Media Reform and Media Revolution

A Critique of Free Press and the National Conference on Media Reform

The dominant evaluation of this year's National Conference on Media Reform is that it was an overwhelming success. In fact--relative to where the movement could and should be--the conference's achievements were underwhelming. Political divisions, a dearth of democracy and a short-sighted agenda threaten the future effectiveness of the movement.

The following is an analysis of a key emerging division within the movement against the corporate strangle hold on media, a friendly criticism of the organizers at Free Press who are currently exerting a major influence over its direction, and finally, a set of concrete prescriptions for future conferences that flow directly from this analysis.

[A list of substantial responses to the conference and to this article will be posted to, along with a link to an open discussion area.]

At this moment in history, these considerations are crucial. There is a real opportunity to oppose the disinformation of the corporate media, and the opportunity is in danger of being squandered. The success of this movement will contribute substantially to whether democratically elected governments are overthrown, whether new wars are declared and thousands killed, whether the IMF continues to ruin the lives of millions, and whether the US continues its decline into de facto fascism.

Are Reform...

Free Press, which convened the conference, advocates a reform agenda. Their goal is to facilitate democratic control over the policies that govern the press and broadcast media. In their own words, they seek to "generate policies that will produce a more competitive and public interest-oriented media system with a strong nonprofit and noncommercial sector."

Free Press' agenda is dominated by policy reform. As Free Press directors Ben Scott and Russell Newman put it in their contribution to The Future of Media: "To win just media, we must deliver just media policy." [original emphasis] As representatives of Free Press articulate again and again, this is the order in which change occurs: first just policy, then just media.

...and Revolution...

Judging by the loud cheers when Naomi Klein said that "it's not a question of reform, it's a question of revolutionizing the media," media revolution (at least in the abstract) is not an unpopular idea with conference-goers. (It might be contrasted with the collective grumbling with which an otherwise extremely enthusiastic audience received Bill Moyers' citation of NPR's "courageous coverage" of the Iraq war.)

Indymedia activists made a prominent show of their discontent with several features of the conference by setting up an ad-hoc Open Publishing centre outside of the conference's Saturday night keynote, inviting the audience to participate in an open online discussion about the conference. (I was among them.)

Instead of regulating the corporate press, Indymedia activists seek to render it irrelevant by empowering people to "be the media" by doing their own reporting, creating their own radio stations, and publishing their own newspapers. Indymedia projects are democratically run, and decisions are made by consensus by those who participate in media-making. The overall goal of Indymedia is to empower people to represent themselves when they are misrepresented in the media.

The end result that Indymedia activists are working towards is quite different from (though not incompatible with) with those of Free Press: a world where historical and current injustices are addressed, where local democratic self-governance and autonomy have primacy, where control of resources and production falls under democratic community control.

In five years, and with no foundation or corporate funding, Indymedia has grown from nothing to a global media network with almost 200 local collectives spanning 36 countries and 20 languages. Their web sites receive an estimated 30 million page views per month. Indymedia has many problems (lack of age, class, gender and racial diversity are frequently cited, and some see its chaotic nature as a weakness), but its successes are undeniable.

... Mutually Exclusive?

The point I'm making is not that Indymedia is superior to less radical media reform efforts; it is that being uncompromising and being wildly successful are not mutually exclusive. Success at the grassroots level sprouts from other criteria, of which solidarity, democracy and local relevance are examples.

Looking at the mandates of the reform-minded Free Press and the revolution-oriented Indymedia, there is a lot of room for agreement. In fact, there is little room for disagreement. In principle, Free Press seeks to open the space for the grassroots -- Indymedia, Prometheus Radio, Community Wireless, and hundreds of other initiatives -- to reach an audience without being shut down or marginalized by the government and corporations.

So why is there a problem?

The Structure of the NCMR

It has been said that "whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, the chances of progress in your primary area are far less likely." This seems to have become a sort of mantra for Free Press organizers, but they have carried it one step further. Media Reform, they have said repeatedly, is the issue of concern here, and we shouldn't get distracted by other political fights.

Their concern is understandable, and no doubt well intended. If the movement is dominated by infighting, it could lose momentum. As Free Press would have it, we need to stay focused on policy reform, and then we can have independent media.

Unfortunately, this concern betrays a lack of understanding of this movement in particular and politics in general, and could ultimately stifle the emerging resistance instead of accelerating and empowering it.

