Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vast Wasteland Revisited

On Monday, the top thinkers in new and old media gathered at Harvard to discuss the state of the media, 50 years after FCC Chairman Newton Minow slammed the nation’s broadcasters for creating a “Vast Wasteland” across the television dial.

Though I did not attend the event, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman did an excellent job of reporting out via Twitter and his blog.

What’s remarkable in Ethan’s summary is the sense that, while the technology and players have shifted, the problem of U.S. media remains the same: A failure to foster the sort of public interest, independent and noncommercial media system to serve as an antidote to the dreck of commercial news and information that infects America's political discourse.

I could go on about that, and will at a later date. For now I want to put a placeholder in the important comments that were made in Cambridge (Again, as reported by Ethan).

Fifty years on and Minow still seems to have kept a Gimlet eye on the state of our media. He told participants at yesterday's event: "Politicians need massive amounts of money to buy radio and television ads. They raise money from the public to gain access to something the public owns: the airwaves."

This is because the U.S. is one of a few developed democracies that has not offered candidates free access to our airwaves. Why? Because the powerful broadcast lobby makes too much money selling ad space to them -- a number estimated to soar near $3 billion in the 2012 cycle -- and have blocked every political attempt to introduce free time.

Meanwhile their reporting on political candidates and campaigns has devolved into horse race coverage and gotcha moments, devoid of discussions of the issues that Americans say matter most in an election.


Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter noted that today's news business is "largely dysfunctional." Much of the political news we get isn't news at all, he says, but "people like me babbling on MSNBC or Fox," rather than the sort of expensive newsgathering required to report facts on the ground.

These are common complaints made by media reformers such as myself, my colleagues at Free Press, and across the larger movement.

What's less common is the direction the discussion then takes, towards the shifting political power dynamic of social and mobile media.

Yochai Benkler, one of the world's leading thinkers on new networks, helps make the transition:

"Because we all now carry sound, video and text generating and disseminating tools – phones – we’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to close the gap between what costs a great deal of money and what we all need as citizens."

Benkler alludes to something that we've been saying at Free Press for some time now: "Your phone is political." We recognize that our right to connect via mobile devices is vital to the future health of our or any other democracy.

Broken Promises

Mass media once promised to engage millions in democracy, making information available to people who were previously excluded from the political process. But the age of television seems to have done the opposite.

A survey of voter turnout in the age of television elections (1960 through 2008) shows a national average of 55 percent. In the presidential elections that occurred from 1860 through 1956, voter turnout reached an average 67 percent.

"The political conversation involves a maximum of 10 to 15 million people," Alter says, "but 130 million vote in Presidential elections."

Moreover, a survey published late last year by CTIA counts more than 300 million mobile accounts in the U.S. -- or some 95 percent of the population.

What Mobile Movement?

The link transforming mobile phone users to political speakers and participants remains tenuous, but the potential for inserting new voices in the political process is immense, as is the importance of protecting their freedom to connect.

Susan Crawford says that control over this freedom now rests in the hands of new players, not the broadcasters of old but the distributors of new. She includes massively and vertically integrated companies like Comcast among a rogues gallery of the few cable and telecommunications colossi that control both our wired and wireless worlds.

Ethan adds that "In this new world, the FCC may not be the prime mover -- the real power is located in intermediaries like Google, and if we were to push for the public interest, that’s where we’d apply leverage."

Indeed, if only we had a broader movement to do just that.

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