Media reform advances nationally

Community monitoring projects connect at gathering in St. Louis

By Michael Stoll
Posted May 20, 2005

U.C. Berkeley Professor George Lakoff told conferees in St. Louis of how businesses and government have mastered the art of "framing" political messages for the news media. (Listen to audio of the sessions courtesy of Free Press.)

The National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis last weekend drew thousands of academics, activists and media makers from around the United States. Conferees advanced three key areas of media reform: monitoring, advocacy and independent media.

1) Media monitoring: Grade the News participated in a panel discussion about how to conduct community media monitoring. Representatives from two other local groups, Chicago Media Action and the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, also shared their experience on how to hold the local news media accountable.

In Chicago, the mostly volunteer organizers crafted a sophisticated analysis of the sources for stories that aired nightly on the local PBS station, WTTW. It found that while Chicago is nearly 60% minority, whites made up 79% of guests. It also found that more than half of the stories the newsroom covered were not public affairs at all, but entertainment, lifestyle or sports stories.

The group also researched the station's board of directors, revealing an abundance of high-powered corporate connections, especially in the energy sector.

The Grand Rapids group is also conducting an exciting project, providing daily news transcripts alongside running commentary on the local news media's performance. One recent headline: "Marketing Star Wars merchandise as news."

The meeting led to the creation of a national organizing effort to coordinate future local media monitoring projects. More information, including instructions on how to examine the public file of a broadcast station, is available from Chicago Media Action's Web site -- http://www.chicagomediaaction.org/MediaMonitoring/Process/. (A national listserv on this topic is available for anyone who is interested. Contact Grade the News directly if you want to receive this, mstoll (AT) gradethenews.org.)

Other Bay Area groups working on media monitoring projects include Media Alliance and the Northern California chapter of the Action Coalition for Media Education. ACME is preparing to scrutinize the public files of local radio and television stations. If they find a lack of public service in programming, they will consider a challenge to the renewal of certain stations’ licenses to broadcast. In California, radio stations are up for renewal this year, and television in 2006.

U.S. Rep Diane Watson of Los Angeles said increasing concentration of media ownership threatens local coverage of diverse communities in her district.

Oakland's Youth Media Council also gave several presentations in which they described their efforts to address concerns about political slant and cultural insensitivity from KMEL, a popular Bay Area hip-hop station.

2) Advocacy: Free Press, the umbrella group that organized the conference, is lobbying federal, state and local governments and on several fronts. These include the promotion of rules to promote community Internet and low-power radio stations, as well as the blocking of Federal Communication Commission rules that would allow further consolidation of ownership of media producers. In addition, the group is calling for the resignation of Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whom critics accuse of trying to censor independent public-broadcasting voices such as journalist Bill Moyers.

Media Alliance is taking a lead in putting audience pressure on local governments in negotiations for contracts with cable companies. Media Alliance and groups in other cities are calling for more public access, better rates and better wiring of low-income communities. San Francisco is now engaged in negotiations with Comcast for a contract that will determine cable service for the next 15 years. The groups' efforts can be found at www.GrassrootsCable.org.

3) Independent media: Scores of new television and radio networks, magazines and Internet portals have been created around the country since the last national media reform conference in November 2003. These include Independent World Television News, San Francisco's own Newsdesk.org, and dozens of local projects launched by the Independent Media Centers.

To be sure, many of the attendees in St. Louis were partisan, and most of the publications and broadcast outlets advertised a "progressive" approach to the news. Oftentimes independent media producers challenged speakers to blame capitalism itself for what they saw as right-wing media bias.

But University of Illinois communications scholar Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press and an avowed liberal, appealed to the attendees to broaden their message to Republicans and other conservatives. Significantly, it was Bill Moyers who suggested the movement's aim was not to try to censor conservative opponents, but to create a media system that allowed for the widest array of views.

"Ive always thought the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing," Mr. Moyers said. "The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included in the bargain. Both would keep the great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings, it's no longer an eagle and it's going to crash."