Media Reform: This Revolution Won't Be Televised(A)
You won’t see headlines about the need for media reform. But media reform does matter. A lot. Media reform is essentially the watershed issue that affects everything from the environment to the quality of our electoral process. And like many areas where the “free” markets have broken down, the importance of the issue is reflected in big clashes between public and private interests and small travails that affect the quality of everyday life.
Campaign finance reform, for example, is a big clash. Media outlets seldom provide much in-depth coverage of political campaigns because television and radio companies get virtually all of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on political advertising. Why give the coverage away when someone will pay for it? According to a study by the Columbia School of Journalism, by the year 2000, television and radio stations were earning more than $600 million in advertising revenue.
They also use their corporate muscle to prevent meaningful reform from taking place. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Association of Broadcasters and five media outlets spent nearly $11 million from 1996 through 1998 to defeat campaign finance bills mandating free air time for political candidates.
This ain’t what Congress had in mind in the 1930s when they granted the first media companies free use of the broadcast spectrum in exchange for helping to educate the electorate (!) and working in the public interest. Or what Congress should have intended when it handed over the digital spectrum (again for free) in 1997.
Now, a handful of huge media companies control most of the outlets for public expression in this country. From Fox News’ coverage of the Iraq War to the Dixie Chicks de facto censorship on Clear Channel Communication radio stations, there are many examples of why that is not a good thing for the consumer. My personal favorite was the moment I accidentally realized that big media companies are adept at making artistic moments fungible, but fallible when it comes to keeping them powerful. And this happened before the wave of consolidation that created the current group of media behemoths.
In 1992 I spent an afternoon in Golden Gate Park listening to a radio simulcast of a tribute concert celebrating Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary since becoming a recording artist. It was in 1962 that Columbia Records released “Bob Dylan”, a self-titled LP that captured Dylan’s early singing and guitar style, which he admittedly lifted directly from his idol, Woody Guthrie.
In fact, the final song on the album was a tribute to Woody Guthrie titled “Song to Woody”, which ends with the line: “The very last thing that I’d want to do, is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.” It is a very poignant line that makes it clear that although the 19 year-old Bob Dylan might have fooled his folk audience with his hard-travelin’ folk persona and Dust Bowl singing style, he was not fooling himself.
As I listened to the concert, I was curious to hear what Bob Dylan would sing as a follow-up to three hours of all-star tributes to himself. When Bob Dylan finally took the stage, the first song he performed was “Song to Woody.” What a powerful and classy moment from the enigmatic artist.
The Columbia label apparently missed the significance of this moment. When they released the live “tribute” album about a year later, Dylan’s first number was the more commercially appealing “It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding.” “Song to Woody” did not even appear on the album at all.
In the face of Fox News’ jingo-journalism and Big Media’s role in stifling political reform, the “Song to Woody” omission is a trivial matter. But I never forgot my feeling as a consumer and it opened my eyes to the question: should a handful of big companies be the arbiters of information and free expression in this country?
I think Bob Dylan answers it best: “When something’s not right, it’s wrong.”
(Look for more specifics on Trillium’s media reform work in upcoming issues of IFBW).