There’s going to be competition now. We don’t need that anymore."

So, the FCC, just at the end of last month, rolled back the rules, basically had the Republican majority override us to say that ’We’re going to federalize this. We’re going to take control from local communities. They shouldn’t have control of their own systems. And we’re going to do it in the federal government. And, of course, at the federal level, we’re not going to require the same level of PEG access. We’re not going to require them to really serve their community’s needs in that way.’

AMY GOODMAN: And PEG access — public, education, government — the public access TV channels.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Right. That’s going to be undermined. The kind of contributions to local governments are going to be undermined. And the ability of local governments to make sure that there’s a build out to the entire community is something that we also weakened on a three-two vote overriding our votes on that. So it’s a big concern going forward.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, when you say "federalize" it, in essence then, when someone in New York City or Los Angeles has a problem with their local cable company, they’re no longer going to be able to go to their own municipality to deal with this; they’re going to have to go to the FCC?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, they could try, but the fact is that the power is being brought more to Washington, and Washington is telling the local governments how they can operate the franchise agreements. You see, you can’t operate a cable system in a community without getting a franchise. And Congress set up the system where the franchise comes to the local communities, and that’s why the local communities negotiate for this kind of public access and the kind of fees that will be charged, and making sure that these companies build out and actually serve low-income communities, serve minority communities. Well, we said, at the FCC level, you don’t have to worry about that so much anymore, because if they don’t allow you to have a franchise — big phone company — we’re basically going to force them to hand it to you. That really undercuts the local government’s ability to protect their own citizens and make sure that all their citizens are properly served.

AMY GOODMAN: And for who are wondering, the history of this, the media activism that led, for example, to public access, that these cable companies that come into a community, they get the monopoly to dig up the public roads in a town, and in exchange, the cable company has to give back. And this is what media activists won, and that is that the cable company has to support these public interest channels that the community runs.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: The argument by the phone companies is "We’re a new entrant. We’re brand new competition. We don’t need all that," which may have some merit to it, but even if it does, the cable company is now ready to jump onboard and say, "Great! Get rid of requirements for the new entrants, and we don’t want the old requirements on us anymore." And pretty soon, nobody’s accountable. And some communities, especially underserved and low-income, are going to be left unattended.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So then, the FCC’s decision does mean that the local cable companies will no longer have to do municipal contracts, or not?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: We haven’t made that decision yet, actually. That was a debate that we had. And we decided — the chairman agreed within six months to revisit the issue and tentatively concluded that he would let the cable companies off the hook, as well, just as he let the new entrants, the phone companies, off the hook at last month’s meeting.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And that will be decided in six months.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Yeah, by June.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the FCC studies that were suppressed?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, there were some studies made by the FCC that showed, for example, that local-owned television stations show more local news, which isn’t particularly surprising.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, these were commissioned by Michael Powell, the previous chair of the FCC?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: That’s right. They were internal studies that were done by FCC staff. And for some reason, apparently, our staff was told by somebody to deep six them, to make sure that they never saw the light of day. But some enterprising reporters got a hold of them, and they ended up seeing the light of day. And it turns out that if there is research that doesn’t meet the interests of the companies that we regulate, for some reason, that gets buried.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know about the original commissioning of these studies?

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: I wasn’t aware that they were going on. I knew there was a radio study. There was another study of the radio industry showing enormous concentration in radio, that we suddenly stopped doing the report. And later on, a reporter found out that somebody at the FCC said, "Why should we continue putting out these reports? They don’t help our case; they just hurt it. And so, let’s just stop doing them entirely." But one of them had been completed and never released, and that came to light, as well. The research we’re doing is supposed to be independent. We’re the expert agency. Instead, we only take those studies that meet the interests of the very companies that we regulate, and those are the ones that get taken into consideration, and the ones that don’t meet their views don’t.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bob McChesney, obviously after the elections in November, there’s an expectation now that there may be some change in the Congress. What do you see now as the ability of a Democratic-controlled congress to be able to effect the media policy and some of the issues that the FCC is grappling with?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: We’re very optimistic in certain respects. On issues like net neutrality and media ownership, the Democrats have a very strong record. The ones who are currently running committees, in particular, are being very positive on these issues, being very strong. At the same time, I shouldn’t exaggerate the power, because AT&T, for example, or the commercial media lobby are very powerful. And they don’t only make donations to Republican politicians. And when there’s a lot of money at stake, it’s always a difficult fight. And it just means we have to redouble our efforts to put popular pressure on members of Congress, let them know the people of this country are watching them. And Democrats need that pressure every bit as much as Republicans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Because there was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who got the Telecommunications Act passed.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And it was a Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, who allowed our commercial radio system to come into being.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: It’s a bipartisan system, and I think — you know, our movement, the media reform movement, is not a partisan movement. We view ourselves as like the environmental movement. We think that whoever is in office, we want the people of this country to speak to them and make demands upon them to serve the people of this country. And we’re not picking one party over the other. We think both parties should be addressing these issues. All political parties should be addressing these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Cross-ownership of television and newspaper in a town.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Disaster. I mean, to my view —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, in lay terms, what it means.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: You know, basically, the rule has been in the law for 30 years, that if a company is given a monopoly license to have a radio or TV station in a community, which is historically a license to print money, you couldn’t take your profits, then gobble up, buy the local daily newspaper. So the fear would be, you’d only have one newsroom in a community that would then have one newsroom serving the daily monopoly newspaper, TV station and a radio station. They thought for a healthy democracy, you wanted multiple newsrooms, multiple owners in a community, so you have different newsrooms competing to get stories, that that would be a healthy thing for a free society, for local journalism.

Well, everyone loves that in this country, except for one very small group of people — media owners — because they look at the idea, "If I can own — have a monopoly, have a company town media, where I have one newsroom, I own the newspaper, I own three TV stations, I own eight radio stations, I own the cable provider, I’ve got the ISP in town — and I can have only one newsroom, and no one else is covering stories, my costs go way down. My leverage over advertisers and customers goes way up." It’s — the cash register plays like Beethoven’s symphony in their minds. That’s our crisis, and that’s what they want. That’s the fight right now. Media ownership is primarily over their effort to get rid of the ban, so they can have company town-owned media.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And obviously the impact on journalism is huge.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Devastating.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Knight Ridder, which was arguably the chain with the highest quality newspapers in commercial newspapers, now is gone. And there’s cutbacks in every — and they’re gone even though their profit level was about 20% a year. It wasn’t enough.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: This has been a scandal that’s been going on. We’ve seen it with the Tribune Company at the LA Times. We’ve seen it at the San Jose Mercury News, some of our most distinguished newspapers, where principled editors and publishers in the last few years have resigned their jobs or had been fired under protest, because they’re saying, "We’re making lots of money, yet you’re asking me to lay off 20% of our staff. You’re asking me to cut into the quality of what we’re doing, but we’re making profits that any investor would be delighted with." This is an outrage.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. We have been talking with Jonathan Adelstein, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, as well as Bob McChesney, who is the co-founder of Free Press, that is running this National Media Reform Conference this weekend here in Memphis, Tennessee. Thousands are expected to attend. It begins this morning with a keynote address by Bill Moyers. And we will certainly bring you that in the coming days on Democracy Now!

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