Let's look at the format of the conference. Friday: speakers address the conference, followed by pre-planned panels, workshops and films, punctuated by breaks. Panels were followed by a short question period, during which audience members were asked to keep things short and told to "please ask your question". Saturday: pre-planned panels, workshops and films until 4:30, at which point there are caucuses, the one official time that people can speak directly to each other. This was followed by a two hour "Media Democracy Showcase", where various organizations set up tables. I was unable to attend, as a number of Indymedia organizers had organized a last minute caucus to address concerns about the conference. Soon after, there was a star-studded keynote session featuring Al Franken, Jim Hightower, FCC Commissioners, and others. The final day made time for "action clinics", followed by a plenary session where a harried Sydney Levy delivered a packed five minute summary of concerns with the conference--a rare moment of questioning.

I attended the Independent Media Producers' Caucus, and was surprised to find that instead of participating in a discussion among peers, I was subjected to an agenda, set ahead of time, of discussing ways in which the full room of independent media producers could advance the agenda of media reform. It was insulting.

In hindsight, I should have been more careful in reading the conference program, which reads:

The objective for these caucuses is to allow participants from specific stakeholder constituencies to meet other conference participants from their constituency, allow participants to articulate this group's stake and role in media reform, and to discuss ways this constituency can engage more deeply in media reform. [emphases added]

This language, and my experience of the "caucus" itself, in which attendees' protests were repeatedly glossed over, reflects a fundamental confusion on the part of Free Press organizers about how popular movements function and what feeds them.

Whence Came the Movement?

"Regardless of what any media reform group's first issue of importance is, our secondary issue must be social justice, if our first one is media reform, because so long as racial economic and gender inequalities persist, the task of democratizing the media will be vastly compromised, if not impossible across the board. We cannot have media democracy without social justice." -- Sydney Levy

It's important to note where popular movements do not come from.

They do not come from a concern with policy, or with a desire to democratize federal bureaucracies and regulations. 99.9% of Americans do not dedicate a significant part of their day to thinking about policy qua policy.

However, a clear majority do think there is too much advertising, do want better news coverage, do want their communities accurately represented in the media. And a significant number have tried to make their own media only to be shut down--by corporations, the government, or both.

It is likely that the majority of these people have not heard of either Indymedia or Free Press.

The media reform policy agenda is important, and thousands of people have recognized it as such. But to sustain its growth, the movement (and its self-appointed leaders) must recognize where it comes from.

It comes from being misquoted. It comes from an attempt to start a radio station or community wireless network that is shut down by Clear Channel or Verizon. It comes from Fox News. It comes from a lack of community reporting. It comes from a lack of critical coverage of Social Security "reform". It comes from propaganda for war. It comes from the stereotypes of Muslims or women (for example) that are cultivated by the media.

If one accepts that this is the case, then the way to cultivate a movement many times the size of the current one is clear. Rather than enlisting the (relatively small) existing pool of conscious people into policy wars, the goal should be to make sure as many people as possible have the experiences that lead them to become active in the fight against corporate media, and then help them fight their own fight. And win.

The National Conference on Media Reform facilitates this in a limited way, but it seems to do so despite itself.

The US part of the global justice movement that marched in Seattle, Washington DC, New York and San Francisco has been learning that asking people to sign on to your agenda because you know best isn't the way to build a movement; it's the way to limit it. Free Press can learn this too. It needs to.

And How Does Reform Happen?

Now that hundreds of thousands of people are concerned enough to act, how do we channel that concern into concrete change on the ground? The question should be asked before an answer is provided.

The Dean/Free Press model of turning concern into action, whereby widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo is channeled into focussed campaigns to change specific policies, has become popular. (Concerns with the lack of accountability or democracy in this model -- e.g. who decides what campaigns to take on? -- have been voiced.)

While no one can deny the power of uniting millions of people to speak in unison in favour of one cause, we must ask: is that enough?

Not nearly. The model is simply a way of harvesting the existing discontent, not building, complexifying, connecting and expanding it.

For reforms to be substantial, the threat of revolution must be real.

Who believes that the minimal welfare states that exist in Western Europe, Canada and the US would have happened without the threat of communist revolution? What politician acts against his friends and powerful lobbyists without the threat of being defeated in the next election?

If we want to reform the media, we must undermine their credibility and their very existence from one end, while providing a "reasonable" way out on the other. If they do not heed the call of reform, and we replace them, so much the better.

