Media boogeymen

The self-annointed Conference for Media Reform has been underway in Memphis, spitting out all sorts of invective about big, bad media and pushing for more government regulation, all of which I think is damned dangerous. Big, old media is dying before our eyes and it will take with it local newspapers and broadcast outlets unless it is given the means to survive by more — yes, more — consolidation. And government regulation of speech is always, always dangerous.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps — one of the big, bad censors of government — issues his manifesto, quoted in the press release sent out about him:

Half a trillion dollars. That’s a conservative valuation of the airwaves that our country lets TV and radio broadcasters use – for free. Any way you slice it, that’s an awful lot of money. In fact, it’s just about the biggest chunk of change that our government gives to any private industry.

And what do the American people – who own the public airwaves, by the way – get in return? Too little news, too much baloney passed off as news. Too little quality entertainment, too many people eating bugs on reality TV. Too little local and regional music, too much brain-numbing national play-lists. Too little of America, too much of Wall Street and Madison Avenue. That’s what we get for half a trillion dollars. It’s one hell of a bad bargain, don’t you think?

Except that with only 12 percent of Americans not getting their TV via cable or satellite — and now the internet — the value of those broadcast licenses is falling to nil before our very eyes. Why the hell do you think that the networks are taking to distributing their wares on iTunes and YouTube? This is a man in charge of our media landscape? God help us. He continues:

I’m here to propose that we replace the bad old bargain that past FCCs struck with the media moguls with a new American Media Contract. It goes like this. We, the American people have given broadcasters free use of the nation’s most valuable spectrum, and we expect something in return. We expect this:

1. A right to media that strengthens our democracy
2. A right to local stations that are actually local
3. A right to media that looks and sounds like America
4. A right to news that isn’t canned and radio playlists that aren’t for sale
5. A right to programming that isn’t so damned bad so damned often

So you’re going to start programming those stations, Commissioner Copps? You’re going to define democracy-strengthening programming, local programming, programing that looks like America, programming that isn’t canned, programming that isn’t bad? Who the fuck are you to determine any of that? You are of the government. And the last thing government should do is meddle in our speech. Besides, all you’re going to do is drive these companies out of business or drive them away from broadcast, just as you did Howard Stern. And what happened next? We got worse programming. Duller programming. Crap and pap. Money-losing programming that only forces the company quicker to the can you decry. Next, we’ll end up with home-shopping on our broadcast towers. That’ll be all that’s left.

Next, we have Bill Moyers spouting downright offensive language, dimishing slavery to make his point. Says the press release sent out about his speech:

Evoking the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Moyers compared big media corporations to plantation owners and American media consumers to their slaves. “What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable. If we are not diligent, then it will happen to the Internet, [creating] a media plantation for the 21st century dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have controlled the media for the last 50 years.”

Dennis Kucinich isn’t stopping at reforming American media. He is after world domination:

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D- Ohio) paid a surprise visit to the National Conference for Media Reform and announced to hundreds of cheering activists that the U.S. House will created a committee on media reform and that Kucinich will be its chair. He promised reform in media and said it would drive national reform and world reform.

I’m all in favor of openness. But government regulation of what we can say is not open. That is media oppression.

Big media is dying, don’t you see? Knight Ridder’s dead. Tribune’s dying. Scripps is getting out of the newspaper business. Classified revenue is gone from newspapers and leaving online sites. Evil Clear Channel sold itself. CBS Radio is a mess. The TV networks are desperate to find new distribution. Local TV news stations are about to hit the wall. Cable is not far behind. Even Yahoo is struggling. These people are making big, bad media a boogeyman and in doing so they are setting up government to come in and regulate our speech for no good reason. Fools. Damned dangerous fools.

: The conference blog quotes this:

This conference is life-changing. I cannot even breathe right now. Life-changing. I’ll have a series of pictures from Memphis in just a few minutes. What I’ve seen so far has been awe-inspiring. I really feel validated for the feelings I’ve had for the last few years.


  • Hasan Jafri

    This is a “Contract On American Media” rather than “for” or “with” American media. Watching big media die is turning into the local variant of the phone-recorded Saddam execution. Yuck!

  • Thanks, well put. Hope your comments get widely distributed.
    I live close enough to Memphis to attend, and I didn’t know anything about this until I read your blog.
    My bad I guess. I read two newspapers, watch network news, read a lot of media blogs…
    so I googled it and it seems the only newspaper covering this is the local paper.
    USA Today focused on a report about the strength of media.

