Democratic reformer Henry Adams, who decried the decline in democracy as the robber barons rose to power in the nineteenth century, did not mince words about the failure of the news media of his day: “The press is the hired agent of a monied system,” he wrote, “and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where the interests are involved.”
Imagine the verbal scorching Henry would give to today’s media barons, who are not merely hired agents of monied interests—they have become the interests, fully corporatized, conglomerated and well-practiced in the art of journalistic lying to perpetuate the power and profits of the elites.
A handful of self-serving corporate fiefdoms now controls practically all of America’s mass-market sources of news and information. GE now owns NBC, Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS, News Corp. owns Fox, and Time Warner owns CNN; these five have a lock on TV news. Of the 1,500 daily newspapers, only 281 are independently owned—three companies control 25 percent of the daily news circulated in the entire world.
These aloof giants openly assert that meeting their own profit needs is the media’s reason for existence— as opposed to meeting the larger public’s need for a vigorous, democratic discourse. Lowry Mays, honcho of Clear Channel Inc. (which owns more than 1,200 radio stations—a third of all the stations in America), opines that: “We’re not in the business of providing news and information We’re simply in the business of selling our customers’ products.”
“We paid $3 billion for these television stations,” said an executive with a Fox affiliate in Tampa. “We decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.”
Crude corporate censorship of our news by these boardroom types is not as common as the subtle, internal self-censorship done by general managers, top editors, and some reporters who avoid topics and dilute stories that the corporate hierarchy might find offensive or simply incomprehensible. A 2000 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that one-third of local reporters admit to softening a news story on behalf of the interests of their media organization. One quarter say they have been told by superiors to ignore a story because it was dull, though the reporters suspected that the real motivation was that the story could harm the media company’s financial interests. And that’s only the reporters who confessed!
If you detect a corporate bias in your news, you aren’t alone. Two thirds of Americans told pollsters last September that they believe special interests or a self-serving corporate-political agenda infect news coverage. We can all wring our hands and wail about this corporate, monopolistic grasp on our news sources, but here’s a better idea: Let’s do something about it.
A grassroots flowering
The Austin Motel is a refurbished, New Deal era business on South Congress Avenue, near my home. It has an old, brightly lit marquee out front that proudly boasts the credo of the current owners: “No additives. No preservatives. Corporatefree since 1938.”
Wouldn’t that make a fine slogan for a new democratic media for America?
“Oh,” you say, “Hightower, don’t toy with us. It would take billions and billions of dollars to build a broad-based media network outside the established TV, radio, and newspaper conglomerates, so that’s just a pipe dream.” Well, yes, it would take those impossible billions?if we set out merely to duplicate the media Goliaths. But what if we wanted to develop a David—a sprightly, nimble network of media outlets that are not capital-intensive and not burdened with either multimillion- dollar salaries or voracious conglomerate bureaucracies? I have good news for you: This is already happening! Thousands of hardy grassroots people have been working steadily and creatively over the years in every area of the media, and the result of their combined efforts is that a new media force is now flowering from coast to coast—a force consisting of hundreds of media outlets that are unabashedly progressive, fiercely independent, diverse, dispersed, and democratic. Collectively, they are a force to be reckoned with, celebrated, strategically deployed? and deliberately expanded.
It was only last year that I realized what can happen if we learn to connect the various components and tap into the full power that they offer.
The occasion was the launch of my book, Thieves in High Places. In addition to attacking the monied kleptocracy that has seized our people’s democratic power, the heart of this book is about the deeply encouraging rise of you grassroots Americans out there who are battling the thieves?and often beating them. These are inspiring stories of democratic activism that the media establishment largely ignores, and I wanted as many people as possible to know about them, so that others might take heart and battle on.
Call me cynical, but I knew from experience that the barons of media power were not likely to rush forward to embrace and disseminate my antiestablishment message. I was right: None of the morning TV shows (Today, Good Morning America, etc.) allowed me to talk about it; no evening newsmagazine show (20/20, Dateline, etc.) would touch it; there were no reviews in the mass-market newspapers and magazines (The New York Times, Newsweek, etc.); and even NPR and public television gave it the cold shoulder. It was a case of libra non grata. Yet, a funny (and fun) thing happened: Thieves rose into the top 10 of nearly every best-seller list across the country, including the New York Times list. You could almost hear the incredulous compilers of sales data asking: “How the hell did this thing get on our list?”
