MADISON, Wis. – As the audience overflowed the 1,800-capacity Orpheum Theatre here last weekend, Commissioner Michael Copps of the Federal Communications Commission told them they were “the most important meeting occurring in America today,” and veteran newsman Bill Moyers said they were engaged in “a struggle for the soul of democracy.”

The occasion was the National Conference on Media Reform, Nov. 7-9. About 2,000 people from 47 states and a dozen countries, including high-profile figures like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and several members of Congress, attended the conference with the aim of reversing the trend of the mass media becoming corporate titans with their own biased agendas.

In the opening session, journalist John Nichols compared the media reform movement to the environmental movement on the eve of the first Earth Day. While media issues have elicited more public comment to the government than any other issue besides the war in Iraq, there’s been surprisingly little attention to them in the mainstream media or the presidential debates.

“You are the grassroots activists who will put this issue on the agenda,” said Nichols.

Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois professor whose books and activism have energized and made him a star of the media reform movement, told the conference how the original hope was to bring together maybe 200 people. He said the main catalyst for the explosion of those expectations was the grassroots battle of the U.S. people against media concentration.

More than 2.5 million Americans voiced opposition to a new rule passed by the FCC on June 2 that would have allowed a single corporation to control up to three television stations, eight radio stations, a daily newspaper and all the billboards in any given city. The courts have blocked the rule from going into effect, and the battle in Congress is 13 votes away from reversing the rule permanently.

Dozens of workshops at the conference focused on the shortcomings of the media and how to fight back. The concentrated ownership of media – 90 percent of all print and electronic content is now controlled by just five corporate giants – has limited public access and participation, squelched authentic localism, deluged Americans with advertising, and disenfranchised voices of color.

One workshop leader noted that media concentration has degraded the information environment to the point where many people – sometimes majorities of the U.S. population – hold demonstrably false beliefs about George Bush, the war in Iraq, and taxation, for example.

Comedian and author Al Franken agreed. Summing up a scientific study by the Annenberg School of Journalism, Franken said, “The more you watch Fox News, the dumber you get.”

Structural changes in the media have also damaged the interests of workers more directly. Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley pointed out that media bias comes from institutions more than from reporters.

“The vast majority of reporters enter journalism because they want to make a difference,” Foley said. “That’s why so many of those who are good are leaving these days, because it’s very demoralizing. … These are ruthless employers, as ruthless as any corporate bully you can imagine.”

Foley offered the example of Mike Gallagher, a star investigative reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer until in the summer of 1998, when his major investigative report on bribery and other wrongdoing by Chiquita Brands led him to be fired as a scapegoat for stepping on the wrong toes.

John Sweeney called the events described by Foley part of the “attempt to eliminate what’s left of our country’s free press.”

Rahul Majahan, a writer and antiwar activist, noted a report from Reporters Without Borders that rates the United States 31st in the world in terms of press freedom. As if to prove the reformers’ point about media bias, almost no mainstream media showed up at the conference.

When Amy Goodman of Pacifica’s “Democracy Now!” program asked what mainstream media were present, only one group identified themselves. “Where are you from?” she asked. They shouted back, “Canada.”

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Babette Grunow
Babette Grunow

Babette Grunow is an activist writing from Wisconsin. She and Gary Grass host the radio program Drive Time From River West on WXRW.

Gary Grass
Gary Grass

Gary Grass writes from Wisconsin where he was active in the movement for lead free water in Milwaukee. He and Babette Grunow host the radio program Drive Time From River West on WXRW.