You couldn’t swing a block of tofu inside the ruddy concrete enclave known as the Memphis Convention Center last weekend without hitting someone spreading the message that corporate media will own us all, Internet included, if we don’t take the word and turn it into action. “They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a surge, as if it were electricity through a wire instead of blood spurting through veins,” public affairs broadcaster and author Bill Moyers told an enthralled audience at one point. (Maybe he has a point: in the history of U.S. wars, when did we ever refer to a war’s escalation as “a surge”? By the way, did you know that GE, a defense contractor, owns NBC?)
The National Conference for Media Reform, organized by FreePress.net, drew prototypical liberals from everywhere: a woman who could have passed as a member of the Junior League was handing out flyers extolling the virtues of today’s communist party. A young woman in a plaid skirt, pigtails and tattoos covering both arms coexisted with graybeards with laptops on smoke breaks, an almost translucent white blonde in dreadlocks and lots of wheelchairs.
At one point, while attendees waited for Jesse Jackson, a woman whose hair reached below her knees approached; then came a large guy wearing a blue sharkskin suit, bowtie, hair askew like the Simply Red dude, and what looked like spats. There were New Yorkers in black, geeks with earbuds, grandmothers in tie-dyed tops, Canadians in sensible shoes. Hey, want to know how to tell Vermont academics apart from Oregon academics? The ones from Vermont wear herringbone sport coats.
Everywhere in the huge, darkened ballroom laptops glowed. The capacity crowd of more than 3,000 included bloggers, journalists, activists and a few mainstream reporters with their tripods, quizzical looks on their pretty faces.
The anti-media media studs addressed an audience of committed activists from the massive Ballroom A. In his Friday morning address, Bill Moyers characterized Time, Murdoch, Disney, et al., as the “plantation media,” saying, “media pays more attention to establishment views than the needs of ordinary people…. The boss man in the big house has been lying to me. Something is wrong with this system. This is the moment freedom begins, the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it’s time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself.”
He preached that the days of local programs on TV and radio are all but over. Did we know that just a few companies own most of the radio stations in our hometowns? How often do our letters to the editor get printed? And, more importantly, he asked, how often do we write them?
Just as Moyers called AT&T’s sweet deal with Cingular “like China swallowing India,” a cell phone rang a few rows back—a Cingular perhaps?
Outside, near a trolley stop, WMC-TV on-air reporter Janice Broach responded to questions about how they’re covering the conference, by asking, “Why? Are we getting bashed?” There was a guy from Atlanta who, when asked why he was at the conference, said “personal interest,” then, in a hushed voice, offered, “but I work for CNN”—as though if he said it any louder he’d be jumped by a mob smelling of body odor, patchouli oil and organic greens.
Later, at the adjoining hotel, a half-dozen likely conference-goers patiently waited beneath a “check-in” sign, where there was no attendant. Polite liberals, and part of the problem. Liberals wait, conservatives take.
Back at the ballroom, everyone waited for Jesse Jackson to take the stage. Danny Glover wandered in, sans entourage, greeting people. He’s a nice-looking guy, taller than he looks on TV. How did he ever get along with Mel Gibson, anyway?
Then, at high noon, after a rock star wait for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, he arrived and everyone rose. Right away, he invited the group to the Jan. 27 march on D.C. against the war. He wondered aloud why ethanol is unavailable at convenient stores. He called the lack of independent media ownership, whatever one’s color, a civil rights issue, because the airwaves are by law the public’s. “We’re building first-class jails and second-class schools,” he said, deviating momentarily from the anti-big-media message to sneak in the political rhetoric, spoken in the preacher cadence that he’s so famous for. He wondered how a president could hear the country cry “no more,” and answer with escalating the war. His voice rose as the audience was reminded that Dr. King’s birthday was to be celebrated the day after the conference, and we are in Memphis.
FreePress.net expected 2,000 to attend; over 3,000 showed. Everyone appeared serious, busy, committed. The hotel bar never seemed full the entire weekend, unlike at most big conferences. Several members of Congress came, including Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. There were so many workshops—almost 80—on so many topics that the conference could have lasted two weeks. They included: Fighting FCC Regulations; Ethnic Media; Faith Communities and Media Reform; Saving the Internet; Payola: Radio, Records and the FCC; Bridging the Digital Divide.
This may be the only place where an FCC commissioner (Michael Copps, known as the last vote against media monopolies) received a standing ovation, on the same stage and same night as Al Green’s Gospel Chorus. Meanwhile, there was a guy there named Bill Moyer (not Moyers), who runs the Backbone Campaign, a group that protested the spineless throughout the weekend (with a 20-foot-tall inflated Lady Liberty in front of the Homeland Security immigrant detention facility, and with caricature Bush and Cheney figures in prison suits on Beale Street).
Booth operators included founders of a new company called TheRealNews.com, which hopes to provide daily news via the Internet without bias. For instance, rather than simply offer daily weather reports, it will report on the current state of the environment—and not just the war in Iraq but the war on poverty, too. Its support comes from members ($10 monthly), yet its news will be available online to anyone. Other booth operators included Code Pink, See Jane, Media Matters and a guy with a ponytail selling every kind of button known to person.
Outside the hall, a woman with short gray hair and bright blue eyes could be overhead telling a paraplegic Indian that her daughter recently moved to war-ravaged Beirut. He actually responded with a smile.
After the conference came to an end, and everyone was back home, President George W. Bush was interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Bush went unchallenged as he again said that Saddam Hussein sought nuclear capabilities, years after being proven otherwise. And when Bush paused after being asked what he’ll do if Congress stands up to the war escalation’s cost, the interviewer prompted him with, “The Democrats have no plan.”
Maybe Bill Moyers is right. If CBS exemplifies the so-called liberal media, then we are in big trouble….