The topics were provocative: The possible impeachment of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. How to stop an American invasion of Iran. And what to do about the corporate lapdog press.
Actually, at the National Conference for Media Reform, the first two were, in part, the reason for the third topic, which brought me and 3,500 other journalists and activists to Memphis earlier this month.
The waitress at the Beale Street hole-in-the-wall where I had dinner laughed at my attempts to explain the meeting. “It’s about trying to take control of the media from the corporations and give it back to the people,” I told her.
Her joking response showed the disconnect between this movement and the general public. The mainstream press may be losing readers right and left and under siege by everyone from Wall Street to bloggers to talk-show pontificators on both ends of the political spectrum. But the average person doesn’t connect the problem to corporate ownership.
Ironically, many journalists who work for corporate-owned media probably now do make that connection, since they’ve seen the Wall Street sharks ripping their industry to shreds in the last few years. A growing Wal-Martization of the media leaves an ever-dwindling number of reporters to cover local debates or issues of national and worldwide import.
Last year’s downsizing at The Dallas Morning News, for instance, cut the paper’s editorial staff significantly and reduced its Washington, D.C., bureau to a mere skeleton – so you won’t be seeing nearly as many Texas-specific stories out of the nation’s capital these days.
But folks in San Jose, Calif. may be hearing more news than ever about Fort Worth. NBC/GE plans to eliminate two of its Spanish-language newscasts originating there and replace them with news from a central hub in Fort Worth.
The national media reform movement, now about five years old, is picking up speed. It calls for diverse, truthful, and inclusive coverage by a (little d) democratic press that refuses to be a lapdog for Bush or anyone else and for legislation to break up ownership monopolies that are a large part of the problem.
In essence, the folks at the conference have decided they no longer have the luxury of simply complaining about the kind of flawed, uncourageous reporting that they believe helped get the United States into Iraq. They have set out to change the media at its roots and to publicize world-changing issues they think are now being submarined by most major daily newspapers and tv stations.
Beyond Iraq, the conference buzzed with fears of a war with Iran. David Swanson, Washington director of Democrats.com, said that, in the next couple of months, the New Mexico legislature probably will ask Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney. He said that future presidents must be stopped from using the maverick precedents set by Bush as the basis for further assaults on the Constitution and civil liberties.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the current wars stand out in American history for having been sanitized by the media. “You really don’t see the depth of sacrifice,” he said. “You never see a dead American soldier on the news.”
He talked about the failure of mainstream coverage to tell Americans what is happening to the Iraqi people and condemned the embedding of journalists. Those reporters make life more dangerous for other journalists, he said, because the Iraqis then see all reporters as just an arm of the military – and embedding makes that all too likely. “You can’t criticize me if I’m covering your ass,” he said.
Jane Fonda talked about Abir al Jenabi, the 14-year-old girl who was allegedly raped and murdered by U.S. soldiers in 2006. The same soldiers are also accused of killing her family and burning their home to cover the evidence. “The ringleader had a criminal record and a history of drug problems. The army granted him a ‘moral waiver,'” Fonda said. She recently founded a Women’s Media Center to investigate such policies.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said that for issues like healthcare, global warming, or the war, “you’re kidding yourself if you’re not concerned with corporate control of the media.”
If the media is a mirror held up to America, he said, “we want that mirror to reflect the lives of ordinary people” – including union members and war protesters. In 2003, he said, “Day after day those of us who opposed the war were holding press conferences that you never saw. … In terms of the war in Iraq, the American media … are as responsible as President Bush for the disaster that now befalls us.”
Members of Congress at the conference said they want to discuss the fairness doctrine that, until the late 1980s, required equal time for issues debated on broadcast channels. They also want Congress to reconsider the Telecommunications Act, which increased media consolidation.
“The country today is at one of the most critical moments in its history,” U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York said – and it needs a free, fair, and independent press more than ever.