PART ONE: MEDIA REFORM
By Jack Random
Even as the White House still claims to be the world’s champion for democracy, as rumors turn to accusations of voter fraud in Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, as Sinclair Broadcasting orders up a round of blatant rightwing propaganda for a handful of swing states on the eve of an election: Who among us does not wonder what peculiar brand of democracy this administration advocates?
The answer is clear: Karl Rove and his black ops boys like a fixed game. For all bluster, the election in Afghanistan is the very definition of a fix. There was only one candidate on the ballot of national renown. There were no presidential debates. There was no airing of the opposition’s point of view. The message to one of the poorest nations on earth was clear: If you fail to elect the chosen one, assistance is in peril. Similarly, if an election takes place in Iraq, it will allow only one result.
Meantime, in America, given the spectacle of virtually uncontested disenfranchisement (the Justice Department is too busy infiltrating activist organizations), biased polling techniques, and voting systems without accountability, we are left with the impression that only a Kerry landslide could prevent a Bush win in a “tight election.”
So in the last phase of the election cycle, as the media fixate on non-issues like the sanctity of Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation, as we await the surprises that will be fabricated if they do not naturally occur, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the state of democracy in America.
Our reflection begins in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi, one of the president’s silent partners in the war on Iraq, not only holds the highest office in the land but also owns all of its major media outlets. If anyone believes that democracy can exist without a free and unfettered press, he is not beholden to the Bill of Rights. We have seen our media’s performance in a time of war, its embedded journalists and talking heads transformed before our eyes into a White House cheerleading squad. We have seen the credibility of once proud reporters and analysts shattered like the hope of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Let us finally put to rest the tired rightwing charge of a liberal media bias. The ladies and gentlemen of broadcast news answer only to one master: corporate ownership.
The media are no longer in the business of selling content and integrity. They are in the business of advertising and the products they sell are General Electric, Halliburton, Coca Cola, Exxon-Mobil, Boeing, Merck Pharmaceuticals, and, most importantly, American foreign policy as the enforcer of global economic dominance.
Whatever happened to the fourth estate? Gone in a wave of corporate buyouts and media consolidation. Whatever happened to the sacred duty of the press to inform and enlighten the electorate? Gone with the political agendas of Chief Executive Officers and Boards of Directors in place of journalistic integrity. Gone with every investment in the partisan political game.
The founders thought so highly of a free press that they made it the first amendment to the constitution. Succeeding generations have endured the scourge of yellow journalism and fought back all attempts to compromise the constitutional privilege of the press (a privilege that applies equally to Seymour Hirsch and Robert Novak). Now, this generation confronts the greatest betrayal of all: Ownership by the same corporate entities that the media must hold accountable.
Just as democracy is the ideological foundation of the republic, media reform is the essential first step toward renewing democracy in America.
Reform must begin with a rollback in the wave of media consolidation. Just as the current Securities and Exchange Commission never saw a merger it did not like, the Federal Communications Commission never saw a consolidation it did not embrace. They have pushed the envelope to such an extent that no more than seven corporations claim a majority share of today’s television market. They have allowed companies like Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting to dominate news and entertainment in thousands of communities. They have redefined their regulatory role away from protecting the public interest and toward protecting the free market dreams of international conglomerates.
Senator Kerry speaks of rolling back the president’s tax cuts for the elite; should he be elected, he should also roll back media consolidation by firing FCC Chair Michael Powell and replacing him with a public servant.
That accomplished, it is time for Congress to get back in the act, beginning with the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Adopted in 1949, it required stations to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues. The doctrine was in place for three decades until the Reagan administration refused to enforce it. A 1987 court decision held that the doctrine was unenforceable unless mandated by Congress. Twice Congress passed legislation to that purpose and twice it was vetoed by Republican administrations. Curiously, if there were in fact a liberal media bias it would have served Republican interests to enforce fairness. Curiously, neither Reagan nor Bush considered it so.
Given the attempt by Sinclair Broadcasting to use the public airwaves to tilt an election, there is a clear and imposing reason to reinstate the doctrine now. If Sinclair wants to offer thirty minutes of Swift Boat allegations, then let them also provide thirty minutes to Michael Moore. While it is too much to expect of the partisans currently in Congress, I would advocate an expansion of the policy. We are all citizens of this great nation and we are the stronger when all our voices are heard, including those of Mary Cheney, Medea Benjamin, Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The muddled voices in the mainstream of political thought are all too often indistinguishable. Let us hear from the rest of America as well.
These measures would move us forward in reestablishing the fourth estate but they do not go far enough for, as long as powerful interests are in play, there will be those who navigate around required mandates – like the Fox program that features a token “liberal” offering up marshmallows for his conservative partner to smash. The media is unlike any other corporate entity. It is the only private interest singled out by our founders for protection. Therefore, ownership of media should be confined to individuals, companies or corporations whose sole interest is the media itself. If the multinational conglomerates that currently own our media were forced to choose between the media and their other concerns, is there any doubt where their loyalties would fall?
This kind of media reform would be branded radical by the corrupted politicians, television personalities, and newsprint editorialists who profit from the current system but it is nothing more than the most basic common sense. Even so, it does not go far enough. Those who are in the business of the media, in respect for the special and powerful role they play in the nation’s democratic institutions, should be banned from political contributions. Let them contribute to journalism and private causes and let the people decide who will represent them in Washington.
It will of course be cold day in hell before such proposals rise to a sufficient level of public interest. We are trapped in a classic Catch 22. It would require a free and open media to raise the issue of media reform. Barring that, it would require a maverick like Senator John McCain attempted to do for campaign finance reform. As McCain found out, progress can be made but it is a long process.
As all Americans must surely realize, democracy is a process as well. It is a process that has been neglected for a very long time. Media reform is only a part of that process. If we are to renew democracy in America, we must also address the right to vote and the scourge of disenfranchisement, corporate corrupt of the political process, gerrymandering, political access to independents and third parties, voting methodology and accountability, the antiquated electoral college and the separation of church and state.
Sadly, the state of our democracy is imperiled. If we do not begin soon to address the many problems and barriers that stand between the people and their government, democracy may be lost to future generations.