It got there, quickly reaching a mass-market audience, by way of your and my very own rag-tag, patchwork media network, which most of us don’t even know we have. I stumbled on the breadth and depth of this network because Sean Doles and Laura Ehrlich in my office had organized a guerrilla campaign to get the word out about the book. Working with community-radio stations, alternative newsweeklies, independent bookstores, web-active organizations, progressive (and aggressive) magazines, websites and publications of grassroots organizations, local organizing groups, some upstart television rebels—and, of course, you scrappy Lowdowners—we found that progressives are not voiceless in a corporate-media wasteland after all if only we recognize that we have powerful media assets of our own.
My book doesn’t matter, but the concept of connecting this patchwork of assets does matter greatly. Any particular piece of this progressive media patchwork is small (and too often scoffed at by progressives themselves as “insignificant”). But add the pieces together and we have a far-flung network of outlets that—each and every day—is reaching tens of millions of people.
Also, the people who are tuning in to our progressive outlets are not just cumulative numbers to be sold to advertisers; mostly they’re readers, listeners, online clickers, and viewers who give a damn and are looking for action. We saw an example last year of what can happen when even some of these components connect. The FCC, led by laissez-faire nutball Michael Powell, was ramming through a rules change that effectively would allow one or two media conglomerates to control the TV, radio, and newspaper outlets in every U.S. city.
Essentially, this unregulation of media ownership would lead to the full-scale monopolization of our news sources. Corporate lobbyists and government lawyers had holed up in a dark back room to whisper sweet legalese to each other, and we Joe and Joline Schmoes would have known nothing about it until after the fact, when we would’ve heard that wet, smoooooooching sound coming from Washington that tells us—uh-oh—another dirty deed has been done to us.
This time, though, was different. Several public-interest organizations picked up on the FCC’s back-room move and alerted such grassroots groups as Common Cause, which sent up red flares to engage its 200,000 members. Then, like the pamphleteers of old, dozens of community- radio stations plastered on-air broadsheets all across the country, translating the FCC’s regulatory gobbledygook into straightforward rallying cries. They pounded the issue day after day. Next came the Web-active group MoveOn.org, which gave this growing grassroots opposition the mechanism it needed for a targeted response—and some 170,000 emails poured into Washington.
The result was that, last July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 400 to 21 in favor of an amendment by Rep. David Obey to stop the FCC’s media-monopolization rule. The decisive 400 House votes were from Congress critters (Democrats as well as Republicans) who had taken buckets full of campaign cash from the very media barons they suddenly decided they had to vote against.
The battle is not over, but the fact that this arcane issue of media-ownership regulations could, in such a short time, ignite a prairie fire of popular rebellion is a testament to the power at our disposal.
As I’ve learned from the past dozen years of on-air experience, radio can be a very democratic little box—in part because it’s ubiquitous (in our bedrooms, cars, showers, etc.), and also because people tend to hear what’s said on radio, as opposed to TV, where they get an image but don’t much follow the story being told. The bad news is that the radio dial is fast being bought up by Clear Channel and a couple of other conglomerates. The good news, however, is that we still have hundreds of extremely important stations in our hands, beaming out a steady progressive message to millions every day.
Since 1993, my own two-minute radio commentaries (“little pops of populism,” we call them) have aired every weekday, now being heard on a mix of 130 commercial and community stations coast to coast, plus Alaska, Hawaii, and—get this— Armed Forces Radio, as well as on the web (www.jimhightower.com). But I’m the least of it. From Amy Goodman’s sassy Democracy Now to Working Assets Radio with Laura Flanders, from New Dimensions to Latino USA, from Counterspin to RadioNation, from ACORN Radio to Alternative Radio with David Barsamian, from Media Matters with Bob McChesney to The World— there’s a wealth of national and local broadcasters putting forth progressive issues and insights every day.
Because of the corporate bias of its owners, commercial radio is the hardest nut to crack, but we have such voices as Enid Goldstein at KNRC in Denver, Sly Sylvester on WTDY in Madison, and Mitch Albom on WJR in Detroit. And now, Air America is making a bold play to bring 17 hours a day of progressive talk radio through its burgeoning network, broadcasting such live-wire hosts as Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, Randi Rhodes, Chuck D, and Rachel Maddow. This brand-new upstart is already in 15 cities, and is drawing millions more listeners each day on the web(www.airamericaradio.com).
Then there are our community–owned stations. Many people assume that these are little one-watt nothings, but that’s nonsense. Indeed, some are powerhouse blasters in big cities, such as the Pacifica Network’s five flagship stations in Berkeley, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Houston. Pacifica’s KPFK in LA, for example, is 110,000 watts, reaching from San Diego to Santa Barbara and stretching inland to San Bernardino. Likewise, the independent community station WMNF in Tampa is a 70,000- watt treasure that reaches from Sarasota on the Gulf Coast almost to Orlando in the middle of the state.
