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Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue
Media justice organizers at the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) and MAG-Net have recently produced a brilliant campaign plan ("The Campaign for universal broadband") to win three policies crucial for just and democratic communication: network neutrality

Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue

Media justice organizers at the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) and MAG-Net have recently produced a brilliant campaign plan ("The Campaign for universal broadband") to win three policies crucial for just and democratic communication: network neutrality

Media justice organizers at the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) and MAG-Net have recently produced a brilliant campaign plan (“The Campaign for universal broadband”) to win three policies crucial for just and democratic communication: network neutrality, universal broadband and universal service fund reform. Considering the renewed struggle required to win these goals, and to protect them afterwards, two questions seem particularly important. First, to win media access rights, social justice movements need media access. So, how do we get the kind of access that can allow us to succeed? Second, as net neutrality and universal broadband are not ends in themselves, but rather the means to enable a just and democratic media system, who should produce that system? Open access to a media system controlled by the status quo will not provide the necessary means for disadvantaged communities and social justice movements to change power relations.

To win and protect the three central policies of the MAG-Net plan, media justice movements must have allies at radio and TV stations – the leading sources of news for most people, especially those without the Internet (Pew Center for People and the Press). Mainstream commercial channels will not provide that access as they are also agents defending corporate power and driving social justice movements to the margins. So, what about public media? The problem is that too often public broadcasting outlets have boards populated by elite and corporate representatives, who historically have used their power to filter out the very perspectives we seek to extend. However, a movement of active publics could restructure governance at public media and demand democratically elected boards. This change could enable representatives from diverse communities to make decisions about programming and provide new access for marginalized and oppressed social groups to shape and produce content, self-organize and build just social relationships.

So, like network neutrality and universal broadband, should social justice movements also consider control over public media to be a racial and economic justice issue? In the effort to constitute a just and a ubiquitous public media system, should a high priority be to demand direct, democratic community governance of publicly funded outlets, especially local NPR and PBS affiliates? Though flawed, badly funded and commercialized, CPB outlets are the material of an existing system that could – if under community control – be a new means for self-organization by diverse publics.

What do you think the priority is or should be for synergizing isolated community print, online, radio, PEG and other media producers into a new public system – creating a publicly controlled, radically reorganized, public media system that could enable social justice movements to change social conditions?

There are excellent reasons to conceive of network neutrality as a social justice issue. The Center for Media Justice made particularly important contributions to this understanding with their document “Network Neutrality, Universal Broadband, and Racial Justice,” as did CMJ’s Malkia Cyril and co-authors Joseph Torres and Chris Rabb with their statement, “The Internet Must Not Become a Segregated Community.” Both works powerfully clarify that the Internet system envisioned by corporate and state officials would create first- and second-class Netizens. As the net neutrality struggle continues to demonstrate, diverse publics must communicate and act on their own behalf to establish and preserve a policy for digital technology based on equal access.

However, marginalized communities must not hope that a neutral Internet will build a media system to meet their needs. It is time to give up any remaining illusions of technological determinism. There is no political orientation inherent in technology – not even a neutral digital network. Only the creative labor of our communities and our movements can produce the spaces we need to collaboratively create new understandings of ourselves and our purposes; to communicate, coordinate and act. Lacking creative action by our communities and movements, universal broadband would only enable widespread access to a system dominated by the same corporate and racist forces that dominate the current system. After all, war and injustice continue irrespective of Facebook, Twitter and Digg. Though perhaps it seems obvious, it is crucial to remember that it was primarily the culture of the producers – not the users – that shaped the Internet medium (Castells, The Internet Galaxy, 2003).

Historically marginalized communities now, at this crucial juncture, could wield power as producers to shape the Internet into a new media network to increase equity in media access and political participation. Movements for media justice could struggle to develop the Internet as a platform where marginalized communities can speak to themselves and to wider audiences.

As the CMJ’s statements on network neutrality and universal broadband remind us, social justice movements cannot simply trust professionals employed by either corporations or the state to decide which social groups get broadband access or what digital content we can access once online. That same critical logic applies to control over public media and public news production. Unfortunately, it is evident that professional journalists and their allies are organizing to create a revitalized public media system that they, state officials and corporate, elite, station trustees will largely control with little or no role for historically marginalized communities as decision makers or as content producers.

Professional news models of production are collapsing – or rather transforming. Professional journalists themselves are engaged in a desperate struggle to maintain their social position as elite interpreters of daily life through controlling access to the occupation of reporting. As professional journalists seek to reconstruct their gatekeeping authority over online news production, they are also rebuilding barriers to access that historically excluded people of color, the poor and working classes, political dissidents, LGBT communities, and other groups. In short, virtually every emerging model to “save journalism” presented by commercial – and public – media professionals (as well as some academics) reproduces old hierarchies that exclude disadvantaged communities from decision making.

For example, in December of 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a workshop deep within the beltway titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” These meetings attempted to make sure that journalism’s future will be market based. Of course, when market forces shape news production they inevitably shape the content and the political meaning of news. Renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow acknowledged as much when he warned, if “news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, then I don’t care what you call it – I say it isn’t news” (Speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention, Chicago, 10/15/1958). Murrow’s concern over corporate influence on news did not seem to be shared by the many FTC participants, who, instead, struggled to find ways that the government could help shore up the declining commodity value of news.

