A Rising Chorus

A Rising Chorus

It all comes back to that central tenet: democracy reform depends upon media reform. We won't get the first without the latter.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road these past six months, talking with people coast-to-coast, with lots of stops in between. I’ve been to large cities and small towns, colleges and community halls, red states and blue, talking about communications and how our current news and information infrastructure is disserving democracy.

What I’m finding in recent months is that something is changing out there. Something new is in the air. Indeed, it’s palpable. People are increasingly fed up with a business-as-usual politics that doesn’t stand a chance at solving the daunting problems confronting our country. And they increasingly understand that the kind of change America needs depends very heavily on the kind of communications and media infrastructure we have. I am hearing people everywhere I go say the same thing: “This isn’t working. We’ve had enough. It’s time to change the way things are.”

I have been traveling far-and-wide because I want to tell people about our new Media & Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause. But much as I might like to credit my own efforts for the change I see, I can’t. I’ve been speaking out about the diminishing state of America’s news and information “indeed our entire communications ecosystem” for years. So have many other organizations and individuals. And we continue to do that. But there is something else, something much more powerful, rising up now.

Here is what I think: people are feeling, in their everyday lives, the ills and harms that reformers have been predicting would come our way. It’s more than Washington debates or business model theories that fuel their rising discontent. It’s what they live with every day.

In telecommunications it is broadband service that is much too slow and much too expensive; wireless bills through the roof and dropped calls through the floor; cell phones that can’t be unlocked because monopoly wireless purveyors will do anything to lock out competition; data caps and usage fees imposed by huge companies that would rather milk consumers for scarce broadband than build out digital capacity so we could actually enjoy bountiful connections at reasonable prices. (On the last point, doesn’t the Telecommunications Act actually stipulate that the goal here is the most advanced telecommunications for everyone at reasonable prices and reasonably comparable services in all areas of the country? I think so.)

In media, the sources of rising citizen discontent are equally clear: a media moguldom that squeezes the life out of local stations and diverse content; that closes the doors to minorities, diversity groups, and even women (who comprise 51% of the population!); that spreads homogenized music and entertainment from one end of the country to another; that sends us monthly cable bills that spiral higher each year, far out-stripping the cost of living or the cost of just about anything else; and, worst of all, that bloats its profits by shutting down newsrooms, firing thousands of reporters, demolishing investigative journalism and replacing it with glitzy infotainment that dumbs-down our civic dialogue instead of nourishing it. But Big Media “under-estimates the American people” according to a new Pew State of the Media Report just out, nearly one-third of the individuals they surveyed have actually quit turning to their local news programs because they are so dissatisfied with what is being foisted upon them. Pew documents what I have been seeing at scores of town hall meetings and hundreds of community visits.

No wonder people are speaking up: “They’re hurting. They are paying too much for too little and they are supporting too few with too much.”

Reform comes much more from pain, loss, and bad experiences than from some scribbler’s book of theory. It comes because people finally understand they are being played for suckers. It comes from people confronting reality. It comes from citizens deciding that “enough is enough.”

As a reformer, I welcome this rising chorus of discontent. Other reformers do, too. Last week, media reformers from across the land gathered in Denver for Free Press’s biennial National Conference for Media Reform. This is always my favorite gathering anywhere, and Free Press did another absolutely outstanding job this year. There were dozens and dozens of expert panels exploring the intersections of media, democracy and American culture. It wasn’t just media reformers talking to media reformers, but a rich and wonderful conversation among musicians, artists, poets, authors, journalists, labor, health experts, environmentalists, in fact, just about every aspect of American life imaginable.

When I saw this amazing cross-section of reformers coming together because they all realize that their occupations and their causes depend so heavily on having a media ecosystem that gives them air to breathe and create and contribute, I knew we were adding strength to our cause. As Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches put it: “Activism has many faces.” Reform, like politics, comes from growing numbers, and numbers directed toward a common cause are more effective than numbers traveling down many different roads.

I went directly from Denver to Chicago to visit with the Council on Foundations (COF), a premier association of foundations and philanthropies dedicated to fostering progress across the whole wide gamut of our national life. The COF members’ causes are many and varied. But here, too, I sensed change in the air. I sensed a growing realization that their individual causes would be better served if their issues were more adequately covered by the media and shared with every citizen. That kind of coverage has become just about impossible given the diminished news and information environment in which we live. In Chicago, I talked with many COF members who told me they were convinced that productive change, and democracy itself, hinged on a more bountiful media. And we’re nowhere near such bounty today. Many of the news beats of yesteryear go virtually uncovered today “local news, statehouse coverage, and real, in-depth reporting on education, the environment, worker rights, women and minority rights, public affairs” the list goes on and on. Few of us have any real feel for the fabulous work these foundations and philanthropies are doing year-in and year-out. Yet these funders have scarce resources. They have to pick and choose their causes and contributions carefully. But more and more of them are stepping forward to help media because they know the success of their efforts depends upon people knowing about and caring about the issues confronting our nation.

It all comes back to that central tenet: democracy reform depends upon media reform. We won’t get the first without the latter. Successful self-government cannot exist apart from a vibrant civic dialogue fueled by digging for facts, holding power accountable, and telling the truth. Our job as reformers is to harness the rising chorus of discontent and turn it into an unstoppable force for progress. Therein is the fuel to drive reform.

This post originally appeared on the Benton Foundation’s blog and is reposted with permission

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