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Media Reform Conference Opens in Minneapolis

Alex Constantine - June 8, 2008

COMMENTARY | June 08, 2008

Focus in part is on charges of failure of corporate-owned media to fulfill the press’s watchdog role and on concern over threats of telecom control of Internet content, speed and pricing.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

MINNEAPOLIS—The three-day National Conference for Media Reform opened here Friday. Speakers wasted no time before getting to one of the group’s favorite subjects: corporate-ownership.

Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-MN), the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress, was among the opening speakers before more than 3,000 attendees at the conference organized by the nonprofit Free Press.

“With the consolidated, corporatized media, we will know something is desperately wrong with America, but we won’t have any of the details…We won’t know about the $12 billion a month being squandered in Iraq. We won’t know about the $1.6 trillion we need to revamp the infrastructure of our nation because it is crumbling after years and years of Republican neglect because they don’t like government,” said Ellison, who questioned the legitimacy of conservatism.

Ellison stressed the press’s role in protecting the First Amendment and suggested that “maybe we should even incentivize good old newspapers.” He also praised media reform activists for last month’s Senate vote overturning FCC’s decision to lift the ban on cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market. “Politicians tend to see the light when they feel the heat,” Ellison said.

And speaking of feeling the heat, one just couldn’t get away from that Scott McClellan book. The former White House press secretary’s condemnation of the press for being too easy on and too easily manipulated by the likes of him found its way into the speech of Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press. [Click here for the transcript] “The corporate media is not a watchdog protecting us from the powerful, it is a lapdog begging for scraps,” said Silver.

The viability of Internet to offer alternatives will depend on the outcome of the policy debates going on right now, according to Silver. In the doomsday scenario, cable companies will control content as well as speed and price, compromising the Internet’s democratizing potential. “In this high-stakes debate over the future of the Internet—the future of virtually all media—it’s either open or closed. It’s all or nothing. It is a clash between democracy and plutocracy,” said Silver.

The crowd especially cheered the words: “The future of our media does not belong to Rupert Murdoch…The future of our media belongs to us. All of us in this room and every person across this country.”

This year’s conference theme is “media reform begins with me” and in an Ernest Hemingway-like exercise, participants were asked to sum up their thoughts on the subject in five words. The video-montage of responses ranged from the inspiring “all power to the people” to the humorous “don’t let big media supersize” to the less-than-diplomatic “Bill O’Reilly…kiss my ass.”

Some of the highlights thus far:

Robert Greenwald, president of Brave New Films, focused on the Real McCain series on Youtube. One video, on Rev. Rod Parsley’s anti-Muslim statements, was picked up by the mainstream media and eventually resulted in McCain’s rejection of the pastor’s endorsement. The Real McCain series has been viewed almost two million times so far on YouTube.
The nonprofit Center for Independent Media is an example of how the Internet is providing a way to do investigative reporting at the local level. The organization trains bloggers in reporting skills and runs six Web sites throughout the country. Jefferson Morley, the Center’s national editorial director and a former Washington Post reporter, discussed the reporting that led to an article about a private security company Sovereign Deed LLC that received enormous financial incentives from the government to set up a disaster-response service in Michigan.

Panelists had diverging ideas about the role of activism in independent media. Political blogger Jane Hamsher sees herself as “acting between activism and journalism” and said she was drawn to the blogosphere because she saw “an organizational possibility for the left.” Greenwald thought that the technology made it possible to target different things for different audiences and noted that YouTube wasn’t interested in party affiliation. Morley, who said that “journalism has lost its way,” didn’t see himself as an activist. “My goal is not to do advocacy but to build a credible news organization…I want to be talking to people who don’t agree with me,” said Morley.

The panelists on the “Changing Role of Media Critics” saw their roles unchanged in the new media and noted the bigger tool box at their disposal.

They also applauded the liberalization of the field with the new media. What the “blogosphere has shown is that anyone can be a media critic,” said Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Boehlert said that bloggers took an interest in exposing poor journalism early on and that the immediacy of their online critiques broke the “gentlemen’s agreement” about once-in-a-while public shaming of journalists in publications like Columbia Journalism Review.

A love of the media, solid research and reporting skills and an ability to explain sometimes complex concepts were listed among the qualities that make a good media critic by the panelists.

“The main thing I’m doing is explaining the fiscal realities of the media,” said Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times. Deggans argued that blaming the ills of the media on corporate ownership is “simplistic” and noted the importance of being “accurate” when discussing the financial pressures.

Center for Media and Democracy senior researcher Diane Farsetta said that it is important for media critics not just to highlight “flawed reporting” but to expose the “vested interests” that prey on the media’s “structural weaknesses.” PR firms, for example, supply content to time-strapped reporters which is then passed off as news to an unsuspecting public. The Center for Media and Democracy runs a Web site called SourceWatch.

The issue of media activism elicited different responses. Janine Jackson, the program director at FAIR, argued that an implication of a wrong also implies that “you want to make it right.” Boehlert didn’t see activism as a problem as long as the bar for content is set high and argued that it has been set high on the left. Deggans saw his activism as being more the “journalism values that I hold dear.”


