Brave New World: Rediscovering Democratic Media
This article originally appeared in Issue# 58
Frances Moore Lappé, longtime social philosopher and author of the pioneering study of food resources, Diet for a Small Planet, and educator, public policy expert and African-American community activist Paul Martin Du Bois, are cofounders of the Institute for the Arts of Democracy, a resource center for reexamining the role of citizenship and democratic participation in modern society. They are currently writing a book, Doing Democracy, that will deal specifically with the difficulty of maintaining avenues of free expression in the age of media conglomerates and will explore alternative means of shaping thought and opinion. They recently talked to Media&Values' Editor Rosalind Silver about their work and their conclusions about public discourse in modern society. (Updated 2006 bios at the end of this article.)
M&V: Your recent book, Rediscovering America's Values, was cast as a dialogue between two different perspectives of American ideals. What do you see as the media's role in ongoing public discourse?
Lappé: The press--and today, of course, that includes all media--was never conceived as a passive transmitter of neutral information. What we need instead is educated evaluation of issues, accompanied by true communication between various sides in the public debate. A media that truly served the democratic process would facilitate this kind of dialogue, not serve as a one-way conduit for commercially selected information.
I'm continually frustrated that my voice is filtered through the screen of the prevailing view of information as a commodity. We've confused the right to speak with the right to spend. We must change this notion that a voice in the media belongs only to those with money to spend, when it actually belongs to everybody. Instead of protecting that standard, we need to rethink the situation and develop ways to involve all levels of society--whether that means making editorial pages more accessible, helping community access channels develop grassroots programming or making creative use of new media.
M&V: In other words, you're looking for a change in the prevailing system of rights-- almost a right to discourse?
Lappé: That's a good way of putting it. We have to rethink our whole philosophy about what free speech means. If we put a higher value on direct interchange and diversity, it may mean readjusting our current view that commercial access to the media must be absolute.
M&V: You mention some remedies that are within the context of the system we have now. Do you have others in mind? How would you change the situation? How would you expand the dialogue?
Du Bois: So much of the controversy about media's role really deals with the management of oppression, not information. I think we could identify several major remedies that could help us move in the direction of a less oppressive, more democratic media system. We Americans have long held the principle that truth emerges from diversity as a crucial value in democratic discourses which is why free speech is specifically guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. But although Americans honor this value as a founding principle, it's not very well reflected in our current media system, which is currently controlled by an economic elite.
If commercial media gatekeepers--the managers who select and control information--limit diversity of channels, then diversity of voices is also blocked.
Democratizing the media structure itself is the first line of defense against the stranglehold of ever-growing media conglomerates. There are ways, through public policy and private means, to encourage efforts to increase the number of gatekeepers. Satellite systems, computer networks and other "new" media can all be used to expand information flow, thus effectively increasing the number of gatekeepers. Outlets for the transmission of information can also be increased. Right now we are at the beginning of a technological revolution in communication. As we move through its stages, we have at least the potential for increasing the number and variety of channels for diverse voices.
We also need to provide all possible means of support, both publicly and privately, for sustaining existing media outlets. That is, we can work to reverse or at least halt the trend toward increasing conglomeration. We can insure, as many other countries do, that media outlets presenting minority and diverse viewpoints, presently under siege, continue to exist.
Methods for supporting diversity can range from providing favorable postal rates for alternative publications and supporting community TV and radio access channels, to considering accommodation of diverse opinion as a factor in the broadcast license review process. We must return to the realization that broadcast licensees don't own the airwaves; they only hold them as a public trust.
Why should a few journalists have the privilege of anointing issues for public discussion and deciding whether to treat them seriously or sensationally? Programs and goals need to be open to public judgment and the discourse ought to be a two-way process of discussion, reflection and action. So the question then becomes how can we use the new and old technology to help citizens exchange ideas, to help them interact with each other?
M&V: How would you bring about such changes? Are you proposing additional standards for broadcast license approval or a new fairness doctrine?
Du Bois: Those are two options. We can use all the means at our disposal to demand that programming provide voices for people and interactive ways in which they can come together.
We also need to work to alter the power and the influence of media images. This is something that your center is doing. I would define media literacy as knowing how to evaluate messages and thinking critically about the messages that are presented.
How do you democratize the influence of these messages? If you can't protect people from them any longer, the old censorship model must give way to an exciting alternative--changing the way they're interpreted. Individuals, families and groups who understand how messages work can control their effects themselves. Although their scope is still too limited, people are working in these areas.
Lappé: As we talk to audiences and do other work in this area, we try to give people a sense of these altered possibilities--that things don't always have to be the way they are right now. Before they can act, people need to have a taste, a picture, of what a different system would be like, both day-to-day and in terms of longterm goals for the kind of society we all want to live in. They need to feel that their voices can be heard, and that there are means for getting their ideas across.
As we all work on issues we care about, we must take advantage of all possible avenues to expand the debates we're involved in to include a broader spectrum of opinion. We also have to build a commitment toward access that's society-wide, so that it becomes everyone's responsibility. This sounds strange to many Americans, but it's a well-accepted principle in other democracies. Many countries in Western Europe, for example, provide taxpayer support to alternative newspapers.
M&V: Your work emphasizes the idea of diversity of voices in American democracy. Has this principle been mostly an ideal, or do you feel there was a time when we met it better?
Du Bois: I feel there was a time when we did better, at least in one way, with the public being served by a more diverse and community-centered print media. The percentage of U.S. towns with several daily newspapers has declined from 60 percent in 1910 to under four percent today. There was a time when there was local competition among papers, and those who had access to competing media enjoyed greater choice and diversity than they have now.
