It would be the equivalent of the Pope giving a speech in the 1950s before a convention of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and saying: "You have a lot of pedophiles in your midst, and God is dead." Even if a statement like that is largely accurate, that's a bold statement to make to that audience from the position being held, at a high point (perhaps the highest point) of the conference's power and prestige.
Sixty years to the day as I write and share this post, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, longtime Chicagoan Newton Minow, gave a speech titled "Television and the Public Interest" before the lobby of commercial radio and TV broadcasting, the National Association of
Bastards Broadcasters (NAB). Minow became the only FCC chair to earn an entry in Bartlett's Quotations thanks to a quote in that speech:
"When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."
The remark is now widely regarded as a dispatch from Planet Obvious, but at the time and in that context and given the history of American broadcasting and the super-dominant position of the NAB at the time it was quite a jarring statement to make. To more fully appreciate the remark and its import, we need to delve into that history.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the NAB and allies in the government and radio engineering sectors had usurped the existing broadcasting setup in the United States to one of a sancrosanct for-profit commercial network model and had defeated a grassroots backlash of educators, nonprofits, labor unions, and civil libertarians. There had been some struggles in the following years and decades, including the FCC efforts to break up NBC to form ABC, and the Blue Book for imposing specific public-service requirements on American broadcasters, but those efforts hadn't really changed the milieu and still left the NAB and the networks in a dominant position. Heck, in the two years before, the broadcasters had successfully fought off a crisis of legitimacy resulting from the quiz-show scandals and the resulting high-profile Congressional hearings.
The FCC (and its predecessor the Federal Radio Commission) had overwhelmingly been a handmaiden the corporate power, and a stepping-stone for aspiring corporate-media attorneys to gain powerful positions within the industry. So for a new FCC chair to make these damning remarks was especially wounding, and the industry's reaction was predictably histrionic.
Ever since these remarks, the dominant position of the radio-later-television commercial broadcast networks has been steadily eroded. The means of the erosion was to expand steadily the number of available options. Minow himself spearheaded the expansion of the UHF television band, which helped expand the number of channels which by the end of the decade crystallized with the Public Broadcasting Act and the establishment (for all its flaws) of national-scale public television in the United States. The expansion continued: cable television, the internet, community radio, video on the internet (read: YouTube), and now a panoply of internet streaming options.
In the course of all this expansion, whenever a new opportunity opens, the corporations don't relinquish what they already have, and no one forced them to give up their extant holdings. Even though the extant radio networks (and the TV networks that faced the brunt of Minow's criticism) were built by the policy-driven bulldozing of existing community and nonprofit radio stations, but never mind.
The wave of cross-media consolidation which accelerated in the 1980s meant that broadcasters themselves have been bought out. ABC was bought by Capital Cities and later Disney; CBS was bought by Westinghouse and later Viacom; NBC was bought by General Electric and later Comcast. They are now pawns in a larger corporate game, and pawns with an apparently diminished social and cultural footprint, as noted by career broadcasters themselves.
But have things improved in the sixty years since Newton Minow made the NAB reach for their smelling salts? Is American television (and by extension American medi) still a vast wasteland? I would posit that yes that things have improved: more outlets and a somewhat greater diversity has meant that there are more opportunities for improvement. (The media ownership uprising of 2003 owes a great deal of credit to those additional media and opportunities.) We are seeing some progress on undoing the sacrosanct status of class-based market-driven capitalism has remained the sacrosanct set-up of our political economy, which has long been a buzzsaw against any progress against a class-based market-drive capitalist media system. The progress needs to continue and deepen, to further the oasification our vast wasteland.
Project Censored's yearbook Censored 2020: Through the Looking Glass (Seven Stories Press) examines the most important but underreported news stories of 2018-2019. These stories expose the corporate news media's systemic blind spots while underscoring the crucial role played by independent journalists in providing the kind of news and information necessary for a vibrant democracy. The book also examines this year's lowlights in "junk food news" and "news abuse"-- revealing how corporate media often functions as propaganda by entertaining rather than informing—and highlights the work of exemplary organizations that champion "Media Democracy in Action." Additional chapters address the importance of constructive journalism, the untold story of Kashmir, news coverage of LGBTQ issues in the Trump era, "fake news" as a Trojan horse for censorship, and online memes as a form of political communication.
Professor Steve Macek of North Central College, who edited Censored 2020’s Media Democracy in Action chapter, will be joined by journalist Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof and students who researched some of the underreported stories included in the book to talk about Project Censored, the book and the political implications of Project Censored’s analysis of contemporary news media.
A PDF copy of this announcement is available for download here.