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  1. What the article, unfortunately, fails to point out is that the media group that organizes this “Media Reform” conference, Free Press, was given a $600,000 grant a few years ago by former Johnson White House Chief of Staff Bill Moyers. And that most of the other alternative media groups/left gatekeepers that deny alternative media access to folks who criticize Moyers or their other foundation funders from an anti-imperialist left perspective, have also received large sums of money from Moyers’ foundation. See following link for more info about the Schumann Center’s funding of alternative media groups and its investments in corporations like Halliburton that profit from the war in Iraq:


  2. If the above blog link didn’t work, following is the text:

    Schumann Center for Media & Democracy: Funds Alternative Media, Invests in Halliburton

    In 2003, the Montclair, New Jersey-based Schumann Center for Media & Democracy gave a $115,000 grant to The Nation magazine’s Nation Institute to help fund the for-profit magazine’s What Liberal Media? book project, according to the Schumann Center for Media & Democracy foundation’s Form 990-PF for 2003. In 2004, the Schumann Center also gave a $25,000 grant to Democracy Now Inc. “to fund Special 2004 election coverage for Democracy Now” and an additional $250,000 grant to the Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting [F.A.I.R.] alternative media group, according to the foundation’s Form 990-PF for 2004. Among the other alternative media groups that were given grants by the Schumann Center in 2004 were the following:

    American Prospect magazine was given another $255,000 grant;

    Mother Jones magazine/Foundation for National Progress was given another $100,000 grant;

    The Hightower Lowdown was given a $98,775 grant;

    The Tom Paine Project was given a $500,000 grant;

    The Free Press was given a $600,000 grant;

    The Washington Monthly magazine was given a $320,000 grant;

    In These Times magazine/Institute for Public Affairs was given a $15,000 grant;

    The Independent Media Institute/AlterNet was given a $150,000 grant; and

    The Proteus Fund was given at least $1 million in grant money.

    In 2005, the Schumann Center for Media & Democracy continued to fund alternative media groups, according to its Form 990-PF for 2005:

    The Hightower Lowdown was given a $250,000 grant “to fund program expansion of The Hightower Lowdown in print and on the internet;”

    In These Times magazine’s Institute for Public Affairs was given another grant of $155,000;

    Mother Jones magazine/Foundation for National Progress was given two grants, totaling $170,000. One of the grants was a $100,000 grant “to fund the Media Consortium’s multi-organization educational collaboration on reshaping the terrain of independent media;”

    The Center for Media & Democracy’s SourceWatch.org was given a $150,000 grant;

    The Independent Media Institute was given another grant of $135,000;

    The American Prospect magazine was given another grant of $500,000;

    Global Exchange was given another grant of $140,000;

    Washington Monthly magazine/WM Corporate was given a $375,000 grant “toward expansion of Washington Monthly magazine;” and

    Media Matters for America was given a $500,000 grant “for general efforts to monitor and analyze the U.S. media.”

    Besides funding these alternative media organizations, the Schumann Center for Media & Democracy also owned 1,700 shares of Halliburton stock (worth $117,724) on Dec. 31, 2005, according to its Form 990-PF for 2005. The Halliburton Watch group (www.halliburtonwatch.org) described on its web site how Halliburton has profited enormously during this current “era of permanent war” in U.S. history:

    “Under Cheney’s tenure as CEO, Halliburton’s revenues from federal government contracts nearly doubled…The company became the 18th-largest defense contractor, in terms of revenue, whereas before Cheney’s arrival the company was the 73rd-largest contractor.

    “Halliburton saw its revenues increase 30 percent to $16 billion in 2003, largely because of its military contracts in the Middle East. Halliburton was the number one U.S. Army contractor in 2003 with the total value of its Army contracts valued at $3,731,725,648. Dan Briody, in his book The Halliburton Agenda, described Halliburton’s relationship with Cheney as `the embodiment of the Iron Triangle, the network of the government, military, and big business that President Eisenhower warned America about in his farewell speech.”

    Besides owning Halliburton stock, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy also owned 5,900 shares of stock in the Clear Channel Communications media conglomerate (worth $185,555), 3,572 shares of Chevron Texaco stock (worth $202,782) and 2,200 shares of Coca-Cola stock (worth $88,682) in 2005.

    The president of the Schumann Center foundation, former Johnson White House Chief of Staff Bill Moyers, was paid a salary of $200,000 by the “non-profit” foundation in 2005, according to its Form 990-PF. The de-classified FBI file of late 1950s and 1960s entertainer Bobby Darin (“a/k/a Walden Robert Cassato”) (File #NY25-78569) contains a copy of a November 30, 1964 letter from the FBI sent “BY LIAISON” to “Honorable Bill Moyers, Special Assistant to the President,” which states:

    “Dear Mr. Moyers,

    “In response to Mrs. Mildred Stegall of your office on November 24, 1964, the central files of the FBI were checked concerning the following entertainers: Julie Andrews; Woody Allen; Harry Belafonte, Johnny Carson; Bobby Darin; Cary Grant; Bob Hope; Peggy Lee; Sophia Loren; Barbara Streisand.”

    Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Emerita, former Columbia Journalism Review magazine publisher and former Public Affairs Television President Joan Konner (a business partner of Moyers) was also paid $25,000 in 2005 for sitting on the Schumann Center for Media & Democracy foundation board. In addition, Konner also sits on the board of directors of The Providence Journal mainstream newspaper. Coincidentally, the Schumann foundation apparently gave over a million dollars worth of grants to help subsidize Columbia Journalism Review magazine when Konner was the magazine’s publisher. In recent years a co-owner and former editor of The Nation magazine, Columbia University Professor of Magazine Journalism Victor Navasky, has also been the chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review. Not surprisingly, very few articles written from a radical left perspective which are critical of Columbia University, Bill Moyers’s historical role in the Johnson administration or the Schumann Center for Media & Democracy’s investment policies have appeared in The Nation magazine since Navasky began working for Columbia University.

  3. Columbia University, home of the new laissez-faire let ’em die without help drug policy shouldn’t be counted on to come up with a real forward looking media/medic strategy. But let me tell you, some very concerned citizens are really stepping up to the plate on this; http://www.alexanderhigginsblog and fukushima diary on the tens of tons of dead sardines in japanese waters now. Wow!! Humane concerned reporting!!

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