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As CPB Faces Massive Funding Cuts, A Look Back at the National Media Reform Conference

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The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote today on drastic cuts to both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Representative Ralph Regula’s proposal would eliminate $100 million in federal funding to CPB and phase out the existance of PBS. For a look at media under fire, we turn to the National Conference on Media Reform. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to the continuing fight over public broadcasting in this country. Today, the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on drastic cuts to both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is the US-tax payer funded agency that funds public media in this country. The proposal to cut funding was authored by Ohio Republican Representative Ralph Regula and would eliminate $100 million in federal funding to CPB. Regula’s proposal also calls for all federal funding for PBS to be eliminated in two years. A House appropriations subcommittee already approved the bill last Thursday.

The Association of Public Television Stations has termed the cuts “so drastic that they will severely impact every public television and radio station’s ability to provide educational, cultural and informational programming in local communities and throughout the nation.” Regula has defended the cuts as necessary to avoid reductions in federal support for vocational education, job and medical training.

Also, last week, it was reported that a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee is the leading candidate to take over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Patricia de Stacy Harrison is reportedly the favored candidate of the CPB’s Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson. Harrison is currently a high-ranking official at the State Department. She was co-chair of the RNC from 1997 until January 2001, helping to raise money for Republican candidates, including George W. Bush.

For more on the state of media, we turn to the National Conference on Media Reform. More than 2,000 people converged on St. Louis to discuss media and democracy in a time of crisis. We go to two guests at the conference who spoke at the opening session.

  • Janine Jackson, program director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and the host of that organization’s weekly radio show, Counterspin.
  • Malkia Cyril, director of the Youth Media Council.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go first to Janine Jackson, the Program Director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

JANINE JACKSON: The recognition that we all share, that information is a public good and not a commodity, has a history. The work we’re doing now stands on the shoulders of a lot of people whose names we don’t know and some whose names we may, like Liebling, Sinclair Lewis, I.F. Stone, George Seldes. But a lot has changed. I think we are in a special moment right now, and a lot has certainly changed since FAIR was founded in 1986. Back then — and I think what’s changed is most significantly in people’s heads, as Bob has started to say. Back then, as long ago as 1986, a lot of smart, politically active people thought of media as an ancillary issue. There was bad coverage, certainly, of this or that issue but the media system itself was not considered a sort of contestable terrain. I think there may have been an implicit sense that better media might flow naturally from some of the other social and economic goals that we wanted to achieve.

That has changed now. People think differently about media now. Remember how when you used to complain about something you saw on television or heard on the radio? Even people who agreed with you would tell you to just turn it off. You don’t hear that so much anymore. It’s increasingly come to sound as odd as telling someone who is concerned about polluted air, “Well, just stay inside.” The impact and influence of media is undeniable.

What’s more, we no longer talk about media as a kind of corporate noblesse oblige, you know. It’s this magic stuff. You don’t even pay for it. You just turn on the TV, and there it is. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s no longer seen as a kind of private enterprise where the public has no standing, if you will, no right to demand accountability or redress. Media is a political issue, and not just that, but it’s understood as a keystone issue, like a keystone species, something that is critical, critically affects virtually everything else that we care about. To make change, I think, people both need to see that something is wrong and feel that they can do something about it. And I think we’re at that point now with media, and we really should take a moment, metaphorically speaking, to appreciate the sea change and the victory that that really represents. Sure, why not? It is a big deal.

But I think we also need to appreciate the victories along the way. If you ever fought for a television show to get on the air or stay on the air. If you wrote an opinion column or a letter to the editor, that’s ideas that you put in somebody’s head that they might not have had otherwise, and that matters.

But now we’ve got people talking about media reform, what I really want to say is now we’ve won that part. We have got people talking about media reform. As we go forward, we need to keep asking ourselves, media reform for what? Do we want to break up dominant media conglomerations because it just sort of sounds better that there be like a smaller number of companies?

No. It’s not that. It’s not an academic exercise. Media reform is not academic. Bad media hurts real people. Better media would help real people. Media reform means gaining the power to speak and to be heard, and that means taking some of that power from the people who have it now. So, media reform is dangerous, done right.

So I want to be very clear. I want truly democratic media because 45 million Americans don’t have health insurance, and a lot of them think it’s their fault. I want democratic media because black and brown kids go to jail because of what somebody read in the newspaper about super-predators. I want truly democratic media because public television just said that a family with lesbian mothers is unfit to be acknowledged, on the network that you and I pay for. And I want truly democratic media because if we had it, tens of thousands, perhaps 100,000 people who have died in Iraq might be alive today.

Media reform is not an academic exercise. It’s a crucial problem for our time, and asking ourselves, “Media reform for what?” will help us keep our eyes on what we are ultimately fighting for, and I think it will also remind us to acknowledge and celebrate the real concrete successes that we will no doubt achieve on our way towards our bigger goals.

