Monday, May 09, 2005

"Bill of Media Rights" May Not Be What it Seems

An advocacy group that calls itself the Media and Democracy Coalition held a news conference in Washington today to announce The Bill of Media Rights.

The Preamble starts positively enough, proclaiming "A free and vibrant media, full of diverse and competing voices, is the lifeblood of America’s democracy and culture, as well as an engine of growth for its economy." No quibbles from me about this. Indeed I hold that this is exactly where we are in the U.S. today. But the very next sentence quickly devolves into mythsville: "Yet, in recent years, massive and unprecedented corporate consolidation has dangerously contracted the number of voices in our nation’s media."

I think to myself: The word of the press conference was spread cheaply and efficiently by an e-mail blast. The Web site, which provides a link to the pdf of the "Bill," is easily accessed by anyone in the world with a Web connection. No "big media" needed. So by the second sentence I'm asking, "Where's the beef?"

My problem-- and everyone's problem -- should not be with the principals but with the implementation of the rights. One right, for example, is:

"Newspapers, television and radio stations, cable and satellite systems, and broadcast and cable networks operated by multiple, diverse, and independent owners that compete vigorously and employ a diverse workforce."

We already have multiple and diverse. What is meant by "independent?" Independent of whom, of what? Of government? The primary direct role of government in media today are those regulations on broadcasters that limit their free speech rights compared to other media. Recall that the fines levied for the Janet Jackson "malfunction" could not have applied if the same had happened on cable-only ESPN. The Clear Channel stations fined for Howard Stern's speech will not be repeated once he moves over to satellite radio. So if independent from government, then that implies cutting the curbs on broadcasters. I don't think that's what the coalition has in mind.

Independent of non-media institutions? Or corporate ownership of any sort? Would that include ownership by Big Labor as well?

What about the right to "Programming, stories, and speech produced by communities." That sounds a lot like public access cable, municipal channels, university and other publicly-owned radio stations (20% of all radio stations are non-commercial). It sounds like the millions of Web sites and Blogs, such as the Media Bill of Rights Web site.

But I'm afraid that many of the organizers behind the Bill of Media Rights want something more. Between the lines of this document it sounds much like Robert McChesney's prescription. He tries to make the case that we cannot have a democratic society so long as the media--no matter how many firms--are privately owned, profit-seeking and supported by commercialism. Media reform, he writes in his book The Problem of the Media, is prevented because the people think there is diversity and that the media "give people what they want." We're not smart enough to make our choices without some higher authority to guide us. Thus, the mass audience cannot be left to the whims of the marketplace to choose what they watch, read and hear. His prescription, right out the "Bill of Media Rights" is for change that favors small, locally owned or family based media organizations, perhaps some owned by nonprofits, by labor unions or other noble institutions.

I suspect that if the idealists behind the Bill of Media Rights had their way, CBS' "Survivor" would be replaced by the local School Board meeting; Fox's "24" would become Bill Moyers 24/7 and "American Idol" would be "Monday Night at the Opera." Any choice so long as it's not a mass market choice. That's democracy!

Well, at least we'll have the diversity provided by Netflix (unless the Hollywood studios fall under the control of Michael Moore's production company).

[If you have not found it before, Robert McChesney and I were central participants in an online "debate" about media ownership a few years ago at It remains fresh and appropriate. I think time has reinforced my position. But if you're a fan of Prof. McChesney I think his contributions will be fulfilling. To read in the order posted, start at the bottom of the listings.]

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