Media Reform Steams Into St. Louis: The National Conference for Media Reform

Helen DeMichiel

May 13–15, 2005, St. Louis, Missouri


Since Free Press organized its first conference on media reform in November 2003, this new phase of a watchdog movement begun more than fifty years ago is recapturing the energies of journalists, politicians, and grassroots activists. Not only media professionals but ordinary citizens are paying closer attention and getting involved. They are alarmed at the harsh realities of partisan media in a period of Republican hegemony, war, and economic turmoil; they are frustrated at telecommunications policy that has gone unchecked; and they are concerned about a digital revolution that is restructuring reality yet is fueled by marketplace forces. Media is becoming an environmental issue that touches all sectors of society.

I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, for the second National Conference on Media Reform to observe how conference participants are organizing their ideas and actions, and to look at how NAMAC can play a more central role in this work on behalf of our members.


The conference opens with a “call to action” plenary held in an enormous ballroom at the Millennium Hotel in downtown St. Louis. More than 2,000 people gather in the room, and anticipation is high for the next three days of panel sessions, organizing caucuses, evening speeches, and corridor networking. The next 90 minutes of speeches are skillfully designed to activate the audience and create a sense of unity and shared purpose.

John Nichols, cofounder of Free Press and The Nation’s Washington correspondent, reminds us that we are in the hometown of Joseph Pulitzer, “who would have been horrified at what our media has become.” Josh Silver, Free Press’s executive director, rallies the audience by insisting that “we are winning,” and lists recent victories including the FCC investigation of payola pundits, how Congress is being forced to uncover the fake news issued by the Bush administration, and how community Internet and grassroots work is being done across the country to block legislation that would threaten free access to broadband.

Both Silver and professor and author Robert McChesney, who also cofounded Free Press, are intent on articulating the broad values of a populist movement which they hope will link its strategies to other agendas like campaign finance and election reform and redistricting. “We are producing bottom-up heat to those above us,” McChesney tells the crowd. “We are in a crisis, yet it is a phenomenal educational moment of danger and opportunity.” Mark Cooper, from the Consumer Federation of America, wants to reclaim the First Amendment because “today the issue is free speech and fair use…the Telecommunications Act of 2006 will not be written behind closed doors.”

I scan the room and see not only Washington policymakers and academics, but people from around the nation and all walks of life. They are of all ages, mostly politically progressive, come from small cities and towns, and are involved in community media, from low-power radio to Indymedia and public access. I see college students as well as journalists who work in both broadcast and print. When Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! stands up to speak, she promises that this is a moment to “launch a movement to un-embed the media and take it back.” Malkia Cyril, director of the Youth Media Council, unequivocally and forcefully calls for the media justice movement to take a central role and warns that without a diverse leadership at all levels that includes the goals of people of color, the reform movement will not move ahead. Roaring its approval, the crowd is energized and ready to engage.

The mood of the conference is set through a blend of metaphorical images—meant to frame common values around extremely dynamic and complex media policy issues—and political argumentation, offered to help participants understand the scope of the challenges that lay ahead.

This is not a gathering where you could wander around and think too deeply about how media creativity and new forms of expression would play out in this arena. The conference is about infrastructure reform and movement building—not art or content. In every session I attend, I am impressed by the argumentative and rhetorical skills of the presenters. They are clear, polished, and “on message.” We were among doers and opinion makers, reporters and agitators, rallying to create a new and outspoken movement that, while reforming media around issues of ownership and access, without a doubt aims to reclaim the political landscape from the hostile right wing.

More than 600 people attend one of the first afternoon panel sessions, “News Information and Corporate Media,” moderated by talk show host Phil Donohue. Journalist Juan Gonzalez reminds us that the public interest media movement has historical context—one example being its roots in the work done by C. Everett Parker of the United Church of Christ, who partnered with the NAACP in the landmark 1963 civil rights-in-communications case that successfully challenged Jackson, Mississippi’s pro-segregationist TV station, WLBT. To give further context to what participants are experiencing, Gonzalez named the “four pillars of the media reform movement” as he sees them: the public’s right to accountability, the needs of increasingly powerless media workers, an embrace of independent and non-commercial media, and the voices of ethnic, labor, and family-owned media businesses.

Writer and filmmaker Naomi Klein is notably visual in her presentation. “Media is a global issue, a meta-issue,” she offers. “Corporate media blocks the sunlight needed to build movements against the war, for social justice, for the environment.” She asks, “What gets amplified in our 24/7 news culture? Now, networks exist to be outraged, emoting all day—and that is what passes for news. The amplification machine turns the volume up, or down, and then conveniently goes silent on stories like the Blair Memo and Abu Ghraib…. We need to understand these methods of amplification and how to use them better for our own purposes.”