In the US, the right understands very well how to use its radical factions to move the debate to the right. I remember hearing Republican leaders on NPR calling attention to some "challenging" proposals -- by more radical house Republicans -- to legislate the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. They didn't have any intention of passing such legislation, but calling attention to it as an imminent threat helps to move the debate in their direction and further their anti-abortion agenda.

In the case of the right, cultivating a base of uncompromising radicals has only helped them accomplish their political objectives.

The liberal left in the US has yet to figure this out. Democrats wouldn't be caught dead saying "well, some people are calling for the breakup of the media monopolies and local democratic control over the electromagnetic spectrum, but we're making the much more reasonable request for more spectrum for LPFM stations in cities." But there's a good reason: the broadcasters fund the Democrats and control the news coverage about them, too.

Thankfully, Free Press is non-partisan.

In Front of the Parade

On many levels, Free Press recognizes these facts remarkably well. (I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't think they do good work.)

However, the organization's tendency (by no means monolithic) to try to constrain the movement and keep its own agenda at the fore will be damaging in the long term. Having placed itself at the front of the "Media Reform" parade, it is in danger of confusing being in front with being the reason the parade is happening--just as liberals confuse the fact that they were forced to implement a social safety net by the threat of social movements taking power with the idea that it was their leadership and benevolence that made it happen.

While it is an extremely important component of a strategy against corporate control of the media, policy is a secondary consideration in the building of a movement.

Free Press' Ben Scott and Russell Newman make the opposite case in "The Fight for the Future of Media, invoking the potential of consolidation of control over internet networks and the end of common carrier rules:

The Indymedia battle cry of "Hate the Media? Be the media!" will ring hollow if "being the media" requires signing a contract with Comcast or Verizon to have a mass-media mouthpiece in tomorrow's media system. (p. 32)

This is not inaccurate.

But while the case for media activists of all stripes to lend some kind of support to Free Press' policy reform agenda is a compelling one, the political fact remains: Free Press won't build the massive grassroots movement it needs by asking for the existing movement to submit to its agenda and stifling their natural tendencies to build alliances and to self-organize.

There is a need for humility among the conference organizers on this question. This is all the more difficult, given the accolades they are receiving for their organization of the conference. It is all the more important, given the critical moment we are in.

What is the goal of the National Conference on Media Reform?

Does the NCMR exist to further the immediate agenda of Free Press, raising its profile and lending support to its campaigns? If so, this should be made clear, so that the other parts of the anti-corporate media movement can regroup and create their own venues for networking and growing the movement as soon as possible.

Or is it to further the political goal of creating a media that serves the public and works for a more just and democratic society? If so, Free Press needs to water and fertilize the grassroots and sow seeds of resistance.

You get our back, we get yours. That's solidarity, and that's how you build a movement. The role of the conference organizer is twofold: to address the needs of the movement, and to facilitate alliances between individual initiatives. It's that simple.

An Open List to Free Press, or: Some Suggestions

  1. Empower, don't hijack.
    It is crucial that people be treated as human beings with the ability to make political decisions for themselves. It's your job to give them the tools to do it and make the case for doing it. It's up to them to do the rest. People will appreciate this.

  2. Cultivate the conditions for action instead of giving orders.
    Free Press decided not to set up a media centre where people could update their blogs, publications, upload audio, etc. But it is exactly this kind of resource that will achieve the desired effect of amplifying the message of media reform. Hijacking the independent media producers' one chance to talk to each other (for example) seems to have the opposite effect (a quick glance at Indymedia coverage of the conference confirms this).

  3. Globalize. (Solidarity is mutual.)
    At the excellent "Globalizing the Media Reform Movement" session, speakers from Korea, Brazil and Africa spoke of the need to support media reform movements inside the US. Our ability to hold media accountable to the truth will make the difference between life and death, poverty and prosperity for millions of people. The support of those millions is there, waiting for a connection. For some reason, the connection isn't being made. Why not invite delegations from social movements in Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon, Ukraine, France, Haiti, South Africa, India, Nepal and dozens of indigenous communities to speak about how disinformation in the US media harms them? The potential in those names alone shifts the focus from why the movement is so large to why the movement isn't much, much larger.

