The Culture of Media
Three briefings for funders on electronic media policy were held January—March 2005, organized by Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, hosted by the Ford Foundation, and co-sponsored by other interested parties, including Grantmakers in the Arts. The first session, “Securing Our Rights to Public Knowledge, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression,” was reported on by Helen Brunner in the spring 2005 Reader. (Please note that web addresses for most of the organizations mentioned are listed at the end of this article.)
“What the FCC Is Going On?”
Pete Tridish, Prometheus Radio Project
Just as the first briefing dramatically illustrated the consequences of restrictive copyright policy on fostering creativity and scholarship, the second symposium, “The Role of Grassroots Organizing in Challenging Media Consolidation in the U.S.,” documented the effects of “big media” control of content and distribution, whereby one corporate view replaced democracy, localism, diversity, and creativity.
The context for the symposium was the June 2003 Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) adoption, by a 3-2 vote, of new broadcast ownership rules that the agency described as “enforceable, based on empirical evidence and reflective of the current media marketplace.” The 1996 Telecommunications Act mandates that the FCC review its broadcast ownership rules every two years to determine “whether any of such rules are necessary in the public interest as a result of competition.” The FCC touted its 2003 rule change as the result of “the most comprehensive review of media ownership regulation in the agency's history, spanning twenty months and encompassing a public record of more than 520,000 comments.”
But the commissioners themselves differed on what the rule change actually meant. In dueling statements at the announcement of the rule change, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said that one of his goals had been to reinstate broadcast ownership limits that “promote diversity, localism and competition (replacing those that have been struck down by the courts),” while Commissioner Michael Copps said that the measure “empowers America's new Media Elite with unacceptable levels of influence over the media on which our society and our democracy so heavily depend... I see centralization, not localism; uniformity, not diversity; monopoly and oligopoly, not competition.”
Among other things, the new rules would have allowed one company to own up to three television stations, eight radio stations, a cable outlet, and a newspaper in large markets. The ownership rules are complex, and information can be found on a variety of web sites, such as the site of Consumers Union and the NOW site on www.pbs.org. And, although the FCC commissioners may not have agreed on the outcomes of the rule change, public interest groups representing labor, consumers, religious, cultural, and civil rights organizations, along with small media outlets, sided with Commissioner Copps and, in September 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia issued an order blocking the rule changes from taking effect. In June 2004, by a 2-1 decision, the court ordered the FCC to reconsider the rules, citing: “The commission's derivation of new cross-media limits, and its modification of the numerical limits on both television and radio station ownership in local markets, all have the same essential flaw: an unjustified assumption that media outlets of the same type make an equal contribution to diversity and competition in local markets. We thus remand for the commission to justify or modify its approach in setting numerical limits.”
Commissioner Copps, who was an opening keynote speaker at the symposium, cautioned that, in 2005, the FCC as well as the Congress will be taking up media consolidation, but big business will try to keep the issues “under the radar screen.” He urged vigilance and active participation in reaffirming local media control, diversity in viewpoint, and the importance of competition.
Assembled to help expand the discussion were two panels, each composed of grassroots organizers and media reform activists. The first panel provided local examples of success stories from across the country: Youth Media Council in Oakland (CA), Media Tank and Prometheus Radio in Philadelphia (PA), and Reclaim the Media in Seattle, (WA). The second provided examples of synergy between local and national advocacy efforts: Center for International Media Action in Brooklyn (NY), Media Alliance in Oakland (CA), and Consumers Union, Media Access Project and Media Empowerment Project of the United Church of Christ in Washington (DC). Through organizations such as these, a web of advocacy is being formed, as local activists network with and learn from each other, and local issues feed into the national policy framework. The web sites of these organizations are filled with valuable information about policy and advocacy that funders will find useful in learning about the many concerns around media consolidation.
“What if the Only Allowed Speaker Was a Loud Speaker?”
New America Foundation, The Cartoon Guide to Federal Spectrum Policy
The third symposium, “The Public Airwaves as a Common Asset and a Public Good: Implications for the Future of Broadcasting and Community Development in the U.S.,” built upon the media consolidation discussion by framing the challenges for independent voices to gain access to the broadcast spectrum. Keynote speaker Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America asked that we think differently about the public interest in the airwaves by adopting an assumption for free speech, which he felt was not the underlying assumption when the FCC grants broadcast licenses. Cooper posited that there is no reason for there not to be broad public access to the spectrum except the FCC's reluctance to license anything other than the major media outlets. The result has been that many community-based organizations use strategies such as broadcasts through low power FM radio and wireless broadband in order to have a voice, particularly in rural and underserved communities. Two panels composed of activists from across the country presented case studies of unlicensed usage and advocacy work being undertaken to preserve the spectrum for broad public use. Case studies of unlicensed access were presented by Community Technology Foundation of California, BCT Partners, Southern California Tribal Digital Village, Common Assets Defense Fund, and Prometheus Radio Project. Policy and advocacy strategies came from representatives of MediaWorks, Center for Digital Democracy, New America Foundation, Media Access Project, Free Press, and Native Networking Policy Center. The web sites of these organizations have detailed information about the work they are undertaking.
“Culture is to know the best that has been said and thought in the world.”
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), English poet and critic
The principal themes through all three symposia are the need to assure access and independent speech in all forms of electronic media, and the responsibility of funders to recognize their role and responsibility in this regard. For traditional arts and culture funders, finding a role in this arena may seem like a stretch at first. But, actually, promoting creative expression, scholarship, independent thought, and intellectual exchange, and ensuring broad public access to them, are the principles upon which all arts and culture funding is built. We must recognize that the related concerns highlighted in the three GFEM policy symposia affect the ability of artists, writers, scholars, and researchers to pursue their work, and the ability of audiences to reach the work. As arts funders, we must understand that the policies and challenges presented in GFEM's three briefings are as important, and perhaps more important, to our program goals as the traditional arts advocacy and public policy efforts we already tend to support.
More can be learned by attending the biennial conference of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, to be held in Philadelphia, September 28 — October 2, 2005.
Following its series of three briefings on electronic media policy, GFEM published papers based on the programs developed for each one-day session. They include:
- The Role of Grassroots Organizations in Challenging Media Consolidation in the U.S. A Funders, 170 pages.
- The Public Airwaves as a Common Asset and a Public Good, 110 pages.
- Securing Our Rights to Public Knowledge, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression, 76 pages.
All three are available from GFEM, 73 Spring Street, Suite 403, New York, NY, 10012, 212-274-8080, www.gfem.org.
Web sites for groups mentioned:
Center for Digital Democracy
Center for International Media Action
Common Assets Defense Fund
Community Technology Foundation of California
Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media
Media Access Project
Media Empowerment Project of the United Church of Christ
Native Networking Policy Center
National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture
New America Foundation
Reclaim the Media
Southern California Tribal Digital Village
Youth Media Council