For a political system to be democratic – for ordinary people to have a meaningful role in the formation of public policy – an active citizenry must have the means to communicate their views about ideas and issues, among themselves and to political leaders. In a period of unprecedented advances in communication technology – more ways for more people to send more information ever more rapidly to others – one might assume that such changes mean more democracy. The post-World War II experience in the United States suggests that such an assumption is unwarranted. The increased capacity for communication does not automatically deepen democracy, and can in fact be an obstacle to attempts to deepen democracy when elite-run economic institutions have a dominant role in the development and deployment of technology, and when other social and cultural forces work to undermine active public involvement.
Hence the paradox: The final decades of the twentieth and first years of the twenty-first centuries have seen an atrophying of meaningful democracy along with the refinement of radio and television broadcasting technology; a dizzying expansion of cable television and satellite channels; changes in printing technologies to make high-quality publications more affordable; and the creation of the Internet and a dramatic expansion of its scope and use. Citizens concerned about the inability of existing mass-media institutions to enhance and expand democracy have responded by creating what is often described as the media democracy movement.
Participants and Goals
The movement has no central headquarters, single dominant organization, supreme leader, or unified platform. Instead, the term “media democracy movement” typically is used to describe a number of loosely affiliated groups that share a goal of expanding participatory democracy by (1) challenging the dominance of corporately owned media and (2) fostering the growth of independent or alternative media.
On occasion, groups from a wide range of political positions in the US – from the conservative National Rifle Association to the liberal National Organization for Women – have come together to support a specific policy proposal, such as resistance to attempts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to loosen regulations that limit concentration of ownership in broadcasting. But in general, the media democracy movement is a liberal, progressive, and/or left formation rooted in some degree of critique of the concentrated power of corporations in capitalism and the way in which those corporations tend to dominate the political process. Among the most prominent US groups in this movement are the Free Press, Center for Digital Democracy, Media Access Project, Center for Media and Democracy, Prometheus Radio Project, Common Cause, Reclaim the Media, and Media Alliance.
These groups share a central goal: to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the consolidation of media ownership in the hands of a small number of mega-corporations. These conglomerates have holdings in multiple forms of media, including production companies and distribution outlets. While commercial media have never been ideal vehicles for independent journalism and creative entertainment programming, these trends toward consolidation have tended to lower the quality and critical edge of journalism, while pushing entertainment programs toward a lowest-common-denominator dullness, both in comedy and in drama.
Attempts by citizen groups to influence media policy are complicated by the power of the media corporations to intervene in the political process. In addition to the political influence any corporation can wield through campaign contributions from its executives and political action committees, media corporations also can use the threat of negative news coverage to seek to control politicians and influence policy. And by refusing to provide substantive crucial issues about legislation that benefits big media corporations, these companies can help keep citizens uninformed about the consequences of consolidation, as was the case with the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This law, the most far-reaching modification of policy since 1934, was virtually ignored by mainstream media in the US, and typically treated – when there was coverage – as a business story of interest only to industry insiders.
One clear example of this power of media corporations concerns the proposal labeled “free airtime.” Under the fundamental law governing broadcasting, first laid down in the Communications Act of 1934, radio and later TV broadcasters are granted licenses to use the frequencies of the public airwaves at no cost but are instructed to work in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” In the 1990s, interest began to build in the idea that to help fulfill that public obligation, broadcast television stations could be required to offer to bona fide political candidates free airtime to articulate their political platforms. This would enhance democracy by lowering the amount of money candidates need to raise to pay for expensive TV commercials, while at the same time elevating the level of political discourse by giving politicians a more expansive setting for debate and discussion than a short commercial. The National Association of Broadcasters, the industry’s main lobbying group, has opposed the measure, which would reduce their income from the lucrative political ads. Critics have also suggested that broadcasters reflexively reject any notion that their licenses, which are granted free of charge, should come with any such public obligations.
Among the other policy proposals that are supported by some or all of the groups in the media democracy movement are: the establishment and funding of low-power, noncommercial community radio and television stations; a commitment to localism in commercial broadcasting’s programming, to guarantee that communities have adequate channels for news and public affairs; a reversal of the trend in copyright law, which has been to extend the length of time corporations can claim exclusive rights to material; resistance to the commercialization of the Internet, in an attempt to insure a free flow of information and prevent the emergence of a two-tiered system, in which the profitgenerating and subsidized political websites run on cutting-edge networks while noncommercial sites are relegated to slower, and hence less attractive networks; bridging the “digital divide,” making sure that broadband Internet access, and training in the use of the Internet, are available to people in low-income communities; greater restrictions or an outright ban on television advertising aimed at young children; stemming the tide of ever-increasing commercialization of the culture, such as the expansion of product placement in television programs and films, which effectively turns entertainment programs into advertisements; exposing the growing use of sophisticated public relations techniques, such as the production of video news releases produced by companies to promote their services and products, which some television stations air as if they were news produced by the stations’ journalists; and media literacy education, beginning in grade school, to help people understand how to analyze media content, especially the image-based, highly commercialized television programs.
To advance these goals, media democracy groups have focused on critique of the existing media systems; political organizing for legislation to democratize the system; and the creation of alternative media to challenge the dominance of corporate media. The movement tends toward local, decentralized, grassroots strategies, though there have been national organizing efforts, especially to affect FCC policies. In addition, in the first decade of the twenty-first century there have been national media reform conferences, spearheaded by the Free Press, to attempt to focus the diverse movement on common goals. Those conferences revealed both the broad interest in making media policy a central issue in progressive politics, and the divisions in underlying theory and politics among the groups, with some groups comfortable with a liberal or reformist position, and others pushing for a more radical analysis of fundamental economic and political structures. Divisions also have emerged as groups representing the interests of people of color have challenged the predominantly white movement on diversity issues.
Despite these differences, virtually all the groups and people identified with the media democracy movement reject the notion that market systems in capitalism will serve the needs of a democracy polity. While policy proposals may differ, the growing strength of the movement into the twenty-first century suggests that media policy will continue to be a focus of progressive politics.
- Bagdikian, B. H. (2004). The new media monopoly. Boston: Beacon.
- Chester, J. (2007). Digital destiny: New media and the future of democracy. New York: New Press.
- McChesney, R. W. (2000). Rich media, poor democracy: Communication media in dubious times. New York: New Press.
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