On February 10, 2014, the Chicago Tribune published an op-ed
headlined "NATO 3 belong in prison", referring to three Florida activists
who faced terrorism charges for reputedly planning to attack the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. The trial of the NATO 3 concluded days
before the publication of this op-ed, and the NATO 3 were found not guilty of terrorism. Even so, the NATO 3 -- who were entrapped by two undercover
police officers amid a climate of widespread regulatory and physical intimidation -- were found guilty on mob action and incendiary device charges, and
face up to 30 years in prison.
Activists who were involved with the anti-NATO efforts in Chicago responded back to the Tribune with an op-ed of their own. Chicago grassroots activists criticized the Tribune op-ed for its factual inaccuracies, for its double-standard on public funding of pursuing the NATO 3 (while criticizing the use of public funds for education and mental health facilities), and for its ignoring important and relevant facts -- such as the presence of the agents provocateur and the refusal by the sitting judge to reject hearing any First Amendment-related arguments during the trial.
The Tribune refused to publish the activists' op-ed response, much to the stern objection of the NATO activists. It's a tune that members of Chicago Media Action are all-too familiar with. The Tribune has published op-ed after op-ed making its case for horrible media policies that increase media concentration, give the public the shaft, and line the pockets of Tribune owners and investors. Activists and citizens, including those from CMA, submit response after response, only to face the cold shoulder from the Tribune and are forced to reach (a much smaller sliver of) the public by other means.
Indeed, freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one, according to A.J. Leibling's famous quote. But if there's any consolation it's that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice (which comes from another famous quote). The Tribune's op-eds now smell like month-old fish, the public hates media concentration (and has grown increasingly active over it), plus activists blocked the policies the Tribune wanted resulting in (among other things) the cleaving of the Tribune Corporation. The shame on the Tribune regarding the NATO 3 case will be a self-evident point in the future, just like we now regard the Tribune's treatment of the Haymarket 8 (which included an attempted juror buyoff).
On February 25, 2014, Chicago played host to the first screening in a continent-wide tour for the documentary film Shadows of Liberty. The film is an in-depth critical examination of the American media, including (and especially) the struggle for the public to enter and influence American media policy. The Shadows of Liberty screening in Chicago, in a peculiar bit of historical irony, took place in Lincoln Hall at Northwestern University Law School in downtown Chicago. The irony is, as longtime Chicago media activists will recall, that the same room that showed Shadows of Liberty in 2014 to a crowd of about 200 people in Chicago also played host in 2003 to that year's Midwest Forum on Media Ownership. That forum, along with a dozen other official and unofficial fora in 2002 and 2003, coupled with a great deal of other efforts by a lot of people, helped to rally awareness and opposition to the Federal Communication Commissions's controversial media ownership rule evisceration in 2003. That's no small matter; the opposition helped make those rule changes the second-most popular news story of 2003, and fueled a successful court ruling that overturned the rules' implementation and prevented our concentrated and bad media from getting much more concentrated and far worse.
As to the film Shadows of Liberty itself, it is, in a word, outstanding -- quite possibly the best documentary film about the American news media and American media system ever made. (That's not a topic that has engendered a lot of critical filmmaking, which makes it rather sad that the hurdle to jump over is so low.) The film provided a number of case studies of where the American news media went wrong or went awry, pointing an accusatory finger at corporate control, government malfeasance, and the almighty dollar. The film, to its eternal credit, did review some the popular efforts in 2003 and 2007 to oppose the FCC's beheading of its media ownership rules, but there I felt it showed an incomplete picture. Shadows of Liberty showed the protests at the 2003 FCC meeting where FCC chair (and present-day cable TV lobbyist) Michael Powell voted to ballwhack the ownership rules. But the film didn't mention the buildup of the opposition over those months (of which the Midwest Forum on Media Ownership was a key part), nor did the film discuss the widespread outrage that followed, nor did it mention the court ruling in 2003 that overturned the FCC's ruling in its entirety, nor did it mention the subsequent positive consequences (like the corporate flailing that followed, the advance of LPFM due to the behind-the-scenes sniping, and the breakup of Viacom and the Tribune Corporation). To be fair, there was so much that the film could NOT mention due to time constraints, and as the filmmaker himself mentioned at the Chicago screening of Shadows of Liberty, and some painful decisions had to be made. But the opposition was featured where it is almost always ignored in American media, even in a form that's admittedly incomplete, and for that the film deserves our support.