So, enjoy yourselves this weekend. I could go on more, don’t tempt me with that. You’re going to hear this weekend about lots of different ways to get involved. And I want to stress that none of them is better than any of the others. Some of them are local, some of them are national, some of them are more about structure, some are more about content. The point is, what engages you. And that’s what you have to keep in mind. My husband always talks about a big rock. We’re trying to move a big rock. There’s lots of handholds on that rock. There’s lots of places to put your hand on it, and we need all of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, as we turn now to Malkia Cyril, Director of the Youth Media Council.

MALKIA CYRIL: For many of us, media reform is more than a fight for our media; it is a fight for our lives. As we have already heard, we face today a Bush-led war on the world with hundreds of thousands of deaths and even more dangerous times ahead. Our media system represents a crisis of democracy for the vast majority of the population. Our communication rights are one of the many civil rights being rolled back, but not without a fight.

From state to state, communities refuse to give up their right to equal media access, fair, accurate and balanced content and the power to own and control media infrastructure. From alternative media and public television to cable access, ethnic press and low power FM, marginalized communities require a movement that demands telecommunications policies in our interests.

When we speak of media reform, the intentions of the (quote/unquote) “framers”, and constitutional interpretations offer incomplete answers to the questions, what is a free press, and how is it guaranteed? We have heard that Jefferson and Madison understood the importance of an astute press in creating the foundation for a strong democracy and protection against elite rule. What remains both invisible and undeniable in the debate about U.S. media is the colonial context of its birth. As the founding fathers were documenting their concept of a free press, they were also building a slaveholding capitalist economy and a white nationalist politic that would entrench media policies and practices for centuries to come. Our current media system reproduces and maintains the colonial power relationships of its beginnings. Understanding the role media plays in creating and perpetuating structural racism and class oppression is not a secondary issue. It is central to building an effective and relevant movement for media reform that fundamentally transforms the U.S. system of communications.

By adopting raced, classed, and gendered lens to examine issues of media content, access and infrastructure, we can dispel three dangerous myths. The first myth is that the U.S. media used to be more democratic and has become less so over time. The fact is the U.S. media was born of colonial conquest and imperial intrusion, calling the democratic foundations of this press into direct question. For people of color, women, queer people and young folks, there has never been a free press, and without racial, economic and gender justice, there never will be.

The second myth is that communication rights are inherently individual civil rights guaranteed by citizenship. But what of the millions of undocumented people forced by economic and political conditions to emigrate to this country? What of the millions of incarcerated men, women and children whose citizenship rights are severed by confinement? What are the black, brown, female, queer and young people whose basic civil rights require ongoing movements to secure and even then are always in question? Where there is no real mechanism to guarantee civil rights, citizenship offers no protection or guarantee of communication rights.

The third and final myth we must dismantle is that we can achieve a free press without also working to end racism, sexism, and class oppression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the current trends of consolidation, re-regulation in the corporate interest and corporate control, the media was simultaneously a tool for civic engagement and a threat to the life and liberty of marginalized communities, and remains so today. In a free market society, organized by class, race and gender, no press can be truly free unless the people who use it and are impacted by it are also free.

If we want to bring about real change, the media reform movement must adopt a movement building analysis, change model and vision that centers racial, economic and gender justice. Media justice is a framework for media policy change that seeks to expose structural racism and class oppression in our media system. Use local organizing campaigns to root our victories, develop marginalized communities as media activists and leaders and build an expansive movement for communication rights. We want accountability, alternatives, and a media reform movement that spins on an axis of self-determination and strategic alliance.

As a member of the growing media justice movement, we at the Youth Media Council believes there are five strategic steps we can take to build an effective movement for media justice. One: connect media policy to racial justice. Two: use content battles, access fights and media accountability campaigns to engage new constituencies in the fight for progressive media policy. Three: organize and coordinate from the ground up. Four: use key political moments as strategic opportunities to advance our media policy agenda.

Like many of you, we are working to build infrastructure base and leaders at the local level to challenge the Bush administration’s imminent attack on the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In partnership with Media Alliance and others, we will use the upcoming broadcast license renewal process to challenge corporate control of our airwaves, increase accountability on local radio stations, confront structural racism in the licensing process, and lay the foundation for national opposition to Bush’s plan. It is our turn now. It is our time.

Marginalized communities care about media reform because our lives and our freedom are at stake. We care because, from hip-hop to advertising, media corporations stereotype and exploit the culture of youth and people of color for profit, while those same corporations use our families to create and assemble the technology that makes them rich. We care because our communities remain producers and consumers of a media system over which they have little to no control. But powerlessness is another dangerous myth we must dismantle. Together, we have the combined strategy and skill to dismantle and rebuild this media system. Where the U.S. has used our media to export racism, sell war and destructively declare itself a singular superpower, the problem of the U.S. media is a problem for the entire world.

If I didn’t say it before, let me say it now: victory is imminent. In fact, it is everywhere. From the accountability campaign against Hot 97 in New York to the Miami-based Immokalee workers rights for low power FM, marginalized communities are here as stake holders, as organizers and as visionaries. A truly free press is our right and we’re damn sure going to fight for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Malkia Cyril, she’s Director of the Youth Media Council, speaking at the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis. And again today, the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on drastic cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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