Even a workshop panel that explored noncommercial options, “Public- and Foundation-Funded Journalism,” (starts at about the 1:18:00 mark here; transcript starts at page 23 here) raised little criticism of corporate influence on news production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel also displayed some of the same exclusions that media activists have critiqued for years, namely a lack of diversity: seven white men, two white women, and one male of color. This translates to 90 percent white, 80 percent male. Lacking representatives from disenfranchised communities, and entertaining no questions from the audience, there was almost no consideration of the issues important to historically marginalized social groups. It was almost as if the panelists had never read the Carnegie Commission report that founded public broadcasting and were unaware of the central role it defined for such groups. The Carnegie report called for a system that will “bring into the home” people’s “protests”; “provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard”; “increase our understanding of the world, of other nations and cultures, of the whole commonwealth of man”; and “help us to see America whole, in all its diversity.”

This is not to say that the word “diversity” was missing from their vocabularies, but that they used the word in restricted ways. The panelists did support a greater diversity of audiences and content. Panelists also advocated for “technological diversity” and the need for government money to fund it, as well as the need for new productive relationships with software developers. But never did they consider the possibility that the diverse communities they view as audiences also have a legitimate role to play making decisions about public media. Nor did panelists consider opening up new productive relationships – and, thus, career paths – to historically marginalized communities.

There was a little critical discussion about the influence of powerful commercial or state funders, but there was virtually no discussion about the difficulty of making journalism accountable to diverse publics. Instead, some of the most powerful representatives of journalism on the panel argued that the old system simply “worked,” and all that’s needed is more public money for journalists and technology. The best kind of accountability, they claimed, was for journalists to govern themselves using professional ethics and a strong “firewall” between the newsroom and funding.

To most of us, a firewall is that impenetrable metal barrier that protects the driver and passengers in a car from a conflagration in the engine compartment. There is no such physical divide when it comes to news production, as evidenced by decades of academic research, the work of groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and common experience. Instead of the mythical firewall, a more honest depiction should acknowledge a historic and ongoing social struggle among publishers, journalists, designers, and powerful sources to shape the news to their own vision. Lacking power, disadvantaged communities are largely excluded from this struggle.

Panelist Jon McTaggart, the senior vice president & COO of American Public Media (producer of NPR’s MarketPlace), said, “I think that any serious news organization has a fire wall in place where organizational funding is certainly distinct from the activities of the journalists themselves.”

NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller went farther and argued that firewalls truly do provide genuine accountability: “Advertising subsidizes the newspaper and all commercial media. You know, does that mean that newspapers have pulled their punches about those advertisers? Certainly not.” Astoundingly, she even claimed that there has never been “any instance in the history, at least, of NPR where a story has been slanted or, you know, favorable to a foundation funder.”

Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at the Knight Foundation, also argued that the old system successfully held commercial news media accountable. “It’s about professional ethics. And one of the great things about the commercial newspaper industry is how many hundreds of major newspapers have fantastic codes of ethics that they do hold each other accountable for and the professional organizations and journalism schools do hold them accountable.” He even made false and misleading claims that libraries and schools rely on professional ethics and self-governance to be accountable to their communities. Citizens in voting booths looking at their ballots may disagree. Publicly elected boards often govern public libraries and schools.

Even Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, did little to challenge the clearly self-serving assertions raised by news producers and industry representatives, but, instead, reinforced their frames and ideas. For example, his statement, “we have to know that the firewall is rock-solid” accepts that firewalls could actually be “rock-solid,” that professional ethics and best practices could truly be a concrete substitute for public participation. Other statements he made further reinforced a conceptual division between expert professionals and the public, this time casting the FTC participants as legitimate decision makers over community needs: “[W]e need to figure out … what do communities really need” so that “we” can “really engage the public.” Who is this “we” that stands apart from the public, yet decides what that public truly needs?

As the only representative from a media activism movement on the panel, Silver should have defended public participation in the public media system. Instead, Silver’s only suggestions for “structural change” were for better ombudsmen, a different appointment process for CPB board members and an abandonment of the appropriations process. But as none of these ideas expose professionals or officials to any meaningful consequences from diverse publics, these ideas would in fact continue to structure public media as a domain of elite control. These changes would, he said, help to insulate public media from too much politics – and on this point he has it all upside down. After all, limiting decision making over public media to officials and insiders is to ensure that it is their political culture that will shape the medium. Should not media justice and democracy activists instead increasingly expose public media to the politics of economic and racial justice and democratic participation?

We need a media system that is partial to justice and the health of our communities. The media justice community and its allies need to critically analyze proposals to remake public media – most importantly those from the Knight Foundation and from Schudson and Downie. Despite the claims of media professionals, industry reps, and some academics, we cannot leave the development of public media to their expertise alone. Professional journalists, corporations, and state officials seem poised to produce a system that represents the relationships they need – not what marginalized communities and social justice movements need. They will give us a marketplace of their ideas and call it just.

(This article was published 4/12/10 as an op-ed at the Editor & Publisher web site.)