    Anyway, I’ll look forward to reading more about the boneheads that were invited to speak.

  • Jake

    Of course you are correct on all points.

    But I suspect that Copps and Kucinich are so out of touch with reality that they constitute less of a threat than they appear to be.

    And you are right about consolidation. We need more, not less in the traditional media sectors. But with Fox/MySpace, Google/YouTube, Verizon Fios, ATT/BellSouth, the consolidation that matters seems to be pretty uninhibited.

    Not that we don’t have something to fear from an utterly stupid government. And not that allowing consolidation in the older medias wouldn’t save a lot of jobs.

    But faith in the market to beat back dumb regulation still seems like a good bet (the 1996 Telecom Bill and its decedents being a notable exception).

  • Josh Nelson

    Regular reader, first-time commenter.


    First of all, I was actually looking for you at the conference. I thought you would be here. One of the main topics discussed this weekend was the importance of protecting net neutrality. You also probably would have enjoyed the panels on citizen journalism and social networking. Hell, you should have been on them.

    Your analysis is usually astute and and poignant but that is not the case here. The main point that you seem to be mistaken on here is the nature of the regulation in question. The only regulation that was advocated at the conference was in terms of ownership. No one here is suggesting that the FCC regulate the content of protected speech. What we have an issue with was the attempt by the FCC to deregulate media ownership to the point where one company could own three television stations, eight radio stations and the only newspaper in any given market. That kind of monopoly on the means of content distribution is unprecedented and not conducive to promoting a well-informed public.

    Aside from this misunderstanding your distaste for this conference seems to be due to the fact that you view media reform in a different context than those in attendance. You, as someone who is primarily interested in the business of media, see media reform as a means to making the industry more profitable. Most of the people attending the conference, as people who are activists or are interested in politics, see media reform as a means to that end. Getting into the specific politics of it here is fruitless but I think you see my point.

    I anticipate your response.

  • Jeff,

    Love that you dropped the f-bomb!! Grrr!! I agree with your assertion that regulation will neither shore up old media nor make it better. But I also think that without net neutrality, big media will merely shift their operations online and quash the blossoming voices there.

    Media reform is happening as we speak. It’s just people like you and thousands of others who are making it happen.

  • There is a difference between an effective shared monopoly in broadcasting and one in the toothpaste industry.

    One can affect the way citizens view their society and determine the future direction of public policy and the other is still just toothpaste. What the left objects to is the present limits on the range of ideas presented by the broadcast media. We are seeing the consequences at the present time. Before the Iraqi invasion those opposed to the idea and those who wished to present counter evidence to the popular ideas (like WMD’s and an Iraqi nuclear program) had almost no exposure.

    This has continued until very recently when the reality of the progress of the occupation finally has caused some broadcasters to start taking a more critical look at the issues. A functioning democracy requires that citizens hear a range of opinions and as many facts as can be uncovered. This is why totalitarian regimes all have state-controlled media.

    Allowing the broadcast media to also control print and cable outlets further restricts the range of material presented. At present only huge industrial concerns (like Fox, ABC and Murdoch) have the financial clout to play in this market. It will be a long time before the internet has enough reach to counter the effective media monopoly that now exists.

    Jeff: as a libertarian you need to propose a realistic way for minority opinions to be heard when the present “free market” model is not working. Many mainstream economists like Joseph Stiglitz have modified their beliefs and come to realize that the “invisible hand” model is an unrealistic oversimplification. They now favor government control of markets. This means how markets operate, not what they sell (assuming its not fraudulent or dangerous).

    The information market is no different, but at present is far from open. If you don’t like the suggestions made at the conference what do you suggest instead?

  • As the person you “Whew” at, the conference was validating for many reasons and I wish you could have experienced it for yourself.
    It was more complex than you stated here. With so much media owned by just a select few, the aspect of stifled voices was discussed. Think about it, 3500 people compared to millions watching Fox, CNN etc where regulations have been become non-existent where monopolies have been set in place.
    Regulations suggested where ones taken away.
    When you see that people are going to jail (Josh Hunt comes to mind) you. I agree with Robert Feinman, a monopoly in media is not one I would think any journalist (or citizen for that matter) would want.
    And it was awe-inspiring to see people discussing everyone’s rights, including yours Mr. Jarvis.

