In Memoriam: Charles Benton

Posted by Mitchell - July 19, 2015 (entry 713)

We have lost another longtime fighter in the struggle for a better media: Charles Benton, who died in late April at age 84.

Chicago Media Action members routinely worked with, and alongside, Charles on various media issues, mostly on media concentration and corporate mergers. Charles lived in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, and Charles was active and present — in the stands, in the seats, in meetings — alongside coalition activist efforts that CMA helped with, in the 2007 Media Ownership Hearing in Chicago, in the 2010 efforts to oppose the Comcast buyout of NBC Universal, and in the efforts to expand community radio, among other efforts.

Charles' had an ostensibly elite pedigree — a graduate of Yale, former president of the Encyclopedia Britannica Education Foundation, founder of a namesake foundation devoted to media that got its startup funds from $8 million in Britannica stock, and funder the televised presidential forums during the primaries in the 1976 U.S. Elections. But you never got the feeling that he was better than you, I certainly didn't. Far from it: he was always willing to lend a hand, lend an ear, get involved in the nitty-gritty work of organizing and struggle. He knew that it you couldn't win the efforts for a better media by spending your way to victory; he got involved — and his efforts were legion. Just a glance of the Charles Benton memorial page shows the extent of the groups and efforts with which Charles collaborated. And those efforts long predate Chicago Media Action — for example, in 1968, Charles organized the Citizens Committee to Save WFMT in the wake of a sale to WGN Continental Broadcasting.

Those efforts — all of our efforts — for a better media and a better tomorrow will sorely miss Charles. But those efforts will continue. Certainly, the Benton Foundation continues on; particularly helpful is the Benton Foundation's online newswire, an absolute goldmine of news of media and media policy and a must for anyone interested in the latest developments. The Benton foundation's website has also posted the definitive obituary of Charles Benton.

There are also statements by Free Press and by former FCC commissioner Michael Copps.

Victory in the Net Neutrality Wars: A Personal Recollection (2006-2015)

Posted by Mitchell - April 18, 2015 (entry 712)

This blog post is adapted from the script of a short film I made about the Net Neutrality wars, and their victory for the public in 2015. You may watch the film here:

"[T]he future of the internet is the future of everything. There is nothing in our commercial and civic lives that will be untouched by its influence or unmoved by its power." -- Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Commissioner

On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission, in a stunning turnaround and dramatic win for the public, voted to reclassify the internet into a legal framework intended for public service, thus preserving the principle of net neutrality and improving its long-term chances for survival.

While the reclassification got scores of coverage, what got far less coverage was the work that made that vote happen -- work that was more than a decade in the making, and which I got to be a part of for nine years of that effort.

This is the story of that work.

On March 14, 2002, the FCC voted to change the legal framework governing internet modems, which gave much greater strength to corporations who sought to privatize the internet and introduce discriminatory pricing. The potential effects were dramatic: the internet, long regarded as a free and open medium, could become squelched in the wake of corporate consolidation of internet service providers who could set up a pricing regime that would turn the internet into just another version of cable television.

That reclassification vote in 2002 got barely a whisper of media coverage, and the three commissioners who carried it out would soon become high-ranking executives of the media apparatus they voted to support.

Grassroots activists began to agitate on the issue, and one internet service provider filed suit against the FCC in a case that in 2005 went all the way up to the Supreme Court. That case, NCTA vs. Brand X Internet Services, resulted in an affirmation of the FCC's right to reclassify the internet if they so chose.

That ruling, when it appeared on Slashdot, was the reason I got involved. My stomach turned, and I realized that media activists were in for a big fight.

The fight would move on to Congress, where Internet Service Providers lobbied to lock in the FCC's reclassification into law. In 2006, the vehicle to do so was the COPE Act. Chicago Media Action worked to help stop the bill which was sailing its way through a Republican Congress greased with lots of telecom cash and nary any public awareness.

Our main strategy to fight on this issue was to make it an issue in every way we resasonably could. We wrote blog posts and op-eds and Indymedia features and went on community radio and made short video features -- a lot of video features -- and sent emails and talked and talked and talked. We even organized a protest that spurred a national series of protests, under the shared banner the National Day of Outrage.

