Democratic reformer Henry
Adams, who decried the decline in democracy as the robber barons rose
to power in the nineteenth century, did not mince words about the
failure of the news media of his day: "The press is the hired
agent of a monied system," he wrote, "and set up for no
other purpose than to tell lies where the interests are involved."
Imagine the verbal scorching Henry would give to today's media barons,
who are not merely hired agents of monied interests they have
become the interests, fully corporatized, conglomerated and well-practiced
in the art of journalistic lying to perpetuate the power and profits
of the elites.
A handful of self-serving corporate fiefdoms now controls practically
all of America's mass-market sources of news and information. GE now
owns NBC, Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS, News Corp. owns Fox, and
Time Warner owns CNN; these five have a lock on TV news. Of the 1,500
daily newspapers, only 281 are independently owned three companies
control 25 percent of the daily news circulated in the entire world.
These aloof giants openly assert that meeting their own profit needs
is the media's reason for existence as opposed to meeting the
larger public's need for a vigorous, democratic discourse. Lowry Mays,
honcho of Clear Channel Inc. (which owns more than 1,200 radio stations
a third of all the stations in America), opines that: "We're
not in the business of providing news and information We're simply
in the business of selling our customers' products."
This single-minded mercenary focus combines with general corporate
arrogance to bloat the egos of media chieftains, leading them to think
that they really are the infallible gods of our daily newsfeed, with
no need to be accountable to the public: "We paid $3 billion
for these television stations," said an executive with a Fox
affiliate in Tampa; "We decide what the news is. The news is
what we tell you it is."
Crude, corporate censorship of our news by these boardroom types is
less common than the subtle, internal self-censorship done by general
managers, top editors and some reporters who avoid topics and dilute
stories that the corporate hierarchy might find offensive or simply
not comprehend. A 2000 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People
and the Press found that a third of local reporters admit softening
a news story on behalf of the interests of their media organizations.
A fourth say they have been told by superiors to ignore a story because
it was dull, but the reporters suspected that the real motivation
was that the story could harm the media companys financial interests.
And thats only the reporters who confess!
If you detect a corporate bias in your news, dont feel lonely.
Two-thirds of Americans told pollsters last September that they believe
special interests or a self-serving corporate-political agenda infect
news coverage. We can all wring our hands and wail about this corporate,
monopolistic grasp on our news sources, but heres a better idea:
Lets do something about it.
A grassroots flowering
The Austin Motel is a refurbished, New Deal-era business on South
Congress Avenue near my home. It has an old brightly-lit marquee out
front that proudly boasts the credo of the current owners: "No
additives, No preservatives, Corporate-free since 1938."
Wouldnt that make a fine slogan for a new democratic media for
Oh, you say, Hightower, dont toy with us. It would take billions
and billions of dollars to build a broad-based media network outside
the established TV, radio and newspaper conglomerates, so thats
just a pipe dream. Well, yes, it would take those impossible billions...
if we set out merely to duplicate the media Goliaths. But what if
we wanted to develop a David a sprightly, nimble network of
media outlets that are not capital-intensive and not burdened with
either multimillion-dollar salaries or voracious conglomerate bureaucracies?
I have good news for you: This is already happening! Thousands of
hardy, grassroots people have been working steadily and creatively
over the years in every area of media, and the result of their combined
efforts is that a new media force is now flowering coast to coast
a force of hundreds of media outlets that is unabashedly progressive,
fiercely independent, diverse, dispersed, and democratic. Some of
these outlets are nationally known, others only locally known; some
are brand new, others have been plugging away for decades. But the
significant thing is that, collectively, they are a force to be reckoned
with, celebrated, strategically deployed
and deliberately expanded.
Ive known and worked closely with many of these varied outlets
my entire political life, but it was only last year that I realized
what can happen if we learn to connect the various components and
tap into the full power that they offer.
The occasion was a most modest one: The launch of my book, Thieves
in High Places. In addition to being about the monied kleptocracy
that has seized our peoples democratic power, the heart of this
book is about the deeply encouraging rise of you grassroots Americans
out there whore battling the thieves.. and often beating them.
These are inspiring stories of democratic activism that the media
establishment largely ignores, and I wanted as many people as possible
to know about the stories, so that others might take heart and battle
Call me cynical, but I knew from experience that the barons of media
power were not likely to rush forward to embrace and disseminate my
antiestablishment message. I was right none of the morning
TV shows (Today, Good Morning America, etc.) allowed me to talk about
it; no evening newsmagazine show (20/20, Dateline, etc.) would touch
it; there were no reviews in the mass-market newspapers and magazines
(New York Times, Newsweek, etc.) and even NPR and public television
gave it the cold shoulder. It was a case of libra non grata.
