Taking on Big Media
Northampton-based Free Press,
And Josh Silver at the Barricades
By Edward Shanahan
Reforming the corporate media in the U.S. might be viewed as an easy task compared to some of Josh Silver’s earlier experiences and adventures.
We have only to look back 10 years to Silver, who lives in Northampton, when he and his companion were ambushed in a remote area of Peru populated by hostile Indian communities, and warring governments. Silver was wounded but after a harrowing escape from the scene, survived to tell about. His friend Patchen Miller died of the shotgun blasts, his body was never found despite extensive search operations; his killers were never apprehended either.
Then there was Silver’s subsequent participation along with Phil Buck of Ashfield in the “23 peaks” expedition to reach the summit of all of the tallest mountains in the Americas. That, too, was more than a stretch.
But, it turns out, those episodes of danger and derring-do may not be more daunting than the challenges facing Silver and Free Press, the national organization he directs from a busy office overlooking Main Street, Northampton. Free Press is committed to reforming the media in an effort to take it back from the oligarchs who increasingly control what all of us read, see and hear.
Dressed in jersey and shorts, Silver, 37, is trim and fit, as one imagines a mountain-climber might be. He talks rapidly and his message is finely honed, as is the abundant literature available in the suite of Free Press offices that are occupied by youthful staff members and an army of interns working the computer terminals.
Founded in December, 2002, Free Press is a combination advocacy group and lobby, identifying policy issues dealing with the mass media that have an negative impact on the public interest.
“The media is inherently regulated,” he explains. “It’s a myth that it’s not regulated. Just try to start a radio station.”
Yet the regulators and rules and restrictions are securely in the hands of the media corporations, which are able to wring critically important concessions from lawmakers and government bureaucrats in arrangements reached mainly behind closed doors.
Silver and his organization seek to pry open some of those doors by energizing the public to begin taking an interest in the role of corporate media in America and the important stake citizens have in greater media access.
There is no other organization working exclusively on reforming “media policy to serve the public-service interest,” Silver says.
The current state of media dominance by the huge corporations has resulted in a “broken democracy,” he says, which urgently needs to be fixed. This will not only entail new approaches to force the media to be more responsive to public needs and receptive to diverse interests and opinions, but also effective campaign finance reform to eliminate the buying and selling of political candidates as well as voter redistricting reforms.
But for Silver, right now, the central issue is “to open up the media system … to present a broader perspective, and to increase the caliber of information available to everyday people.” This, Free Press suggests in its literature, “will lead to a more participatory and accountable government …”
Says Silver: The media is of greater importance now than any other issuing relating to the state of a democratic society.
To this, I say from some first-hand experience, great. The media mess has been gathering weight and density for years, as each large media company gets bigger and more bloated with each corporate acquisition while the actual flow of news and information we receive as consumers gets thinner and less credible.
My question is why are we so far down the road of media consolidation. Was no one paying attention? What happened?
According to Silver, government media policy was pretty stable from 1934 with the passage of major media legislation, which included fairly strict regulatory controls. But slowly even these were watered down as consequence of a on-going closed-door decision-making.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, not surprisingly, was rather poorly covered by the media itself, went a long way toward reshaping the media landscape. Cable rates were doubled, ownership restrictions were lifted on radio so the Clear Channel chain now owns 1,300 radio stations around the country, broadcast spectrums were given away for free to existing media companies, and rules were adopted allowing companies to own more newspapers and television stations in the same cities.
And even if the government had the political zest for taking anti-trust action against the media companies, says Silver, carrying the battle to the media and being successful could take decades.
It was in 2003 that a firestorm finally erupted over the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to rewrite the rules that loosened the restrictions on media ownership.
And it was on the eve of that fight that Silver got together with Prof. Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois and author of the book “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” and John Nichols of Madison Wis.,a columnist for the liberal Nation Magazine, to explore the issue of media reform. From those talks the decision was made to launch Free Press as an activist, lobbying effort.
Why base it in Northampton? Easy. Having grown up in Shelburne Falls, Silver was living here and the organization began organizing out of his house, then moved to an office on Center Street, and eventually to Main Street.
From the beginning, said Silver, “it was important to understand, first and foremost, that media reform had to include the public in media policy decisions. We need to engage with regular Americans, to be outside the Beltway.” Although Free Press does maintain a three-person office in Washington.
And, of course, Free Press’s first battle was over the FCC’s weaker ownership prohibitions, which had finally caught the attention not only of members of the public, but of foundations, influential politicians and others worried about tightly-controlled ownership of essential information.
The deeper Silver got into the media morass, the clearer it became that the factors behind the decline of media responsibility could be easily identified.
They include: the obsession with profit, companies caring only about the bottom line, slashing newsroom budgets and thus making it harder to cover the news; the value of policy favors dished out by the government being so great that it encourages the large media not to “bite the hand that feeds you”; and the incestuous practice of corporate media to share board members with each other and thus be loathe to report on corporate greed and crimes - in other words to avoid controversy.
Working through the maze of media issues, Free Press has adopted a four-track approach, says Silver. This is his checklist:
1. Continue to fight any further attempts by the FCC to loosen rules on media ownership by a tiny handful of huge companies.
2. Lobby for full funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which had become much more politicized by the current administration, as underscored by the actions of CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson. There is a need to insulate public broadcasting from further political interference.
3. Actively support greater public access to Community Internet, which in the near future will be the “digital pipe” through which all communications - telephone, television, Internet - will be delivered. The “duopoly” of large cable and telephone companies are now plotting ways to lock up control of this unified delivery system. Free Press wants this system to be open to municipalities, non-profit organizations, libraries, and diverse community groups.
4. Cable franchise renewal – as is now under way in Northampton - is one for the few areas of regulation of cable. It is essential the public gain greater community control of local access channels and expand their number.
To wage this battle for media reform, given the multiple fronts on which it needs to be fought, requires resources. Silver indicated that most of its nearly $2 million budget has come from an array of foundations, including the Ford, Knight, Wallace, Quixote and Glaser foundations,. Other sources are Common Cause, the Consumers’ Union and MoveOn.Org. Free Press also has signed up 3,000 members who pay dues in order to support both the Free Press advocacy and educational efforts and its registered lobbying component.
And what about Silver himself, the director of this enterprise? He spent as couple of years at Evergreen College in Washington State; experienced high adventure and hair-raising danger traveling and scaling mountain peaks, headed up a Clean Elections campaign in Arizona where the initiative passed, worked at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and has now taken on the task for democratizing big media.
“This is long term,” he says. “I’ve got to stick this one out.”
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.