Thursday, October 17, 2019 , 7pm – Free Event
1854 West North Avenue
Chicago IL 60622
Both the newsfeed and the podcast have been updated with audio and a transcript of a 2018 presentation at Third Unitarian Church, Chicago. The presentation is about Sinclair Broadcast Group (America's largest owner of TV stations) and Tribune Media.
The presentation delves into the histories of both companies, the attempt by Sinclair to buy out Tribune Media, the collapse of that attempt, and the role of popular activism in shaping the trajectories of both companies. Please enjoy.
The Union for Democratic Communications (UDC) is a conference of media scholars, media activists, and media producers, dedicated to critical study of the media and striving to improve the media and to diversify the media in all sense of the word. The UDC conference takes place in a different city every year. I've had the good fortune to attend previous UDC conferences in Boca Raton, Florida, and in St. Louis. And this year, 2018, Chicago will play host, during the weekend of May 10th through the 12th, in a building across the street from where I produced a radio show for five years.
On a related point, I find it uncanny that this conference bears a number of parallels to a certain other conference in late 2002 that resulted in the founding of what's now Chicago Media Action.
* Both took place in a building connected to Loyola University of Chicago.
* Both had the excellent Sut Jhally as a featured speaker near the end of the conference.
* Both had longtime ally Chris Geovanis as a featured panelist.
But there are clear differences too.
* The 2002 conference was at the Loyola campus in Rogers Park The 2018 conference will be downtown.
* Sut Jhally will receive an award in 2018 and will not, so far as I know, face an opposing speech from a member of AIPAC in the interest of "equal time".
* The panel featuring Chris Geovanis won't be abruptly cancelled in the wake of her arrest. Even better, she won't be arrested at all. ;-)
If you are able to attend the UDC Chicago conference, I strongly encourage you to do so. I have always found UDC conferences worthwhile, and much to its credit the UDC strives to keep its membership affordable, to the extent that no one will be turned away for lack of funds to pay. The schedule of the conference is here, and registration is available online.
Larry Duncan was a longtime media activist, media producer, labor activist and organizer. For more than thirty years, Larry helped produce the Chicago-based television program Labor Beat and was involved in many other media production, media activism and labor solidarity efforts. Our friends at Labor Beat posted word this week that Larry Duncan passed away.
Among the media activism efforts that Larry Duncan contributed to was Chicago Media Action. Larry attended the first meeting of what became Chicago Media Action, attended meetings without fail for years, and lent his advice, perspective, and hard work to CMA efforts and campaigns. Chicago Media Action became a better organization thanks to Larry's insight and counsel, and Chicago Media Action is all the poorer with his loss, as are efforts for a better media and for a stronger working class.
It might be premature to say, but it appears that the fight over net neutrality now marks the high point of media activism in American history. We saw wide-ranging ongoing activism throughout 2017, protests in more than 600 cities (including Chicago). The FCC docket, which already was the most-commented-on issue in the FCC's history, broke yet another order of magnitude.
And yet, the FCC by a three-to-two vote abolished net neutrality outright. No Title-I versus Title-II reclassification debate, no watered-down half measures, nothing. The FCC simply made net neutrality a dead letter.
The coverage and condemnation was swift, to the point where TV shows that normal everyday watch like Colbert and Seth Meyers and Saturday Night Live all prominently discussed the issue, the vote, and its potential aftermath. Certainly folks active on YouTube and on Twitch felt the potential impact
Commentary on the issue made predictions ranging from bad to worse. A sampling: My friend and fellow media activist Jennifer Pozner who wrote that "no words will sum up how depressing and dangerous this is". Another fellow activist, John Anderson at the DIYMedia blog, wrote a pessimistic but all too accurate blog post where the end of net neutrality marks the end of a four-decade-long quest to suppress the gains wrought by the activism of the 1960s and their aftermath. Anderson quoted the commentator Sarah Kendzior who went further, saying "For nearly a year, America has stood at the crossroads of a damaged democracy and a burgeoning autocracy. If net neutrality is destroyed, we will cross firmly into the latter, and our return is unlikely.". The anticipated effects of net neutrality's demise include the establishment of barriers to entry for new players in current markets, the harm to libraries and free speech.
I hate to say it, but these predictions may well come to pass. And yet that hasn't stopped people and groups from fighting back, on multiple fronts, with vigor. In the short term, the most likely avenue to win a reversal of the FCC's vote to abolish net neutrality is the forthcoming lawsuits. A great many parties are piling on, from nonprofit groups to the big tech firms to state attorneys general, including Lisa Madigan. And there's good reason to think that those lawsuits will win, particularly since there's reason to believe the potentially fraudulent basis of the FCC's decision. Even with a victory restoring net neutrality, as could well happen, the FCC, led by the execrable Pai, may just sit on his hands during his tenure as chair and simply refuse to enforce net neutrality once it's restored, leaving the big corporate ISPs to proceed with their plans anyway. It may take another suit (or two) to make Pai ultimately do his job, at which point he may simply abandon ship and return to the corporate sector.
