Taking Steps to Hold Media Companies Responsible(A)
Charles Lindbergh flew airmail routes to St. Louis and named the plane he made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Communications technologies have evolved since Lindbergh’s time, but I found the Spirit of St. Louis alive and well when I flew to the city earlier this month for the second National Conference on Media Reform, organized by the group Free Press. The conference brought together media reform activists from around the country and around the world to talk about how to promote democratic, fair, and independent use of the cutting edge communication technologies of our day.
The conference featured several current and past Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), members of Congress, journalists like Bill Moyers, and commentators and entertainers like Al Franken, Jim Hightower, and Patti Smith. They all came to to discuss the challenges our democratic society faces from the fact that a small handful of giant corporations increasingly control the media, and with it, control citizens’ access to information. (For more on the problems of media concentration, see our February 2005 cover story on the issue.)
I was there to learn and gain information for Trillium Asset Management’s media reform advocacy, and to enlist support from the media reform community for an Open Media reporting framework that we are developing in partnership with the public interest advocacy group Common Cause. The Open Media reporting framework will create a yardstick for measuring how well or poorly companies across a diverse range of media perform on their fundamental responsibilities to serve the needs of a democratic society. These include responsibilities such as informing the electorate, reflecting the diversity of the communities they serve, and disclosing conflicts of interest and potential sources of bias. We hope to convince media companies to measure and report on their own performance using this new framework and hold themselves more accountable for meeting their special responsibilities. (After all, the unique role media plays in our democratic society has been recognized since the First Amendment guaranteed the right to a free press.) We also think the framework will provide a new tool for everyone from university researchers to local community groups can use to evaluate how well media companies are serving the public interest.
With Common Cause, we held a special reception at the conference to present this idea, and were thrilled it drew leaders from the publishing world, Federal Communications Commission, members of Congress, and even some well-known public figures like Phil Donahue and Jim Hightower. The idea got an even warmer reception than we’d hoped for, and we’re starting to consult with key media reform groups to select the right performance measures to include in the reporting framework. We’ll write more on its development and roll out in the months ahead. For now, though, I’ll end with a quick story.
During a break at the conference, I took a walk through downtown St. Louis to the beautifully restored Union Station, built in 1894 and once the largest and busiest passenger rail station in the world. On the way, I passed the city’s opera house, which had this quote from Woodrow Wilson inscribed on its side in large letters: “Simple means should be found by which, by an interchange of points of view, we may get together, for the whole process of modern life is a process by which we must exclude misunderstandings, bring all into common counsel, and so discover what is the public interest.” I stopped for a minute, struck by how perfectly the quote summarized the need for an open and democratic media landscape, and hopeful that our media reform work can be one of those simple means of bringing people together to serve the public interest that Wilson called for.