  4. Get horizontal!
    For anyone wanting to organize a serious caucus outside of what the conference had already planned, the responsibility for promoting it rested firmly on their shoulders. Why not announce all independent caucuses at the close of each panel, workshop and film that takes place right before the caucus? Better yet, devote one of the concurrent sessions in each timeslot to open, facilitated discussions on specific areas of strategy and organizing. (Those who want to see big names talk at them will get what they want, and so will those who want to build and discuss. Everyone will be happy.) Brainstorm ways to get people who are working on the same things talking to each other. The result will be a stronger and better-connected movement.

  5. Recognize and encourage the contribution of all participants in the movement to media reform.
    It can't be said often enough that media reform doesn't come from policymakers, it comes from a broad range of movements for social justice, independent media, and community organizations. It's not enough to recognize their past contributions; they will be an integral part of any successful movement to reform the media.

  6. Encourage Debate.
    There are political tensions emerging in the movement, which remained invisible to most conference-goers. The majority of attendees are not invested in one side or the other of any conflicting set of visions, but depriving everyone of a clear delineation of the possible futures of the movement only impoverishes our collective imagination while maintaining the wafer-thin illusion of unity.

  7. Transparency.
    Make public the minutes of your organizing meetings and the archives of your mailing list, and consult widely before making major decisions. It's difficult, but you will earn trust, hear a lot of valuable suggestions, and your organizing (and its political outcomes) will be much more rooted and solid as a result. I know from experience that this is a difficult step to take, but nonetheless a deeply worthwhile one.

  8. Democracy.
    At the very least, send out an email asking what people want from the next conference and open up an organized online discussion where people can talk about how best to run the conference. And then listen. But Free Press could do a lot more. Open up the organizing to involve other groups, and distribute responsibility for different parts of the conference. (For example, let the Indymedia set up the space for people to make their own media and learn about open publishing that mysteriously didn't happen this time around.) The result will be a richer and more dynamic convention.

  9. React to politics with creativity, not fear.
    When the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) asked Free Press (and all others planning conferences in St. Louis) to support their call for a Civilian Oversight Board so that police brutality could be investigated independently, Free Press responded that they were "here to discuss media reform". Sydney Levy rightfully (and politely) called this what it was. If Free Press can't see how police brutality or the lack of a civilian oversight board is a media issue, then there's a fundamental disconnect. (If you're reading this near a phone, call Mayor Francis Slay -- (314) 622-3201 -- and tell him there's no excuse for blocking the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board.)

  10. Shed the bizarre fear of politics.
    Most people realize that they live in a world with a lot of different points of view, cultural values, and political agendas. There's no need to protect them from anything. The question that should be asked is not how conflicting agendas can be kept from clashing, but how dialogue can be made as productive and open as possible. The margins and the intersections: that's where the breakthroughs and innovations happen.

  11. Make it more accessible.
    Nice work with the scholarships. Now expand them, make the price sliding scale, lower it overall.

  12. Ask not what the movement can do for you.
    Where are the strongest social movements in the world? In the US? Hire organizers to go and ask them what they need to fight the bad media coverage that they are inevitably getting. It's going to be different in every case; some people just need legal protection or to be bailed out of jail, some need sophisticated web sites, and some might even need your media reform toolkit. But if you find yourself thinking that they should just do what you tell them, that you know what's best--quit while you're ahead.

The Response?

Whether Free Press embraces these (and similar) suggestions or not, their decision will help organizers and activists to decide how to respond. Do we put our energy into other gatherings to fight corporate media? There is considerable momentum in this direction already, but Free Press will decide to what extent its National Conference on Media Reform will stay relevant to the movement as a whole. If it exists primarily to further one agenda, rather than to build a movement, it's better for everyone that we know sooner rather than later. This question is nothing less than crucial, as millions are depending on our success.

If Free Press decides not to broaden the conference to achieve political goals and remains focussed on a narrow reform agenda, their resources and formidable organizing power will be missed, but the movement will ultimately be better served by cultivating gatherings (the Allied Media Conference is one example) that focus on formulating a real political challenge to the corporate media.

All that said, if there's anyone who claims that defeating corporate media is possible without a broad based movement that takes social justice and a full range of tactics into account, that's a dialogue I'm keen to participate in, as are many others. Now all we need is a venue.

Dru Oja Jay has been a media activist for about four years. He works with Indymedia, the Indigenous Peoples' Solidarity Movement, Haiti Action Montréal, is the Coordinating Editor of The Dominion, and maintains and two weblogs. He lives in Montréal, and can be reached at