Yet, a funny (and fun) thing happened: Thieves rose into the top 10
of nearly every best-seller list across the country, including the
New York Times list. You could almost hear the incredulous compilers
of sales data asking: "How the hell did this thing get on our
It got there quickly, reaching a mass-market audience by way of your
and my very own rag-tag, patchwork media network, which most of us
don't even know we have. I stumbled on the breadth and depth of this
network because Sean Doles and Laura Ehrlich in my office had organized
a guerrilla campaign to get the word out about the book.
Working with community-radio stations, alternative newsweeklies, independent
bookstores, web-active organizations, progressive (and aggressive)
magazines, websites and publications of grassroots organizations,
local organizing groups, some upstart television rebels and,
of course, you scrappy Lowdowners we found that progressives
are not voiceless in a corporate-media wasteland after all if only
we recognize that we have powerful media assets of our own.
My book doesn't matter, but the concept of connecting this patchwork
of assets does matter greatly. Any particular piece of this progressive
media patchwork is small (and too often scoffed at by progressives
themselves as "insignificant"). But add the pieces together
and we have a far-flung network of outlets that each and every
day is reaching tens of millions of people.
Also, the people who are tuning in to our progressive outlets are
not just cumulative numbers to be sold to advertisers; mostly they're
readers, listeners, online clickers and viewers who give a damn and
are looking for action. We saw an example last year of what can happen
when even some of these components connect. The FCC, led by laissez-faire
nutball Michael Powell, was ramming through a rules change that effectively
would allow one or two media conglomerates to control the TV, radio,
and newspaper outlets in every U.S. city.
Essentially, this unregulation of media ownership would lead to the
full-scale monopolization of our news sources. Corporate lobbyists
and government lawyers had holed up in a dark back room to whisper
sweet legalese to each other, and we Joe and Joline Schmoes would
have known nothing about it until after the fact, when we would've
heard that wet, smoooooooching sound coming from Washington that tells
usuh-ohanother dirty deed has been done to us.
This time, though, was different. Several public-interest organizations
picked up on the FCC's back-room move and alerted such grassroots
groups as Common Cause, which sent up red flares to engage its 200,000
members. Then, like the pamphleteers of old, dozens of community-
radio stations plastered on-air broadsheets all across the country,
translating the FCC's regulatory gobbledygook into straightforward
rallying cries. They pounded the issue day after day. Next came the
Web-active group MoveOn.org, which gave this growing grassroots opposition
the mechanism it needed for a targeted response and some 170,000 emails
poured into Washington.
The result was that, last July, the U.S. House of Representatives
voted 400 to 21 in favor of an amendment by Rep. David Obey to stop
the FCC's media-monopolization rule. The decisive 400 House votes
were from Congress critters (Democrats as well as Republicans) who
had taken buckets full of campaign cash from the very media barons
they suddenly decided they had to vote against.
The battle is not over, but the fact that this arcane issue of media-ownership
regulations could, in such a short time, ignite a prairie fire of
popular rebellion is a testament to the power at our disposal.
As I've learned from the past dozen years of on-air experience, radio
can be a very democratic little box, in part because it's ubiquitous
(in our bedrooms, cars, showers, etc.), and also because people tend
to hear what's said on radio, as opposed to TV, where they get an
image but don't much follow the story being told. The bad news is
that the radio dial is fast being bought up by Clear Channel and a
couple of other conglomerates. The good news, however, is that we
still have hundreds of extremely important stations in our hands,
beaming out a steady progressive message to millions every day.
Since 1993, my own two-minute radio commentaries ("little pops
of populism," we call them) have aired every weekday, now being
heard on a mix of 130 commercial and community stations coast to coast
(including KKFI 90.1 in Kansas City), plus Alaska, Hawaii, and, get
this, Armed Forces Radio, as well as on the web (www.jimhightower.com).
But I'm the least of it. From Amy Goodman's sassy Democracy Now (also
on KKFI) to Working Assets Radio with Laura Flanders, from New Dimensions
to Latino USA, from Counterspin to RadioNation, from ACORN Radio to
Alternative Radio with David Barsamian, from Media Matters with Bob
McChesney to The World there's a wealth of national and local
broadcasters putting forth progressive issues and insights every day.
Because of the corporate bias of its owners, commercial radio is the
hardest nut to crack, but we have such voices as Enid Goldstein at
KNRC in Denver, Sly Sylvester on WTDY in Madison, and Mitch Albom
on WJR in Detroit. And now, Air America is making a bold play to bring
17 hours a day of progressive talk radio through its burgeoning network,
broadcasting such live-wire hosts as Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo,
Randi Rhodes, Chuck D and Rachel Maddow. This brand-new upstart is
already in 15 cities, and is drawing millions more listeners each
day on the web(www.airamericaradio.com).
Then there are our community-owned stations. Many people assume that
these are little one-watt nothings, but that's nonsense. Indeed, some
are powerhouse blasters in big cities, such as the Pacifica Network's
five flagship stations in Berkeley, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington,
DC, and Houston. Pacifica's KPFK in LA, for example, is 110,000 watts,
reaching from San Diego to Santa Barbara and stretching inland to
Likewise, the independent community station WMNF in Tampa is a 70,000-
watt treasure that reaches from Sarasota on the Gulf Coast almost
to Orlando in the middle of the state.
