Bringing media reform back home

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

May 18, 2004

Last November, thousands of people came to Madison from throughout the nation for the National Media Reform Conference. Many made the trek because they were mad as hell about new Federal Communications Commission rules allowing greater concentration of media ownership and refused to take it anymore.

The conference was an unqualified success, playing a pivotal role in sparking a growing national media reform movement. But as with all movements, there is a time to think globally and there is a time to act locally. To build on the energy and momentum of last year’s gathering, there is a pressing need to organize and discuss and plan how to make sure media organizations in our own backyards serve the public interest.

That is why the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the Alliance for Better Campaigns are sponsoring a free, all-day gathering of state media reform activists on Friday, May 21 that we are calling the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves conference. Close to 200 people from every corner of our state will hear from’s Ed Garvey and John Nichols, the Alliance for Better Campaigns' Meredith McGehee and WISC-TV editorial director Neil Heinen. And then we will talk together about how we reclaim what is rightfully ours – our democracy and our airwaves, that is.

This conference – to be held at the Monona Terrace conference center in Madison – is an opportunity to sharpen the focus of media reform efforts already underway in Wisconsin, tap into and help sustain the considerable energy generated by the battle over the FCC’s media ownership rules, and give activists tangible opportunities for action.

And it comes not a moment too soon.

In 2002, you were four times more likely to see a paid political ad during a TV newscast than an election-related news story. In fact, 56 percent of newscasts made no mention of candidates or election campaigns.

Wisconsin had a $23 million race for governor – triple the previous record set just four years earlier. I can give you 36,000 reasons why. That is the number of political ads aired in the state’s three biggest TV markets alone, at a cost of $13 million.

A half dozen of Wisconsin’s most powerful political figures face criminal charges of extortion, money laundering, kickbacks, bid rigging, illegal campaign contributions and criminal misconduct in public office. The charges against all but one of them trace directly to the chase for campaign cash. At a time when candidates' campaigns are little more than collection agencies for the television stations, the root cause of the biggest political corruption scandal in our state’s history comes into sharp focus. The core problem is simply and undeniably TV.

Six corporations now control almost everything Americans read, see and hear. Just since 1995, the number of companies owning commercial TV stations has declined by 40 percent. Three media giants own all of the cable news networks, and 90 percent of the homes that have cable are served by just five companies. Not surprisingly, cable TV rates have jumped 40 percent since the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Before the 1996 Telecom Act, a company could not own more than 40 radio stations nationwide. Clear Channel now owns more than 1,200.

Media issues are central to the health of our democracy and are growing more critically important by the day. In so many ways, the fate of issues we all care about is in the hands of the media. The public needs and democracy requires a truly free and independent press, diverse ownership of media organizations, and rigorous enforcement of the public interest obligations of those who have been granted use of the public airwaves. Today, we cannot lay claim to any of the three. And we have a hell of a fight on our hands to get them back.

Let’s kick that fight into high gear on Friday.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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