You can judge for yourself: The film is viewable at one of the many screenings at the long-awaited American screenings tour of the film (encompassing a planned 171 cities). You can also get a DVD of the film or view the film via online pay-per-view. End commercial.
I had the good fortune to be a panelist at the post-film panel, which included an all-star cast including CMA contributors Dale Lehman (of WZRD radio in Chicago, 88.3 FM) and Mike Kalas (of Chicago's MultiKulti). The panel, moderated by Chicago radio host WC Turck, was recorded and the video has been posted online:
The film's promotional organizers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete the tour of North America, and by "funds" we're talking a goal of $13,500. In a world where Comcast and Facebook can throw out multi-billion-dollar mergers, it's a shame that authentic grassroots efforts to raise awareness of such an important issue has to scrape and claw to get even the pittance that's being asked for. Hence, we strongly encourage you to contribute to the campaign if you are able to do so.
The story of Torey Malatia's long overdue firing by the Chicago Public Media trustees was broken first by media critic Robert Feder at his facebook page, and is covered and discussed at Crain's Chicago Buisness and elsewhere as well. It is important to understand two things that are being overlooked in the coverage of Malatia's exit. 1) Media activists played a key role in his removal, and 2) the larger related problem -- the democratic deficits in WBEZ's decision-making process -- remains unaddressed.
The station's "Smiley & West" debacle is but one result of those deficits. Last fall, Torey Malatia’s decisions forced “Smiley & (Cornel) West” onto two local commercial niche stations with a combined average audience one third smaller than WBEZ’s. How should this be interpreted by marginalized groups the station is supposed to serve? Tavis Smiley declared, “(I)t is easier for an African American to be president of the United States than it is to host a primetime radio program on Chicago Public Radio.” In classic Orwellian newspeak, WBEZ claimed it was acting in the interest of "inclusiveness”. This type of thing is old news to WBEZ; Malatia was also in charge back in 2003 when Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting cited WBEZ for having no daytime weekday programs with non-white hosts.
It is important to remember Malatia's main concern that "Smiley & West" had "developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity”. On this point he compared “Smiley & West” to the Pacifica radio program “Democracy Now!” -- a daily independent broadcast news and discussion show hosted by Amy Goodman that airs on over a thousand public and community stations - but not on WBEZ. Malatia then also compared “Democracy Now!” to “The Rush Limbaugh Show”, a choice that lead to a sharp public response by the democratically-elected Pacifica radio governing board. Pacifica stated, "It is disappointing when the term advocacy is used as a smear to trivialize the presentation of intelligent and passionate discussion that is sometimes critical of the American status quo."
Over a thousand Chicago media activists gave WBEZ and Malatia a resounding "thumbs down" by calling and writing the station and/or attending an event last November organized in opposition to Chicago Public Media's modus operandi.
In Chicago, as elsewhere, the commons of public media, like public education, are besieged as never before by an epidemic of corporate engineered privatization. Part of that attack is to de-legitimize any role of regular people in shaping the media and education systems that they rely on. The more important question is not who the CEO of WBEZ is but rather who should have ultimate control over Chicago Public Media's decisions: working and poor Chicagoans or the wealthy corporate elite currently pulling the strings?
Background on Malatia's "Smiley & West" debacle here and, via Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's Steve Rendall, here.
The New York Times reported on Sunday, April 20th, that Koch Industries, run by the infamous Koch brothers -- they of oil and global warming infamy -- is considered the frontrunner in the race to buy the Tribune corporation's newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.