The hope was that increased public awareness would lead to increased public involvement, when both awareness and involvement were lacking.

All that work, and the work of many allies on the local and national scales, paid off. The COPE Act came to a screeching halt when Senator Ted Stephens of Alaska was captured on tape -- one recorded by an activist -- sounding like a buffoon, describing the internet as a "series of tubes". That recording gained national attention and greater awareness, embarrassing COPE Act supporters who couldn't bring the bill to a vote; the bill died from inaction.

The flurry of activity and attention also affected the FCC which to its credit did enforce a net neutrality policy, but one which was doomed to failure because of the reclassification of internet that the FCC carried out in 2002 and which the FCC refused to change back. Sure enough, the policy was defeated in court in 2010. The FCC responded later in 2010 with a second net neutrality policy, but again without changing the classification back to one that benefits the public, and in 2014 the policy was again defeated in court.

After that defeat, word leaked that the FCC would effectively surrender its net neutrality policy to Big Telecom. Just as word leaked, the public interest community mobilized to call for a reclassification and resoundingly so. The scale of the response broke all FCC records for comments on a docket in the agency's 80-year history, with about four million responses. Coverage, local and national, continued. Protests at the local level and those coordinated on the national level arose to ever-greater levels. Even the President, seeing the level of concern, announced his support for reclassification. And I delivered a series of lectures on net neutrality, which were compiled into an e-book and published.

And Big Telecom, with stale old talking points, was caught flat-footed. Signs in early 2015 showed hints of surrender by the big ISPs. And on February 24, 2015, in a room packed with activists and allies, the FCC voted to reclassify.

Lawsuits may loom from the big ISPs, and Congress may huff and puff over the FCC's supposed overstepping its bound. But the reclassification, thought to be a dead letter in early 2014, became live policy in early 2015; it gives net neutrality a much greater chance to win in court. Even so, the real win, and future wins to come, arose from the actions, large and small, of concerted individuals and groups defeating organized money.

It is a story to inspire us all.

Rest In Power, Danny Schechter

Posted by Mitchell - March 29, 2015 (entry 711)

Danny Schechter “the news dissector”, longtime media critic and activist, filmmaker, author, and friend and ally of Chicago Media Action, died on March 19th at the age of 72.

Danny ran the gamut of media production and media activism. He was a filmmaker "on the inside" having been part of CNN during its early days, and as part of the ABC news program “20/20” when that show still committed occasional acts of journalism. (I can remember seeing his name in the opening credits of 20/20 segments that he produced.) Danny even won two Emmys for his work at 20/20.

He also was very active "on the outside" having founded and served as executive producer of Globalvision, an independent film production company. Globalvision produced the acclaimed TV series "South Africa Now", which chronicled anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, and the TV series "Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television". Both of those shows got airplay on PBS stations, but Danny and Globalvision had to do an end-run around PBS national which steadfastly refused to pick up. They resorted to shopping the series one by one to local PBS stations, and got the show on upwards of 150 stations.

Danny was a strident critic of the media. On this topic Danny was decidedly passionate and active, having founded the media organizational coalition MediaChannel. He served as MediaChannel’s "blogger in chief" and was astoundingly prolific as a blogger, writing upwards of 3,000 words per day. That blog, in the days when it ran, served as a connective glue for a lot of progressive media efforts and initiatives. Danny gave generously of his space in the blog to many media-themed causes and efforts, and reported widely on efforts small and large.

It was in that capacity of challenging the major media that Chicago Media Action had the honor to co-present Danny's film WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception. And that continuing challenge of the major media that was all but whitewashed in the New York Times' obituary of Danny Schechter.

On top of all of that, Danny somehow found the time to write books — a dozen to his credit, certainly on media including the acclaimed The More You Watch, The Less You Know. He changed the focus of his work in later years to that of the economy, writing about the debt bubble, the Great Recession of 2008, and the rise of Occupy Wall Street.