Another front has been at the legislative level. In the days since the FCC's vote, Congressional Democrats have quickly mobilized support to the point that, just yesterday (from the time of this writing), the Democrats have achieved the numbers to force a Resolution of Disapproval vote. This avenue has much less likely chance to succeed in the short term; the Democrats don't have sufficient votes, and even if they were to muster the votes (maybe after the 2018 elections, if the Democrats can reclaim Congress), a presidential veto is likely. And in a breaking development: We're now seeing state legislators enter the fray.
The fight for net neutrality has given a surprising, and very welcome, shot in the arm to local broadband initiatives. You can consider net neutrality a rearguard action; it forces the cable and telephone monopolies rampant across America from abusing their privileged position to profit at the expense of free expression and innvoation. But if you have competition, the privilege is lost. That competition won't come from the markets, which are horribly concentrated, but from a constellation of local, affordable, government-run, broadband initiatives. It's no surprise then to see that the opposition are strangling these networks before they have a chance to be built and spending considerable funds to that end.
The fact that's there's such widespread activism and involvement on so many avenues, and why we were able to win repeatedly in the past, and why I'm hopeful in the long term even if the short term is a mix of good news and discouraging bad news. Critically, we have a rare opportunity which we have to seize to move the window of possibility beyond. And that's what I think the next front, at least conceptually, needs to be. Not just challenging monopolies and the policies they advocate, but challenging the very economic basis of competition. Competition breeds monopolies; you don't see competitors at sports events stick around for the whole duration of tournaments. They're winnowed down and steadily eliminated, and if we can understand that clearly in sports, why are we stupid to it in economics? But, I hasten to say, that's not a call for state control of the economy. It's a call for some alternative beyond command planning and beyond markets (which devolve into command planning). It's a call some kind of democratic planning of our economy, and there are well-worked-out models of same demonstrating how it can work. Even discussing this topic might be the biggest taboo we now face, but taboos have been broken before, and they can be broken here. It is the understandable next direction to follow, the next front to work on; discuss it we must, act on it we must, for the sake of net neutrality and much else besides.
On the day of this post, July 12, 2017, more than 70,000 websites from across the internet join a day of action to preserve the principle of a neutral internet (a necessity given the oligopoly that American telecom has become). This day of action echoes another coordinated day of action — the National Day of Outrage on May 26, 2004 — that Chicago Media Action started (it was our idea). We are glad that the fight for a neutral internet has continued and grown and had a resounding impact.
And wow, has it. In the 13 years since that National Day of Outrage, the fight has grown to become the most popular docket in the eighty-plus-year history of the FCC. What's more, the policy of Net Neutrality has been placed back on a strong Title II footing (the legal framework ensuring that ISPs can't overturn the policy in court), which has won in the courts (twice). In the court of public opinion, it's no contest: Even the companies that have led the charge against net neutrality for the past decade and change are now espousing rhetorical support for net neutrality (despite fighting for policies that do the opposite).
The fight and these wins were a long time coming, slogging for more than a decade to build awareness and an inside/outside game that ultimately succeeded in changing policy. But can we keep it? Sad to say, maybe not. With Donald Trump's election in 2017, the majority of FCC commissioners switches to Republicans, as does the FCC chair — a former Verizon attorney who got his law degree from the University of Chicago (my alma mater as well, by the way).
They are hell-bent to remove the internet from Title II protection, just two years after the reclassification was passed. Applying such anti-popular policies despite public outcry is nothing new for the FCC. The courts blocked them before in such cases, citing the public outcry as a key reason why. It's quite possible that an attempt to remove net neutrality from Title II protection is going the same path in the short term: the FCC will open a docket, see it flooded with comments asking/demanding/pleading not to remove net neutrality from Title II protection, and proceed to ignore them all and vote to do it anyway. We can then expect a filing to block, that they're applying a rule that's "arbitrary and capricious".
While all of that is happening, the ISP market is, as mentioned above, increasingly concentrated. Likewise, the internet itself is increasingly marketized and increasingly concentrated. Net neutrality doesn't address any of that; in fact, there's barely a whisper of commentary to that end. Not to say that net neutrality isn't important; it certainly is and I myself devoted more than a decade of work to help in that fight. It's just that the fix is just a bandage to some deeper issues that we'll need to address, and quickly.