Gathering of the info warriors

Activists mourn mega-media mergers and other casualties in the Information War

Author Nathan Gove hides behind a political satirist’s book that attacks the conservative bias in the media.

Author Nathan Gove hides behind a political satirist’s book that attacks the conservative bias in the media.

Nathan Gove is a Reno freelance writer and activist.

It’s all about the marketplace of ideas—or the lack thereof.

Fueled by recent challenges to the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to relax restrictions on media ownership, about 1,600 people gathered for the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wis., last weekend.

Organizer Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois, explained that the conference was “about finding concrete ways that real people—not just industry insiders—can make their voices heard in crucial debates about what Americans see, read, and hear.”

The conference included sessions on myriad topics, from legal challenges to tactical planning to hands-on tutorials for producing newspapers.

Although the movement against the FCC rule changes is bipartisan, conference attendees were generally progressive. There were six U.S. Congressfolk, two FCC commissioners, a handful of non-profit lawyers and some union leaders.

Mingling freely with them were journalists and local media activists, some of whom produce independent media. One group holds “barn raisings” to build low-powered community radio stations across the country. Some panelists wore suits, and one moderator sported a punk T-shirt and a long black beard.

On June 2, the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to change six ownership rules, allowing media corporations to grow bigger and allowing a single company to own the newspaper, three TV stations, as many as eight radio stations, and the cable system in a single market.

By refusing to hold more than a single public meeting, it seemed that FCC Chairman Michael Powell had been hoping to pass these rules without the public noticing. For months, the networks and chain newspapers stayed mute on the issue, possibly out of self-interest.

However, two renegade commissioners held public meetings across the nation, and grassroots organizers got the word out in a big way. The rule changes still passed, but citizens across the political spectrum filed nearly 3 million complaints to the FCC and Capitol Hill, making it second only to the Iraq war in terms of public comment. This public outcry has fueled Congressional efforts to overturn the rule changes.

Among conference-goers, a consensus was clear: There is a war going on—an information war. It has been intimately tied up with the war in Iraq but affects society broadly.

Al Franken, comedian and author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, tackled the Iraq issue in a speech. He pointed to the University of Maryland study which showed that viewers of commercial television—especially Fox News—were more likely to have factual misperceptions about the Iraq war and its aftermath. Franken referenced a recent letter from a six-year veteran producer, writer and editor at Fox News who noted the network’s slant on news stories was dictated to Fox News employees in a daily top-down memo.

Media activist Dawn Revette spoke of the media effect on social issues. She came to Madison as part of a group of 20-somethings from Rochester, New York that produces news on the Internet and on public-access television.

“I got involved because I work at a social agency, and I hear powerful stories about child abuse and people in poverty getting lost in the system,” Revette said. “These people aren’t represented in our media, so we have a very distorted view.”

Others noted that investigative journalism has been in sharp decline, due to funding cuts, programming changes and unfavorable changes to contracts.

Bill Moyers, PBS journalist, electrified the crowd during his keynote address on Saturday night.

“What we’re talking about is nothing less than rescuing a democracy that is polarized, in danger of being paralyzed and could even be pulverized by the megamedia giants,” Moyers said. “Alarming words, I know, but the realities we face should trigger alarm.

“Only 13 percent of eligible young people cast ballots in the last presidential election. The Carnegie Corp. conducted a youth challenge quiz of 15- to 24-year-olds and asked them, ‘Why don’t young people get more involved?’ Of the nearly 2,000 respondents, the main answer was that they do not have information about issues and candidates.

“Democracy cannot exist without an informed public, and these megamedia companies are not informing us.”

Friday and Saturday night performances by Boots Riley, Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and others in the Tell the Truth Tour gave the event a musical flourish. In the hall outside the historic Orpheum Theatre, Benjamin Lopez, an attendee from Tuscon, Ariz., said he felt inspired by the conference. Dan Sparks and Katy Parrish, a couple from Alaska, bragged about plans to build an Indiemedia Web site there.

As it stands, the Senate has voted to roll back the FCC rule changes, but in the House of Representatives, the corresponding bill is languishing in committee. Last week, 205 representatives signed a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, demanding the bill be brought to the floor for a vote. Although the signers were bipartisan, Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons was not among those who signed.

But a recurring refrain at the conference was that even rolling back these rule changes is not enough because media consolidation is already having a dramatic and negative effect on journalism.