My uncle Tony died on this date 20 years ago today. Like my mother and my aunt, Uncle Tony worked in a furniture company. He was really into sports, and said he missed his calling as a sports broadcaster (his real-time analysis of baseball games was superb). We used to play Trivial Pursuit one-on-one. One time, when I was watching a Noam Chomsky lecture on C-SPAN, he came by and watched a bit and then asked me "Is [Chomsky] liberal?"
My uncle died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 49. (Incidentally, my 49th birthday will take place in ten days.) He died early in the day, and because I didn't have a cellphone yet, I didn't know about my uncle's passing until the middle of the afternoon when I checked my answering machine at home and got messages from my mother and my sister with the bad news. I missed the messages because I took the day off from work and spent the day at Northwestern Law School in downtown Chicago, to attend the Midwest Forum on Media Ownership. (Cue somewhat awkward segue.)
The Midwest Forum on Media Ownership was one of a series of unofficial hearings organized in 2002 and 2003 by the media policy activist community in an attempt to rouse public awareness of the FCC's forthcoming media ownership rule rewrite. That rewrite would effectively neuter the FCC's remaining media ownership rules and make the bad American media landscape much worse. Members of Chicago Media Action were part of the organizing committee for the Midwest Forum.
The Forum lineup was formidable. It included a brief appearance from a then-sitting FCC commissioner (Michael Copps), the then-president of the activist organization Common Cause who now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives (Chellie Pingree, D-ME), the president and general manager of ABC Chicago (Zemira Jones, who now runs his own "exponential" marketing consultancy), the then-head lobbyist of the Tribune Corporation (Shawn Sheehan), and the Senior Vice President Midwest for Clear Channel Radio (Dave Crowl, who would leave Clear Channel to join another corporate radio behemoth, Cumulus, before retiring in 2020).
I give credit to the corporate-affiliated media representatives who attended that day. For one, they bucked the trend at the time among nearly all media outlets who utterly stopped talking about the matter publicly. For another, the corporates were entering a decidedly hostile environment. Among the estimated 100 to 150 people who attended, nobody in the audience was pro-corporate, everyone was decidedly critical of the corporate media. Aside from a handful of panelists, nobody paid by the industry attended -- this was in the days when the corporate media could safely ignore events like this.
A cohort of panelists were overwhelmingly critical of the corporate media establisment. As an example, columnist Ted Cox, in his excellent summary of the panel for the Chicago Daily Herald, published a notable exchange between the aforementioned Zemira Jones of ABC and media activist Ed Marszewski:
When Disney's Zemira Jones, who runs all-talk WLS 890-AM, alternative-rock WZZN 94.7-FM and, to a lesser extent, all-sports WMVP 1000-AM, made a dismissive remark about the lack of public interest in this media-ownership debate, Ed Marszewski, publisher of Lumpen magazine, snapped back,
"Maybe there'd be more people here if you actually talked about it on your radio stations."
In short, the time has come to label this what it is: a conspiracy of silence.
That was the crux of the matter and the power that the corporate media held for a long time -- they were unique in that they could control awareness of their own politics. And their approach was simple: don't EVER talk about their politics. And conversely that was the strength of the activist efforts in response -- talk about it as widely and as often as we can.
Incidentally, Ed Marszewski is among the few panel contributors whose media standing has improved in the twenty years since the forum. Ed is now co-director of the Public Media Institute, which then as now publishes Lumpen Magazine, and which has since secured an over-the-air radio license for a community radio station based in Chicago's south side. (Disclosure: I have been a contributor to Lumpen Radio's political coverage, and will be again on Chicago's runoff election day -- April 4, 2023.)
You could make the case that the time of that forum, particularly in the run-up to the War in Iraq which launched just weeks before the forum, was the peak of the extant corporate media's power. The war, which happened to no small extent because of the incessant media drumbeat, proved to be a fiasco. That pent-up frustration helped boost the fight against the corporate media, in Chicago and nationally, which proved successful: The media ownership rules got blocked that fall in court, leading to a cascade of positive subsequent effects. Shawn Sheehan, the aforementioned Tribune lobbyist, spent the latter half of 2003 trying and failing to stop the groundswell of opposition.
The internet, which helped fan the flames of the corporate opposition, also helped fuel the rise of the new corporate giants. Those giants could do something that the legacy corporate media couldn't -- more precise targeting of consumers for less cost. Advertisers responded and proceeded to dump the legacy media. The result: fewer dollars to fight over, more layoffs, more closings, even less substance. The COVID-19 pandemic wounded the advertising market further, to the point where it got so bad that the National Association of Broadcasters was lobbying for a government handout. (There's a lot more to say about the NAB and its response and its history, which I will in a future post.)
I am certainly not enthused over the rise of new corporate overlords, but still I look back fondly on the Forum as having contributed to the successful media ownership uprising of 2003. And I like to think my own and Chicago Media Action's efforts were crucial in that regard. And I certainly do not look back fondly on the rest of that day. As one of Uncle Tony's children, my cousin Kristy, remarked on Facebook: "Remember [that] getting old is a privilege and not guaranteed."
Three days after my uncle died, I served as one of the pallbearers at his funeral.
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