Understandably, revulsion is widespread over the very prospect, but many folks apparently need to be updated on a few things.
For one, the very fact that the Tribune is being broken up, and that this sale is even happening, is the consequence of grassroots political activism going back at least a decade. The Tribune corporation, in 2002 and 2003, sought to become a first-tier media corporation, like Time Warner, or NewsCorp, or Viacom, and the plan was for the Tribune to expand via expanding its suite of profitable and influential cross-media ownership holdings -- like owning TV stations and newspapers in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago. But instead of owning them in a handful of cities, the vision was to own them in _every_ city in America. The FCC, then led by the infamous Michael Powell (who's now America's chief cable TV lobbyist), was only too happy to oblige. But grassroots activists rallied Americans to what was happening just in time, and the resulting outcry galvanized a court challenge which overturned the FCC's attempt to overwrite those media ownership rules. (A second attempt in 2007 to rewrite those rules failed a second time in court.)
The Tribune corporation, whiny over its loss, moaned about the turn of events on its editorial pages, and filed appeals to overturn the ruling. Those appeals failed, and when Tribune shareholders saw that the Tribune had no Plan B for carrying out this planned expansion, staged a revolt to demand an ownership change. They got it, in the form of Chicago-area real estate billionaire mogul Sam Zell, who then proceeded to make a bad situation far worse. Instead of charting a trajectory of growth, Zell led the Tribune into bankruptcy for four years, fending off well-heeled creditors who made hell for Zell.
In early 2013 the Tribune emerged out from bankruptcy, but all reports say that the commutation is actually a death sentence, as Tribune plans to sell off most if not all of its media properties. (It has already sold off the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which it owned since the 1980s.) First on the chopping block: the newspaper holdings.
It's an irony that grassroots political activism played a key role in what could be a buyout of a major American newspaper chain by two of America's most reviled billionaires. If the opposition were smart they would exploit this fact to discredit America's media reform and justice movements. Nevertheless, the efforts to block the immediate media ownership rules at the FCC, while successful, haven't (yet) addressed deeper concerns regarding undue political influence, and corporate involvement in media and politics. I've been working on this myself; no doubt others will as well. But suffice it to say that the Koch buyout of the Tribune newspapers isn't a foregone conclusion for a number of reasons.
For one, the Kochs will now get the full-throated response of the environmental movement in addition to the media reform and media justice communities in its attempted buyout. That's not insignificant; the environmental movement has increasingly been flexing its muscle on the climate crisis. Suddenly, once they hear that the Kochs may look to widen their influence by buying out a number of prominent newspapers, they will add their voices to the resistance. And it's been the growth of voices of resistance which proved critical in blocking previous attempts at widening media concentration.
For another, the FCC (the government agency which would have to approve a transfer) is in a state of flux. They are short of their full complement of five commissioners, with Republican Robert McDowell departing and chair Julius Genachowski about to depart. The FCC might be leery to proceed on this without a full complement of commissioners, though its unclear how long it would be before it got back to full strength. Remember, the last two times the FCC tried to proceed on increasing media ownership concentration, the FCC got their rewrites smacked down in court. It might not bode well to go down that rabbit hole again for a third consecutive time. Even so, the FCC might still grant a one-time waiver or waivers for a transfer without having to enact a full and thorny media ownership rewrite. But even that might not work: the FCC actually granted an exception to the Tribune itself in 2007, and that action did nothing to prevent its current travails.
What's more, the Tribune could choose a less-notorious (or less-well-known) company to buy out its newspapers. Sure, the Kochs are currently the leading candidate, but it might not stay the leading candidate. A deal could get scuttled in ways we can't yet foresee, but which grassroots political activism could foment. What's more, investors might be less than enthused to see Koch get into an industry that's seen in many corners as moribund and steadily decreasing as a source of news and journalism, but which remains a prominent source of local community information.
Meanwhile, the effects of global warming will escalate, the conservative media establishment will continue to look like a bunch of headless chickens, and to quote one friend: "a new, right wing maneuver to capture the corporate media will make its biases even less implicit." The endgame is far from assured.