  • KC

    I have to laugh when I hear about fellow liberals like Moyers and Kucinich wasting their time on such issues. If there were no Internet, then having controls on media ownership would really mean something. But in the current media world, it is meaningless. The Internet is fast overtaking the networks. The bigger the network, the more vulnerable to attack. They would be better off clamouring for more consolidation, not less.

  • The Nation’s cover story (which quotes Jeff Jarvis) makes the claim that local newspapers still play a bigger role in things like local elections than people realize.

    The loss of reporting staff weakens this function and is not a “good thing”. The internet may be a new avenue for social change (or at least discussion) but it is far from being a player equal to the traditional media’s power.

    Here’s a link to the article:

  • Just like you can’t organize a 50 vehicle Hummer race thru the terrain of Public parks – you can’t air/do anything you want with Public spectrum.

    That’s the very nature of PUBLIC assets. They’re use is controlled by the offical proxy of the public – the government.

    If you don’t want government interference – you should argue to privitize spectrum.

    But then you have to imagine Pat Robertson got together with Private Equity groups and bought it all.

  • Jeff Schmidt:

    We have a mixed model. The “public” space is the broadcast spectrum which is loosely control by the government. We have a private space in the pay sector (cable and satellite). As Howard Stern has shown one can do pretty much whatever one likes in this space.

    We even have a “public” broadcast facility (NPR and PBS), but they suffer from a compromised setup. They are controlled by a quasi-government body (CPB), at least in part, and also beholding to corporate sponsors. As a consequence they are much less comprehensive than similar operations elsewhere. For example, the BBC is funded by a dedicated tax (on TV sets) and this insulates them better from direct government meddling.

    We don’t have a news operation like the BBC which is insulated from political pressure and as a consequence the range of news covered and the variety of viewpoints aired are more restricted here. Making even more of the offering subject to the interests of big business doesn’t seem a good way to promote the kind of vigorous debate that should exist in a functioning democracy.

    Eighty five percent of all media outlets in the US are controlled by a handful of firms (GE, News Corp, Time-Warner, Disney and Viacom). The situation in radio is much the same and in the music sector the number is now four.

  • Jeff, I agree you should have gone to the conference.

    You should at least listen to some of the sessions. Many are online already as mp3s and the rest will be posted soon

    Here are a few you might want to check out (perhaps you can listen to them on the plane to davos). I edited a few of the speakers out since this is too long already (and could have included many more – the complete list is at the link above)

    Citizen Journalism: Making an Impact in a New Media Landscape

    Moderator: Ellen Miller, Sunlight Foundation
    Dan Gillmor, Center for Citizen Media
    Chris Nolan,
    Jay Rosen, PressThink

    From Computer Screens to the Streets: Activism in a Wired World

    Moderator: Ben Byrne, Free Press
    Becky Bond, Working Assets
    Marty Kearns, Green Media Toolshed
    Noah Winer, Civic Action

    Saving the Internet

    Moderator: Frannie Wellings, Free Press
    Matt Stoller,
    Tim Wu, Columbia University
    Adam Green, Civic Action
    Azlan White, member

    Payola: Radio, Records, and the FCC

    Moderator: Jared Ball, FreeMix Radio
    Paul Porter, Industry Ears
    Michael Bracy, Future of Music Coalition
    Jonathan Adelstein, FCC Commissioner

    Quality Journalists = Quality Journalism

    Moderator: Linda Foley, The Newspaper Guild
    Linda Moore, Memphis Commercial Appeal
    Debbie Goldman, The Newspaper Guild
    Jeff Gordon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

    Faith Communities & Media Reform

    Moderator: Rev. Robert Chase, United Church of Christ
    Katherine Grincewhich, US Conference of Catholic Bishops
    Rima Meroueh, Media Empowerment Project
    Rev. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., New Sardis Baptist Church

  • Steve,
    Thanks for the list. I read the transcripts I could find last night to write this post. I’ll look up some of these.
    But I have to ask: Was there any debate there? Or was this a bit of an echo chamber? In your list, I don’t see a single representative of the demonized big-media companies to explain perhaps the reality of the media business today and the pressures that will drive many of them out of the businesses that many of the participants hold dear.
    A debate, I would eagerly attend.
    But — in the words of Newscoma, quoted and responding above — I don’t see the need to go watch those “really feel validated for the feelings I’ve had for the last few years.”
    It’s not as simple as that.
    Making media into boogeymen plays into too many other agendas. I’ll say it again: it’s dangerous.
    And mind you, I don’t work for big media boogeymen anymore.