Some more personal recollections: I notified Danny of the critique of the film WMD that was published in the Chicago Reader, and before you could say Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Danny had emailed an reply to the Reader which I got copied in on. I had the good fortune to appear on a panel with Danny Schechter at the 2004 Chicago Underground Film Festival. And I got to hang out with Danny for a week at the 2005 Z Media Institute; he was funny, always ready with a quick riposte at nearly every headline he read. And my goodness did he read a lot: when I asked him what was his media diet he read so much that he couldn’t give a reply. I also had the honor of starting Danny Schechter's Wikipedia page, and having a two-part interview with Danny on my radio program on WHPK.

There are tributes to Danny Schechter at Democracy Now! and at CommonDreams among many other places. The world is poorer for having lost such an active and supportive voice, and we owe it to ourselves to carry on his work. Rest In Power, Danny Schechter.

The 2014 Net Neutrality Wars saw two dramatic turns in the month of November, with analogues to recent history in both cases

Posted by Mitchell - November 13, 2014 (entry 710)

First came news that the FCC was drawing up a much-maligned "hybrid" approach to net neutrality, essentially dividing the internet in two, putting the back-end infrastructure under Title II common carriage provisions, while giving the front-end away to the big bad cable and phone incumbents to do with as they please. Needless to say, news of this proposal drew widespread scorn -- from both the phone/cable duopolists who wanted it ALL, and from the grassroots Heroes of the Internet who decried the proposal as too much of a capitulation to the Evildoers, and who also feared that such a policy would lose in court when it got sued (as did the FCC previous two attempts at net neutrality).

This proposed "hybrid" policy approach to net neutrality in 2014 brings to mind the "compromise" approach to media ownership that the FCC passed in 2007. At the time, then FCC-chair Kevin Martin (now a "consultant") took in a great many comments and feedback, including seven hearings held across the United States including one in Chicago. The result of this flood of feedback was a warmed-over version of the leftover dismal policies to Big Media, including some sweetheart gifts to the Tribune Corporation (which did squat to elude their march towards bankruptcy and a split of the company). The effect, then as now, was to piss off everyone: the public interest community, because it went too far; the corporations, because it didn't go far enough. In the end, the policy was overturned in court.

Days after word leaked of the proposed net neutrality "Frankenstein" plan of 2014, grassroots groups across America (including here in Chicago) organized emergency rallies decrying the proposal and calling for a geniunely protective policy -- that of Title II reclassification of the internet. Those calls got a very large boost in visibility when President Obama himself publicly supported that very reclassification. That call is quite significant; it is a strong encouragement to the FCC, and caused an evident freakout among the corporate hoi polloi.

Why make the call, and why make the call now? Part of it, to be sure, is the resounding success of public input on the docket -- some 3.7 million comments from the public, the overwhelming majority of which support a reclassification of the internet back to Title II common carriage. (Of course, what the public thinks doesn't always -- read: rarely does -- correlate to what the public wants or needs. Indeed, the FCC rammed through dismal media ownership policies in 2003 and 2007 in direct opposition to widspread popular will and the facts.) Another part of it is that, with the Republican victories in Congress in 2014, the window for Democratic-supported legislation is poised to close for the next two years, so a mentality of go-for-broke is probably enervating the Democratic party.

The trajectory of net neutrality in the latter parts of 2014 echoes the successful passage -- a decade in the making -- of the Local Community Radio Act in 2010. As in 2014, Republicans claimed one half of Congress in the wake of the 2010 elections. As in 2014, Congress had a rare window to get as much done as possible before the new Congress took hold. And as in 2014, a formidable lobby -- the National Association of Bastards Broadcasters -- stood in the way. But once the lobby was broken, passage of the bill and its signing into law became breathtakingly swift and hugely inspiring. Result: the FCC is currently considering more than 2500 applications (including a number in Chicago) for local community radio stations.

The net neutrality fight in 2014, however, also has some key differences from the community radio fight of 2010. (1) It's just a single agency -- indeed, a single man -- who holds sway over the future of policy. (2) A forthcoming Republican Congress that takes power in 2015 will almost certainly oppose a strong net neutrality statute (or, for that matter, any net neutrality statute). Congress could (in theory) override the FCC with a Resolution of Disapproval, as happened before. Whether or not that will happen, or what could happen afterwards, remains to be seen.

But for the net neutrality wars of 2014, the votes are there, the public support is clearly there, and support from the White House is now there. All of that is due to the work -- large and small -- of many MANY good folks guided by conscience. The trajectory of change is rocky but clear: We have to fight on, as we always do.

