The United States is currently ranked 46th on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. As a journalist in this country, I can’t rest easy knowing that we are far behind countries like Finland (ranked number one), or Costa Rica and Namibia, ranked 21st and 22nd.
Among the many factors contributing to our nation’s fall from number 37th on the list is the treatment of whistle blowers and journalists by the US Department of Justice, but the decline began in 2011 with the arrests and harassment of many reporters and livestreamers during national Occupy Wall Street protests.
I won a major federal civil rights lawsuit against the Washington State Patrol in 2011 after I was detained at a demonstration held at the state capitol in Olympia. Judge Robert Bryan ruled that the First Amendment right to a free press had been violated when I was arrested and banned from reporting on activities at the center of our state government. I received an extra judicial “no trespass” order from the WSP. The courts had to remind the state patrol that it is a police agency, not a judge and jury. As a result of my victory, the state was forced to drop trespassing charges against 36 other defendants.
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Another major reason for our low ranking on the World Press Freedom Index is the continued corporate consolidation of US media, enabled and promoted by the Federal Communications Commission. I testified before the FCC during the last round of hearings on media ownership consolidation. My testimony is posted at recliamthemedia.org.
At that time, Colin Powell’s brother, Micheal was chairman of the FCC, and the majority of the commissioners were Republican appointees. As an independent journalist, I felt that my only friends on the commission were the two progressive Democrats, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps. Unfortunately Copps and Adelstein were out voted and ignored by their fellow commissioners when they tried to limit media ownership, so another wave of corporate media consolidation was launched in the United States. The result has been that a few large media conglomerates now own the majority of US radio and TV stations, newspapers and magazines.
During my testimony at the hearing, I held in my hands two reports which were commissioned by the FCC. The studies were conducted by Professors Phillip Napoli (Fordham University), Michael Yan (University of Michigan) and Danilo Yanich (University of Delaware). These reports included important data on the negative effects of media consolidation. The professors became whistle blowers when they realized that their studies had been suppressed by the FCC. Fortunately, one of the research papers was leaked to Senator Barbara Boxer. I interviewed the researchers and reported the details of this story for a news program on the Pacifica Radio Network – Free Speech Radio News.
I was shocked when the commissioners claimed they had never heard of these academic studies! After the hearing I received a call from the FCC requesting information about the reports. The irony here is that the commissioners had been forced to consult a journalist for information on research that the commission itself had funded!
At that point I was forced to consider two possible conclusions: 1) The FCC was incompetent; or 2) The commission was purposefully covering up research which did not fit their conservative pro-corporate agenda. Either way, it was not in the public interest.
The truth is, there have been numerous academic research projects which have concluded that consolidation of media ownership results in less local news coverage, limits female and minority ownership, and curtails the public’s First Amendmendent rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This information has been largely ignored or repressed by the FCC. Because of these policies, Clear Channel has been able to buy over 800 radio stations, and Cumulus has purchased 300.
Progressive talk stations like KPTK (Seattle) and KPOJ (Portland) have been converted to sports radio by their owners (Clear Channel and CBS). Meanwhile, all across the country, a significant portion of the population is forced to listen only to religious broadcasting, right-wing talk shows or sports coverage. Air America and Nova network broadcasters like Randi Rhodes, Mike Malloy, Norman Goldman, Nicole Sandler, etc. have disappeared from the national airwaves. Talk show host/author Thom Hartmann has been able to make the transition to public broadcasting, but most of the rest of these iconoclastic voices in the US media have been forced to produce their programs online, with little or no budget for advertising or promotion.
Clear Channel has made its bid to monopolize the radio broadcast media through a series of leveraged buy out schemes financed by loans from Bain Capitol. After accumulating billions of dollars in debt, Clear Channel began to strip it’s stations to the bone. The company has fired most of its radio employees and on-air talent, replacing them with cheap, automated national programming broadcast from major media markets like New York City and Los Angeles. In other words, Clear Channel has dumped the burden of their debt onto the backs the managers of local stations.
As we face another round of massive corporate media consolidation, it may be wise to consider the political results of the FCC’s pro-corporate policy. Lack of diversity in the media/press equals lack of diversity in politics. We have witnessed in the past how conservative networks like Fox can influence national elections. With the loss of so many independent voices, we are left with only a corporate controlled one party system. Under the present circumstances, US journalists, editors, producers and publishers lack credibility when they claim that the US media is doing a good job of informing the public about the workings of its own government.
During this post-Citizens United era, the press has been gutted as newspapers cut their reporting staffs. Except for a few courageous individuals and expatriates, very little real investigative journalism even exists in the US today. To cite a few of the exceptions, I recommend Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Gregg Palast, Jeremy Scahill, John Carlos Fey, Arund Gupta, Aaron Glantz, Nick Turse and Chris Hedges.
As the alternative media struggles to find its niche utilizing the new multimedia technologies, I hope that more US residents will gain access to independent media. Until then, how can reporters be proud of our profession when we are currently ranked 46th in the world? We must be honest with ourselves and with the public. Under the current regime, money talks and journalism suffers.
We’ve got to work a lot harder to create sustainable responsible journalism in the United States. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who said that democracy requires a well informed public. How can we tolerate this situation in the nation that invented the first real protections on freedom of the press and freedom of speech? Thomas Paine would be the ashamed of the present sad state of the US press!