A theme that I sense coursing throughout the conference is the longstanding tension between the alternative media activists and the high-powered journalists who try to capture equal time on the institutional airwaves. When I chat with Fred Johnson from Media Working Group, he wonders what is “alternative media” in this fluid period? With two major infrastructural events now underway—systemic restructuring and severe fragmentation—he asks, “Why not move into the cracks that are widening, and suspend old ideas of what alternative and mainstream media are?” He wants to see us take up space wherever available, demand access to the corridors of power, and not marginalize ourselves only into the comfortable (and virtuous) roles that alternative media have carved out over the last 25 years.

Several presenters talk about self-marginalization and accommodation, but during Q&A sessions, audience members step forward to testify about their own efforts to watchdog the networks (especially Fox News) and apply strategic pressure to commercial companies through blogs and targeted e-mail campaigns. Self-defined “newshounds” tell of their experiments with new forms of intervention that are shaking up the old notions of what alternative and institutional media might mean, especially in the decade ahead.

With a quick box lunch outside the seminar rooms, I sit with a group of attendees—drawn to St. Louis from conference ads in The Nation and The Progressive. Mary Lassi, a small town movie-house owner from the northwest corner of Washington state, wants to start a low-power radio station to counter the three hours a day of Rush Limbaugh. James Berry and Colleen O’Brien from Houston came to “learn ways to help people to pressure companies to become journalists again.” They are not the typical media professionals you meet at this kind of convention, but middle-aged “blue” suburbanites living in “red” regions, who are looking for tools and techniques to take home to open up the airwaves again.

I notice that NAMAC members are few and far between here. While I work my expo table, a handful stop by to say hello—Cara Mertes from POV, Beni Matias from AIVF, independent media consultant Alyce Myatt, Pamela Colby from Minneapolis Television Network, Belinda Rawlins from the New Mexico Media Project. There are a few big-name invited producers and artists ducking in and out of sessions. (It was interesting to sit next to singer Patty Smith during a panel on copyright issues).

On a panel looking at independent media distribution, Outfoxed producer Robert Greenwald succinctly outlines his ideas about the three areas he sees the need to focus on: content (“How do you tell a story for a cell phone or Playstation?”); distribution (“Don’t rely on traditional gatekeepers, but find new combinations of ways to get to your audiences”); and policy (“Companies want to make a buck, and will use any means possible to protect their interests”). But the voices of independent producers, whose work is successfully seen on television, in theaters, in community settings, and at museums and nontraditional sites, are notably absent from the conference’s public dialogue.

I hear hallway discussions about how media reform needs to be more inclusive of various other issue-based movements, especially around content and copyright. Yet exhibitors, distributors, and festival organizers, who discover great work in all genres and bring it to the public, were not represented in St. Louis. It was clear to me -— after hearing more than one speaker talk about “how the level of progressive content needs to be less like homework,” and more attractive to audiences — that activists and journalists seldom have much awareness about the wealth of powerful work that is already out there and in active circulation. It is absolutely necessary that NAMAC organizations, artists, makers, and programmers move center stage and open up the perspectives of this reform movement.

The work we nurture might be considered what I call “slow media.” It doesn’t necessarily connect its strength to the world of news and information, but to creativity and discovery, therefore requiring a different set of tools and time commitments to reach its audience and become part of the cultural discourse. Nevertheless, because it is often so different in approach and purpose, it is all the more a necessary component to the media reform movement, perhaps moving it out of its narrow perspective on how a diverse media ecology could be imagined and changed.

It is also strategic for NAMAC and its members to take part in the media reform movement because some of the field’s most important and engaged funders are gathering their own momentum around supporting its activities to make changes policy and infrastructure. They are seeing how, as a “meta-issue,” media reform is supporting many of their own philanthropic agendas. Significant funding will go into this area in the coming years.

After three days, I realize that, as representatives of the field of media arts and community media efforts, we must participate as central organizers—making sure that the issues important to producers, distributors, exhibitors, community media organizations, and educators become part of the mix and lead to influential outcomes — especially in the areas of policy, education and funding. We can’t be sidelined. This is a critical moment in which to create messages and arguments for the funders and to prove that our field is key to broadening the scope of this primarily political coalition.

I left dazzled by Bill Moyers’s rousing final speech and with a firm respect for the conference organizers, who did so well in blending the political with the journalistic, the arcana of policy with grassroots coalition-building. It is to the credit of Free Press that they managed to bring several sectors together in St. Louis to discover common alliances and prepare for action in the months ahead.

As this work continues, you can be sure that we at NAMAC are going to do everything we can to build a partnership with the organizers for the next time around, to make sure that our constituent voices will take a central role in media reform discussions. It is our job to make sure that we will be represented on panels, in plenaries, on the expo floor, and among hallway conversations, so that activists leave with new notions about pathways and forms of media they never even knew existed—but which already exist in their own backyards.


HELEN DE MICHIEL is the co-director of NAMAC.
© 2005 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.