UPDATE: The Kochs are coy about the report. See also this tweet.
In January 2013, the Chicago Tribune did the closest equivalent to self-reflection journalism that it probably ever has done, and likely will ever do, in its mammoth four-part business story about the Tribune itself, entitled "Broken Deal". The story by Steve Mills and Michael Oneal documented the saga from when the Tribune changed ownership hands in 2007 to the Tribune's departure from bankruptcy in early 2013. The report chronicled the change of ownership to that of Chicago-area billionaire tyrant Sam Zell, the red flags over the deal both before and after the changeover completed, the ensuing complications in the boardroom and the newsroom while Zell and Tribune CEO Randy Michaels were in charge, and the roller coaster in bankruptcy court over the control of the Tribune Corporation.
The report, unlike the haughty reporting usually found in the business pages, has a rare air of fatalism to it, not only because it's talking about a topic close to home -- the travails of its corporate parent -- but because it's widely believed that the Tribune Corporation will soon be no more in its current form, as most if not all of its properties are expected to be sold off by the end of 2013. The patient has survived surgery and emerged from its years-long coma, only to be ready to have its limbs and head chopped off and all the pieces thrown to hungry cannibals waiting outside. (Indeed, the week this post was being written, word has broken that the Tribune has hired an investment bank to help weigh the sale of its top newspapers.)
The Tribune report deserves credit for summarizing in one place the years-long mess that ensued from meager beginnings. But the report, like the Tribune's reporting across its history, has grave shortcomings (pun very intended), not the least of which is that it glossed over the circumstances which led to the Tribune going into different ownership and into bankruptcy in the first place.
The Tribune discussed a small bit of history in the first part of the report, when it reports on "the legacy of a frustrating $8 billion deal in 2000 to merge with Los Angeles Times parent Times Mirror Co. The merger produced a bitter culture clash between the two companies that resulted in [Tribune CEO Dennis] FitzSimons and his team being demonized in Los Angeles as zealous cost cutters despite the need to rein in spending at the Times Mirror properties."
That deal put the Tribune in the mildly awkward position of breaking the law -- the FCC's cross-ownership rule which forbade (and still forbids) the ownership of a newspaper and television station in the same city, because concentrated media are inimical to democracy and free speech. In response, the Tribune
bribed convinced the FCC to grant it waivers to allow it to keep those newspapers in face of the law, thinking (as did everyone) that they could get the FCC to abolish that law, at which point it could then buy and profit from waves of cross-ownership holdings across the country and grow to become a top-tier media company. And they would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for meddling media activists like those with Chicago Media Action. We had our Seattle moment with the media ownership uprising in 2003, raising such an outcry over media concentration that even the corporate media sat up and took notice, as did the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which heard the outcry and blocked the FCC's attempt to abolish cross ownership and a number of other key media ownership rules.
It's no exaggeration to say that the Tribune gambled their future on that FCC ruling taking hold and sticking. Consider what happened when it didn't: The Tribune unleashed its fury against media activists and the public on its editorial pages, and tried to appeal away the ruling in the subsequent years, but all the appeals failed. Finally, in 2006, Tribune stockholders staged a revolt, distressed that the explosive growth they were promised was stymied (since those pesky media ownership rules were still in place). Here's what Broken Deal had to say about that:
"[The fallout from the Times Mirror purchase] was distracting, but the more significant threat to [Tribune CEO Dennis] FitzSimons' security was the growing unrest among the extended clan of legendary former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler. The Chandlers had controlled Times Mirror until the merger and held the second-largest block of Tribune Co. stock, after the McCormick Foundation. They were furious that the family fortune had been diminished under FitzSimons' watch and frustrated that exiting their position required cooperating with Tribune Co. to dismantle two partnerships the family had put together to limit taxes. Then in June 2006, the Chandlers brought matters to a head by launching a public campaign for FitzSimons' ouster. The CEO and supporters on the board pushed back. But what became clear in the following months was that even some longtime shareholders had had enough of the status quo."