Today, on the other hand, we have greater variety among the types of media: computers and satellites, cable television and VCRs, software distribution centers, videotech and teletech, in addition to radio and newspapers and television. But too often their content is repetitive and represents only a common commercial view. We could do more by learning to make better use of the many new media that have the capacity to put people in touch with each other.
Another important point must be made. It's always seemed to me that we have had a kind of media apartheid in this country. As a black person I have to be aware that large portions of the American population have always been excluded from the media. In most cases they have been excluded both from the means of telling their own stories and having their own issues raised, and even from access to the messages of the majority culture. That may be breaking down at this point, but it's still real.
That's why alternative and community media are so important. In radio, for example, the typical decentralization of control may be very positive, because it provides incentives for presenting varying opinions--even controversies. But as with other media, more and more radio stations are linked to national networks. So it becomes more and more difficult for low-income people or representatives of alternative viewpoints to own radio stations and present programs for a low-income or minority population.
I think most Americans think about media in very despairing terms. The companies are larger, the messages seem to be more homogenized, the diversity is less, the media more centralized, but farther away. But the picture is a lot more complex than the standard message of despair.
M&V: So it's not enough just to point to the total number of media outlets, although that's still an important factor?
Du Bois: It's a very important factor. But you have to remember there's a mixed picture. Because it's not a lost cause. There are still ways for the voices of previously underrepresented people to be heard. Or for programming that contributes to the scope of real democratic discourse. It's not too late.
There are some very interesting things being done. An example is in the Tualatin Valley in Oregon. This relatively isolated area west of Portland has an impressive range of cable channels set aside for such community access and public programming. The mix includes broadcasting of virtually all of the important governmental meetings for 16 towns and small cities, a community bulletin board that features continual displays of public events, a channel for the hearing impaired, three public access channels and two education channels.
What's astonishing about this is that nationwide only one percent of all the programs available on television are public access. Yet in this area, 36 percent of the people in those 16 cities and towns say that they watch programs on those channels and 81 percent watch the educational channels at least occasionally. To me this indicates that when people see that they can find improvements over normal television fare, they participate.
I don't want to single this community out as the ideal model, because needs vary and perhaps even more could be done. But such examples do suggest that Americans are hungering for some serious fare when combined with individual goals and a sense of access.
M&V: If you could design your own system, which is perhaps what you're trying to do in your book, what would it be like?
DuBois: What's crucial is variety and diversity in the ownership and control of all media so all the strata of society would be represented in developing programming and information to fits each group's needs. There would be active participation of a very broad spectrum of society in the development of public discourse and public policy.
There would be, next, the active participation of the media in helping diverse interests create their messages, find their voices and distribute their messages to other parts of the society. And finally there would be, I think, the widespread media literacy that applies when people can evaluate and control the messages they are sent. Then I think we could say that media are under democratic control instead of the so-called form of democracy that gives this responsibility to the commercial media.
Lappé: The real question is how we can begin moving in the direction of media that truly express the questions people need to answer about their lives. Changing our understanding of media goals is crucial, but this can begin in relatively small ways.
For example, we recently visited an alternative radio station in Dallas. The day we were there it featured a black woman doctor giving detailed, on-air instruction on how to conduct breast self-examination. This seemingly unusual subject was actually a very important service for a group of listeners, many of whom may have been without proper medical care or health insurance. It was an impressive example of tailoring programming to the needs of the audience.
Du Bois: It's really not a matter of how Frances or I or any small group of people feel about this, but rather how we can provide the opportunity for many people to create their own visions and have them realized. That's really what we're talking about when we're talking about democratization of the media. It's not a vision of a specific type of ownership structure or programming.
M&V: But to do that we need both skills and access--and examples.
Du Bois: But prior to that we need to know that the future is not simply bleak. A lot of people say, "You're talking about democracy--that's all well and good, but it's too late. There is a small group of people who have dominated everything." That's not quite the case yet. It doesn't have to be.
Lappé: There actually seems to be a substantial backlash against media manipulation. What we need to do is to tap it.
Du Bois: We're going to see this all through the summer and all through the election--the questioning of the media's ability to determine the issue of the day. The current process tends to emphasize the importance of the journalist. It requires prompt answers, it requires someone who appears unflappable, the management of a visual impression. Wouldn't it be fascinating, however, if the millions of ordinary people who identified with the plainspoken, plain-appearing Paul Tsongas, might in fact make it possible to someday create a political process that isn't connected with telegenic, message-controlling, charismatic-appearing, mediagenic candidates?
Perhaps some of us ordinary folk could raise the issues and question the candidates. People could get on line and talk to them. This is possible; there's absolutely nothing that prevents us from doing that.
M&V: So people need more ideas about how to make this change?
Du Bois: When people can ask their own questions, they know what's important to them. In a journalistic interview, on the other hand, the most fatal mistake that any candidate can make is to give the impression of not having the right answers.
So they concentrate on images, instead of honestly sitting down with the media and saying, "Hey, we're grownups. We can handle complexities; we can handle bad news. Let's talk about the real problems we see every time we walk out the front door and into the street. Let's stop fooling around. Let's talk about the issues affecting the quality of our lives and the future of our children."
M&V: So you feel there's a hunger for information waiting to be tapped?
Du Bois: Clearly, there's a hunger on the far left, there's a hunger on the right, there's hunger in the middle. In some people despair leads to paralysis. Actually, it should lead to analysis, reflection--and action. Why wallow in despair when we can begin to change things?