Even the small-town community broadcasters pack a punch. WERU in Blue
Hill, ME (pop. 700), for example, reaches clear to the state capital
in Augusta and is a beloved rallying point for the whole Penobscot
Bay area ("We-are-you" is how the station pronounces its
call letters). The same with KAOS in Olympia, KBOO in Portland, KGNU
in Boulder, and so many more people don't just tune in, they
count on these stations, trust them in a way no one would trust Clear
Channel, and are willing to act on the information they receive.
A democratic tool that Jefferson, Madison, and the other Bill of Righters
could not have imagined, but would gleefully embrace today, is the
World Wide Web. This computerized architecture of interconnected hubs
and spokes allows us to link our thoughts and actions instantly in
virtual space and produce tangible political results that would have
taken months before.
Every progressive group (even Luddites like me) now has lively, interactive
web sites through which we can share a gold mine of information, forge
coalitions, hold "meetings," and mobilize mass actions (from
local to global).
The growth of the net is explosive 68 billion emails per day,
for example, and 10 million daily blogs by everyone from the kid next-door
to famous pundits to me! MoveOn.org, TrueMajority.org, and the Howard
Dean campaign have shown the phenomenal potential of the web, not
only for fund-raising and blitzing Congress with citizen opinion,
but especially for organizing people for action (a breakthrough that
you'll hear more about as the Lowdown itself develops a web-active
program to link all of us Lowdowners into more grassroots civil action).
The web gives us the means to bypass the corporate media, creating
our own low-cost, decentralized network of news that, say, the New
York Times does not consider "fit to print."
In addition to hundreds of specialized news sites, there are "aggregators"
that amount to news services for progressive content credible
outfits like Alternet.org, TomPaine.com,
Buzzflash.com, and Commondreams.org.
Some are creating their own virtual newspapers. Check out iBrattleboro.com.
For more than a year now, this Vermont website lets the readers be
the reporters on what's really going on in town. Anyone can contribute,
and anyone can comment on the contributions. In a town of 12,000,
the virtual pages of iBrattleboro are getting 260,000 viewers a year.
If reading the daily press depresses you, get a lift by going beyond
your "Daily Blather" newspaper to such spunky journals as
The Nation, Mother Jones, The Progressive, In These Times, American
Prospect, Ms., Harper's, and The Progressive Populist. Also, Utne
rounds up articles every month from more than 2,000 alternative media
sources. And two groups, the Independent Press Association (indypress.org)
and the Alternative Press Center (altpress.org),
give you access to magazines, newsletters and 'zines that cover every
political and cultural issue imaginable.
Chances are your own town has one or more independent weekly newspapers
offering detailed coverage of progressive issues and events that the
monopoly dailies miss or avoid. The Association of Alternative Weeklies
(aan.org) plugs you into 120 of these local voices that, collectively,
reach 17 million readers a week. Even television, the feeblest member
of our democracy's media mob, is perking up a bit. PBS's Now with
Bill Moyers has been a blast of fresh air (though its direction is
uncertain now that he has announced his retirement), and C-SPAN continues
to do a great public service by simply clicking on its cameras and
letting us see events without edits or editorializing. And you can
forget the network news and go directly to The Daily Show for Jon
Stewart's irreverent, on-target satires, broadcast on Comedy Central.
Especially encouraging in TV-land are the insurgents of the air, including
Free Speech TV and WorldLink TV, reaching a combined 20 million homes.
Grassroots rebels are also making their own TV, thanks to Cable Access
Television, available on some 600 public-access channels, as well
as a feisty group of Independent Media Centers (indymedia.org) that
are particularly good at streaming raw footage of protests and other
actions, with their media activists taking their web-driven video
cams right into the center of things, bringing you news as it happens.
Finally, don't discount the power of face-to-face networks. On any
given day, thousands of people are gathered in various-sized groupings
to listen, learn, discuss, interact, strategize, and organize. These
forums include the nation's 2,200 independent bookstores, which are
not merely book peddlers, but also community meeting places and informal
bulletin boards (go to booksense. com to find ones near you). Public
libraries, progressive speakers' series, potluck suppers, conversation
cafes and progressive festivals (Greenfest, Bioneers, Rolling Thunder,
etc.) are also part of this vibrant, high-touch outreach that goes
on daily in practically every city and neighborhood.
Years ago, my momma taught me that two wrongs don't make a right but
I soon figured out that three left turns do. We must apply that same
kind of street savvy if we're ever to find our way around the media
blockages that the corporate interests have put in place to shut out
This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of The Hightower
Lowdown (1-866-271-4900). Jim Hightower is the best selling author
of Lets Stop Beating Around the Bush, on sale July 19
from Viking Press.