Ultimately, the shareholder revolt succeeded in ousting FitzSimons and demanding new ownership. That's when Chicago-area billionaire tyrant Sam Zell became the Tribune's new owner and, as Broken Deal reports, ran the company into the ground.
The tenor of much of Broken Deal is marked by a sense that the Tribune was a victim of circumstances it couldn't control -- the banking collapse of 2008, the subsequent drying up of money in media markets, the incessant demands by banks, shareholders, and creditors. It's possible that these circumstances in combination could still have driven the Tribune into its present predicament, even if you take away our victory over the FCC in 2003. But suppose that the FCC hadn't been blocked, and the media ownership rules went on as proceeded. Billions of dollars of media ownership deals would have transacted in the fall of 2003, and the Tribune, in all likelihood, would have grown to become one of the largest media properties in America, with cross-ownership setups in dozens of cities nationwide. Fast forward five years to 2008 when the economy goes in the toilet; the Tribune would be a much larger company with a greater war chest, so that when the Great Recession hits, it can weather the storms more easily. It might even have to sell off some of its properties in order to stay afloat, just like what Clear Channel did. But at least the Tribune would have properties to sell; what's more, it wouldn't be in bankruptcy, it wouldn't be forced to choose between bad moves and worse moves, and it wouldn't spend four years fending off armies of ravenous creditors.
Plus, it's not like there was a huge media-fomented clamor over media ownership. Yes, there was a huge outcry, but that was generated as the result of grassroots actions, and not as the result of the media artificially ginning up awareness. Quite the contrary: the major corporate media clammed up about the media ownership proceedings in 2003 precisely because they didn't want to take the chance that the public would get in the way of the proceedings. The source of the victory on this score is clear. And it's not that much of hyperbole to say that WE (as in Chicago Media Action) killed the Tribune.
I stood right next to Amy Goodman as she talked to the head of WCPT at the Smiley & West event 11/8 about how only CAN TV is airing Democracy Now! here, and sure enough, according to media writer Robert Feder, the show will now finally, sort of be broadcast by a full power Chicago radio station. CMA's efforts re: DN! are noted by Feder. It is scheduled for 8-9PM weekdays, so most WCPT listeners will usually have to catch the show via daytime-only broadcaster 820 AM's stream. WCPT's average audience is only around a third of WBEZ's according to Radio Survivor Paul Riismandel, and there are going to be full fledged commercials before and after the show, but that should not affect the content, as this is surely one of the only broadcasts of the program on a fully commercial station anywhere. It's about time and congratulations to everyone who agitated for something resembling this over the last, what, ten years? Happy New Year!
Smiley & West w/Amy Goodman in Chicago: Poverty, Power and the Public Airwaves
Thursday, November 8, 2012
7:00pm until 9:00pm
Poverty, Power, and the Public Airwaves:
Post-election analysis and commentary from Tavis Smiley, Cornel West & Amy Goodman in Chicago
Northwestern Law School Downtown Campus
375 E. Chicago Ave.
FREE and open to the public
Doors open at 6pm
Facebook page -- WBEZhatesSmileyandWest.
While the winner of the 2012 race for the White House might not be known by Thursday, Nov 8th, one thing will know is that this first post-Citizens United presidential election created a new normal in U.S. electoral politics, with unprecedented amounts of corporate cash flooding the process, creating a tsunami of SuperPAC-funded negative ads that only served to distort and disinform the public, diminishing our democracy and deterring participation.
While trading barbs on the narrow range of issues on which they differ, Pres. Obama and Mitt Romney were united in ignoring issues of critical importance to a vast majority of people, for poverty, to war and climate change.
Broadcast networks made billions during this election season, while ignoring their obligation to serve the public interest. What role does the media play in furthering this erosion of our democracy, and how can people organize to ensure that they have a responsible, representative, and responsive media, a true public media that treats our airwaves as the vital national resource that they are?
Join is for an evening of engaged discussion.
Smiley & West