In 2003, Paul Cienfuegos was invited to lead his new workshop, “Taking OUR Local Mass Media Back From Large Corporations”, at the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin. Paul has since led this workshop in many U.S. communities, including Florence and Portland, OR, Eureka, Arcata, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, and Nevada City, CA, Bellingham, WA, and Minneapolis, MN. In this essay, originally published in 2003, he describes how We the People can reclaim our mainstream media so that it properly serves us rather than it serving corporate advertisers. Paul is convinced that the fastest and most effective way to move citizens forward in unprecedented numbers to challenge the corporatization of our nation’s media is by building hundreds of local campaigns, each fully autonomous but actively in communication with and linked to each other.
Last month I traveled to Madison to attend the extraordinary National Conference on Media Reform. Almost 2000 people were in attendance, from Indy Media producers and grassroots organizers, to really famous folks like Bill Moyers and the president of PBS, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales (of Democracy Now), Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein (the two dissenting voices on the FCC), Robert McChesney (author of Rich Media Poor Democracy), John Sweeney (AFL-CIO president), Al Franken, Studs Terkel, Naomi Klein…the list goes on and on. It was quite the event! (More info at <MediaReform.net>.) And I had the privilege of being one of only 10 folks chosen to lead workshops focusing on tactics related to democratizing our media. Just five months earlier, I had begun to facilitate a new workshop that asks participants to contemplate what role they might be willing to play in their own local communities to begin to challenge the legitimacy of the outrageously bad local network news stations and newspapers which now provide almost all local news in this country, and which are almost all now owned by a handful of huge conglomerates like Viacom and Clear Channel Communications. My colleague Betsy Barnum from Minneapolis agreed to co-lead the two conference workshops, which were attended by more than 140 people.
We are in a true crisis situation in this country where giant corporations now control virtually all aspects of our society – from funding our election campaigns to choosing our news stories and framing the boundaries of the debate, to educating and entertaining our kids, to growing our food, to owning our drinking water distribution systems. (The full list would take pages!) Both the Democrats and the Republicans are now so dependent on corporate money and ideas that we can no longer even honestly say that we have a party of opposition anymore in Washington D.C.
When giant corporations own virtually all of our mainstream media, and control our federal government, it is only we the people of this country who are left to figure out how to get our democracy back. And this is going to be a very challenging task indeed – for without open and functioning feedback loops that an effective mass media provides, we the people no longer get to know what we the people are thinking – so most of us end up believing that we must be outside of the mainstream of public opinion, since we rarely hear anyone who speaks for us, who voices our own concerns. And so we silence ourselves, which is what people do in a totalitarian society, and which is perhaps the biggest catastrophe of all. Can it be that the United States has become such a place? To me and most of the people I know, the answer is a horrifying “Yes!”. So what can the average person do about this? That’s what my new workshop is all about.
I am convinced that the most effective place to challenge the corporate media’s stranglehold on our society is in the towns and cities where we Americans already live. Yes, we need national groups working to reform federal media policy, but this kind of political action is guaranteed to convince most citizens that the best that they can do to participate is to send an annual $25 check to a group most likely based in D.C., and to write an occasional letter to their elected officials. As most people reading this already know, these two activities are stiflingly dull, fundamentally disconnected from the building of real citizen power, and likely to create still more unresponsive top-down national organizations.
Surely in a democratic society, we can do better than that!
What we need in this enormous country is a plan of action that is designed to be led and won at the local level in hundreds of American cities and towns by millions of ordinary people focusing our collective attentions on our local corporate media offices, which I might add, are the corporate sites most vulnerable to sustained democratic actions of resistance and disruption anywhere in the U.S. And if these ongoing campaigns in hundreds of communities are well connected to each other in sister-city relationships, is that not far more preferable than one monolithic campaign always trying to rouse the locals with urgent calls for support from above? In other words, if we truly mean it when we say that our goal is to democratize the mainstream media in this country, than shouldn’t we be doing our work as democratically as is humanly possible?
As a grassroots community organizer with 26 years experience, I have come to believe the following things…
1. That all work is ultimately local. That for the ordinary citizen (not the average activist) to comfortably choose to become part of a media reform movement, it would have to be local in its goals, it would have to be led by people living locally, it would have to be created and designed democratically through an open and ongoing program of outreach to the entire local community (not just our friends and allies), and perhaps most importantly, that its primary funding would come from those who directly participate in it.
2. That most Americans, regardless of our party affiliation, age, or location, are extremely concerned about the corporatization of our society and its media, and are capable of working together – across ideological boundaries – to insist that our local mainstream media in every American community become responsive to the people of that place, or be replaced by a locally controlled institution better suited to meet the needs of the people of that place.