Even the small-town community broadcasters pack a punch. WERU in Blue Hill, Maine (pop. 700), for example, reaches clear to the state capital in Augusta and is a beloved rallying point for the whole Penobscot Bay area (“We-are-you” is how the station pronounces its call letters). The same with KAOS in Olympia, KBOO in Portland, KGNU in Boulder, and so many more—people don’t just tune in, they count on these stations, trust them in a way no one would trust Clear Channel, and are willing to act on the information they receive.
A democratic tool that Jefferson, Madison, and the other Bill of Righters could not have imagined, but would gleefully embrace today, is the world wide web. This computerized architecture of interconnected hubs and spokes allows us to link our thoughts and actions instantly in virtual space and produce tangible political results that would have taken months before.
Every progressive group (even Luddites like me) now has lively, interactive web sites through which we can share a gold mine of information, forge coalitions, hold “meetings,” and mobilize mass actions (from local to global).
The growth of the net is explosive–68 billion emails per day, for example, and 10 million daily blogs by everyone from the kid-next-door to famous pundits–to me! MoveOn.org, TrueMajority.org, and the Howard Dean campaign have shown the phenomenal potential of the web, not only for fund-raising and blitzing Congress with citizen opinion, but especially for organizing people for action (a breakthrough that you’ll hear more about as the Lowdown itself develops a web-active program to link all of us Lowdowners into more grassroots civil action).
The web gives us the means to bypass the corporate media, creating our own low-cost, decentralized network of news that, say, The New York Times does not consider “fit to print.”
In addition to hundreds of specialized news sites, there are “aggregators” that amount to news services for progressive content—credible outfits like Alternet.org, TomPaine.com, Buzzflash.com, and Commondreams.org.
Some are creating their own virtual newspapers. Check out iBrattleboro.com. For more than a year now, this Vermont website lets the readers be the reporters on what’s really going on in town. Anyone can contribute, and anyone can comment on the contributions. In a town of 12,000, the virtual pages of iBrattleboro are getting 260,000 viewers a year.
If reading the daily press depresses you, get a lift by going beyond your “Daily Blather” newspaper to such spunky journals as The Nation, Mother Jones, The Progressive, In These Times, American Prospect, Ms., Harper’s, and The Progressive Populist. Also, Utne rounds up articles every month from more than 2,000 alternative media sources. And two groups, the Independent Press Association (indypress.org) and the Alternative Press Center (altpress.org), give you access to magazines, newsletters, and ‘zines that cover every political and cultural issue imaginable.
Chances are your own town has one or more independent weekly newspapers offering detailed coverage of progressive issues and events that the monopoly dailies miss or avoid. The Association of Alternative Weeklies (aan.org) plugs you into 120 of these local voices that, collectively, reach 17 million readers a week. Even television, the feeblest member of our democracy’s media mob, is perking up a bit. PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers has been a blast of fresh air (though its direction is uncertain now that he has announced his retirement), and C-SPAN continues to do a great public service by simply clicking on its cameras and letting us see events without edits or editorializing. And you can forget the network news and go directly to The Daily Show for Jon Stewart’s irreverent, on-target satires, broadcast on Comedy Central.
Especially encouraging in TV-land are the insurgents of the air, including Free Speech TV and WorldLink TV, reaching a combined 20 million homes. Grassroots rebels are also making their own TV, thanks to Cable Access Television, available on some 600 public-access channels, as well as a feisty group of Independent Media Centers (indymedia.org) that are particularly good at streaming raw footage of protests and other actions, with their media activists taking their web-driven videocams right into the center of things, bringing you news as it happens.
Finally, don’t discount the power of face-to-face networks. On any given day, thousands of people are gathered in various-sized groupings to listen, learn, discuss, interact, strategize, and organize. These forums include the nation’s 2,200 independent bookstores, which are not merely book peddlers, but also community meeting places and informal bulletin boards (go to booksense. com to find ones near you). Public libraries, progressive speakers’ series, pot-luck suppers, conversation cafes and progressive festivals (Greenfest, Bioneers, Rolling Thunder, etc.) are also part of this vibrant, high-touch outreach that goes on daily in practically every city and neighborhood.
Years ago, my momma taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right—but I soon figured out that three left turns do. We must apply that same kind of street savvy if we’re ever to find our way around the media blockages that the corporate interests have put in place to shut out our voices.