UPDATE: As I was writing this blog post, sources reported that the FCC was going to proceed ahead with its "Frankenstein" "compromise" despite Obama's support for Title II. FCC spokesperson (and former policy activist / Public Knowledge president) Gigi Sohn said that the reports are wrong and that things are still very much in formation -- so much so that a final policy recommendation shouldn't be expected until the start of 2015.

A Tale of Two Net Neutrality Freakouts

Posted by Mitchell - May 29, 2014 (entry 709)

On April 23, the (Rupert-Murdoch owned) Wall-Street Journal leaked news that the Federal Communication Commission would offer "paid prioritization" in its planned forthcoming net neutrality provisions. The first two attempts to enforce net neutrality failed to pass court muster. Indeed, the most recent attempt was largely crafted by corporate lobbyists for the tech industry and internet service providers, and which stood on shaky legal ground that doomed it to defeat.

Within a day of the announcement, the panic spread far and wide across America accompanied by a panoply of spontaneous actions in opposition -- blog posts, activist actions, videos, petitions, even a round-the-clock encampment outside the FCC itself in the days leading up to the vote. The groundswell reached historic proportions: estimates were that the number of people who commented on the docket at some way reached an estimated 3.4 million people, which would break the record of three million respondents set by the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003. The flood of commentary in opposition reach the point that FCC chair and former cable and telecom lobbyist Tom Wheeler was forced to respond.

His words, in blog posts, in public statements, and in the Notice for Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that the FCC passed on May 15, 2014, made Wheeler sound like he was the biggest internet activist in America and that those who raised a hue and cry were flat out wrong.

Words are one thing, but the policies at play point to an opposite approach, regardless their stated intent. The FCC, ever the environmentally-conscious citizen, recycled practically the same lukewarm policies crafted by corporate lobbyists for the tech and internet service industries (which lost in court). One hinted-at approach -- the so-called Section 706 -- would force the FCC to abandon net neutrality if it were applied. But in the final NPRM, there was one critical -- and encouraging -- difference: the FCC brought to the table the reconsideration of Title II Classification of the internet, which would restore the legal foundation that would help the FCC succeed in defending its net neutrality policies.

When word leaked that the NPRM put Title II back on the table, we saw another freakout -- this one by the internet service providers who were counting on a toothless net neutrality not getting in the way. If the opposition is freaking out about this possibility, then the FCC must be doing something right. And the fact that Title II is up for consideration is a credit to the historic torrent of support in support of geniune net neutrality -- one all the more remarkable given the paucity of corporate TV coverage the issue has gotten (but what else is new?).

The expected schedule is roughly as follows: The NPRM is up for comment until July 15, 2014. Follow-up to the first round of comments will be accepted for another two months, until September 15, 2014. The FCC is expected to vote on the final rule before the end of 2014. We strongly encourage you to comment (you can do so here) and demand the FCC restore the internet's classification as a Title II telecommunications service. In addition to the links here, if you need more information, here are some additional resources:

  • The Benton foundation's summary of #NetNeutrality
  • Net neutrality: How did we get here and where do we go now?
  • Net Neutrality: Your Cheat Sheet To The FCC's Proposal
  • The FCC’s Net Neutrality Proposal Explained
  • The FCC Changed Course on Network Neutrality. Here is why you should care.

    The Chicago Media Action website also has a great many resources to the history of the net neutrality wars, including the fight in 2006 (which we helped galvanize). And in a new development, here's an MP3 file of a recent 44-minute interview about net neutrality which aired on Chicago radio station WZRD on May 18, 2014.

    Anti-NATO activists face the brunt of the Tribune's op-ed pages, just as media policy activists have done

    Posted by Mitchell - March 15, 2014 (entry 707)

    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).

    Review of the Chicago kickoff screening of the documentary Shadows of Liberty

    Posted by Mitchell - March 6, 2014 (entry 706)

    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.

    Media activists played a key role in the forced exit of WBEZ CEO Torey Malatia

    Posted by Scott - July 29, 2013 (entry 704)

    former WBEZ CEO Torey MalatiaThe 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.

    DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.