3. That the notion that the average American doesn’t care about the state of our mainstream media is just plain wrong. What if instead we began to understand (and believe) that in fact most Americans don’t participate as citizens because they know that their efforts will be fruitless, that their voices will be ignored by the powers that be, that their act of voting just further energizes a corrupt and broken election system. In other words, that they’ve accurately perceived the state of U.S. democracy, and chosen to not lend their support to such a charade. I’ve never met an apathetic American. No, I’m not kidding! Every human being cares to the extent that they have some control over the outcome of that particular situation. Sadly, for most Americans, the boundaries of such caring have now retreated to the edges of our physical yards and immediate families and friends. It’s a tragedy of enormous proportions, but it’s more an indication of the state of our society than of the apathy of its citizens.
4. That the best way to challenge these giant media conglomerates, and the place where they are each most vulnerable to citizen action and disruption of business as usual, is at their thousands of local TV stations and newspapers, sprinkled in virtually every city and town across the nation – in other words, where we already live! Activists love to travel great distances to participate in mass actions. The average American does not. Activists have the luxury of being able to leave home for days or weeks at a time. The average American must somehow find the time to squeeze their civic participation into a very tiny number of brief moments of freedom each week.
Therefore, if we are serious about building an enormous movement to challenge the corporatization of our mainstream media institutions, what better way is there than to frame our goals and strategies in a language that resonates with most Americans no matter where they stand on the ideological spectrum; to ask those Americans to focus their energies on the local corporate media offices which produce the crap that they actually watch and read (and endure) every day – local TV newscasts and newspapers, and to design campaigns which offer truly empowering, exciting, and ongoing opportunities to all participants so that everyone experiences a direct relationship between their collective actions and the results which unfold before their very eyes (and not via mere pictures on a TV screen).
What makes me so optimistic about this strategy for media reform is that this is one of those issues where almost everyone already agrees. We just don’t know we do!
Regardless of our worldviews, most of us want our news sources to tell us the truth. We want our media to be properly funded so reporters have the resources they need to do an adequate job. We want a firewall between editors and journalists on one side, and advertisers on the other (if we even want advertisers at all). We want the media institutions’ decision makers and owners to be held accountable for their actions. We want local control and/or ownership of local media institutions. And we want access to a full spectrum of opinion on the issues of the day.
Now imagine if that yearning could be translated into a demand. And imagine if – in every city and town – that demand was coming not merely from progressive groups, but from thousands of people and organizations across the political spectrum, listing exactly what changes the local corporate media office would be required to achieve – and by what date – if its decision makers wanted to continue to be given the privilege of serving that community. Try to imagine how much trust building would have been necessary for people who thought they had nothing in common, and found out how much they respected and agreed with each other. And imagine how that newly found level of trust would be needed and tested if a particular campaign was met with stonewalling by the managers or owners of the local corporate media office, possibly requiring an escalated level of citizen action involving disruption of the institution’s day-to-day operations.
Now imagine the exponential potential of this sort of community-based organizing. People in Eugene and Florence and Medford would be coordinating their activities with people in Eureka and Santa Rosa and Redding because they were all challenging the supposed “rights” of the same corporations to provide their local news. Imagine the extraordinary power we would have in disrupting business-as-usual in dozens if not hundreds of cities in coordinated actions. (To find out which corporations own your local mainstream media institutions, visit: www.openairwaves.org/telecom/analysis/default.aspx )
Isn’t that the sort of mass movement that gets your spine tingling? And isn’t it a bit more compelling a campaign to envision than one that merely asks for $25 checks from thousands of Americans who otherwise are given no other opportunities to participate in this extraordinary stuff called participatory democracy?
Real democratic action – action linked to sustained campaigns – can only happen where people live; and almost everyone lives somewhere that is currently serviced by a local branch office of a giant media corporation. Let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work in our own communities. There is much to do, and the task is truly urgent. And heck, we may actually discover that we have more in common with our neighbors than we could ever have imagined; and that it’s not as impossible as we thought it would be to demand a mass media that provides – for the first time in a long time – accurate and comprehensive news and analysis from voices as diverse as the American people.
(This is a slightly updated version of the article that was originally published in Sentient Times newspaper in December 2003.)
Paul has led his “Taking OUR Local Mass Media Back From Large Corporations” workshop in many U.S. communities, including Florence and Portland, OR, Eureka, Arcata, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, and Nevada City, CA, Bellingham, WA, Minneapolis, MN, and at the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin. He would be delighted to visit your community to lead this workshop.
To find out more about the large corporations that provide the media in your community, visit these websites:
“A community will evolve only when its people control their means of communication.” — Frantz Fanon
“We are here to serve the advertisers. That is our raison d’etre.” — CEO of Westinghouse Corporation when it owned CBS
“If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company. We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers’ products.” — Lowry Mays, Chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Communications, which owns over 1200 radio stations