  • The BBC is a bad example. They receive their funding, literally, under threat of arrest to any who refuse to hand over the dough. If you own a TV you must pay for their continued operation, whether or not you ever view or listen to a product they produce. It’s “legally”–which is inherently politically— mandated that British citizens must support the BBC. Though treated as independent, when said citizens complain about the BBC’s political leanings, the UK government claims they have no control over the content, but they still insist that citizens have to fork over the pounds that keeps the BBC operating.

    Over the air networks such as ABC, NBC and so forth, whether television or radio, do not force anyone to underwrite them.

  • Staten Island guy:
    Two disagreements with your basically libertarian point of view.

    1. At some point in the history of the UK the publicly elected representatives decided that the BBC would be established and funded via a tax. That is, it was a democratic decision. Now democratic decisions always leave a certain percentage of the population unhappy with the choices. This is just how democracies work. One doesn’t get to pick and chose which parts of society to participate in.

    2. Even in the US you pay mandatory taxes, for example on your automobile. Just like in the UK you won’t pay the tax if you don’t own the item, so there is nothing special about the TV tax as a concept. I don’t know whether the auto use tax is dedicated to a specific fund or not but this is a minor issue. The gasoline tax is supposed to go for road maintenance.

    Libertarians feel that taxation is a form of theft, that is their right, but it is such an unworkable model for a modern society that there has never been a state based upon libertarian ideas. That’s why it remains a form of Utopianism.

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  • Well, being that you made fun of me for my enthusiasm, I feel I must respond.
    We would have loved to have you at the conference, even if you expressed discontent.
    But on the other hand, as a person who runs a small media outlet and doesn’t have access to appear on larger news outlets(CNN, is that the picture on your icon? or Fox?) this conference was a breathe of fresh air as I stated before when you made fun of me with your “Whew” statement.
    Mr. Jarvis, as a large market person, don’t pick on the little guy when you weren’t there.
    And that little guy was me, so I take it quite personally.
    Ironically, I have found you to be a leader in the past for digital media rights as well as a sanctuary for people who don’t have the option to voice their opinions on corporate media outlets.
    Please continue the good fight for all of us who don’t have the options you have.

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  • Newscoma,
    Sorry if you take offense at one little ‘whew.’ But it wasn’t just the californianication I was reacting to but, as I said above, the notion of validation. Rather than looking for validation of what we already believe, isn’t it better to challenge those notions and come out stronger in our knowledge? That, as I said above, is my problem with the agenda.

  • I understand what you are saying, however I feel like the comment you made was dismissive. I agree with you about challenging notions and coming out stronger with more information.
    And yet …
    I think there has been very little dialogue of this nature and it was validating. Deregulation has created large corporate media where dialogue about certain news coverage (Iraq as an example) has only shown one side many times.
    Of course this is my opinion.
    We can agree that there was some shrillness at the conference, I’m not denying that and I would have liked to have seen some views from a conservative perspective and it is a shame that the conference was partisan.
    At least the conference created some conversation and that is good.
    And maybe that will create a positive base for growth that combines a middle ground where everyone wins.

  • I loved this post. You understand media very well, so you can easily see through Free Press’ demagoguery to their real agenda: fostering fear and paranoia while anointing itself as the necessary watchdog to prevent media from straying from their traditional modes of ownership, control, and regulation. Many of your readers have drunk the anti-capitalist Kool-Aid Free Press (the sponsor of the conference) is selling. Kudos.

    Now you should find it more than a little interesting that the demagogues who demand more government control over the media – Copps, Kucinich, and Moyers – are also demanding more government control over the Internet through the idiocy of “net neutrality”. They’ve concocted a fictitious history for the Internet to support this program, and a bizarre narrative of Telco conspiracy, erosion of first amendment rights, and fanciful theories of network operation.

    The net neutrality program offends me for the same reasons the media control program offends you: I’m an engineer who understands how it’s actually put together and what it’s going to take to grow the infrastructure to the point that the Internet really can challenge traditional media.

    Keep criticizing, and I’m sure you’ll ultimately make the connection.

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