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Monday, July 18, 2011

Citizens for Media Reform

by Tabitha Justice

Today I invite you to join me on a journey to deconstruct the often confusing and frustrating relationship between the political establishment and the media establishment in America.  If we can understand the system, we can change it.  We can take the best parts of our media — the education, visibility and power — and strengthen our democracy.  We can get rid it of the worst parts of our media — the partisanship, misinformation and divisiveness — and begin to work together again, to see each other as fellow Americans instead of opponents.  So what do you say?  Want go on a media quest?

Why study the media?  I have heard it argued that the quality of a democracy is only as good as its legal framework, the participation of its citizens and the strength of their education and civic knowledge.  If we consider these three elements as the balancing legs of a democracy, it only takes one wobbly leg to overturn it.  While education can come from many different sources, historically, there has been no source more effective than the media.  This is something our founding fathers intimately understood.  That’s why the press is specifically mentioned for constitutional protection.  However, it is important to note the continued existence of a free press is not guaranteed.  There are no laws requiring citizens to seek out or provide journalism.  There are no laws that guarantee the quality of that journalism.  And there are few laws that protect the press from being purchased by powerful special interests and transformed into something else entirely. Quality journalism must be recognized, desired and demanded. And there is only one special interest who can do that: We the People.
Media, like any other product, is consumer driven. It is the consumer who decides what they read, what they listen to and what they watch. It is the consumer who decides whether to select media that educates, media that entertains, or media that distorts. As consumers, we can and we must make informed choices if we expect the standard of political journalism to change. Perhaps most importantly, we must understand that we are responsible and accountable for our own individual level of civic knowledge. We must take the initiative to seek out truth and understanding and actively disregard false and misleading information. 



  1. Where did we go wrong? Why did the media begin commercializing news and highlighting extreme points of view rather than seeking the truth? There is a common misconception that the news media had always strived to present an accurate depiction of affairs, and that partisan media empires are a relatively new enterprise. But the truth is America’s early newspapers were devoutly partisan. They were expensive to produce and almost exclusively engineered to fit the agenda of the affluent party leaders who paid for them.

    But in the late 1820s, the Industrial Revolution made it possible for publishers to reduce costs by using cheaper paper and replacing mechanical presses with steam presses. The affordable penny-press was born, and this made it possible for ordinary folks like you and me to have a voice in the media arena. (Today, the advent of the Internet, and specifically social media, provides a similar opportunity).

    The standard of journalistic objectivity wasn’t introduced until 1835 when James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald became the first newspaper to separate itself from a political party and report from an independent perspective for middle and working class Americans. He was successful, and other papers soon followed in his footsteps. This helped to make possible the Progressive Movement of the late 19th century, which ushered in a complete transformation of how political parties were covered by the media.

    The Progressive Party began to expose the political machines that dominated our society, aiming to rid our government of corruption and increase the People’s voice in making policy. The Progressives wanted the general public to be able to base their civic engagement on educated choices rather than party loyalty. They worked to inform the public through literacy and education campaigns. Gradually, voters began to approach civic engagement in a way that sought out the facts independent of party politics. More and more newspapers embraced the standard of approaching journalism with objectivity because that is what the people wanted.

  2. Then things changed. At the end of the 20th century, media holdings became concentrated in the hands of a handful of mega-corporations, and very expensive mediums like television networks began to dominate political discourse and public perceptions. Journalism has once again been overtaken by exaggeration, animosity, misleading claims and adversarial attacks. Television producers have learned how to package and market this kind of content in a way that is entertaining, and even addictive.

    Like the partisan and agenda-driven newspapers that dominated America prior to the penny-press, partisan and agenda-driven news empires serve powerful special interests and enable corruption. Simply put, when communications technologies are too expensive, they will inevitably serve only the interests of those who can afford to purchase them.

    In many ways, we have allowed our profit-driven media establishment to collude with our agenda-driven political establishment to polarize and alienate us while commercializing the democratic process. We have gotten pretty good at complaining about this, but we haven't done enough to fix the problem. I want to find a way for We the People to better understand how the media works because once we understand it, we can begin to change it.

    The revolution may, or may not be, televised. As more and more American consumers move away from profit-driven, corporately-generated media, and toward web-based, user-generated media, there is an opportunity for innovation in the field of journalism. If, as concerned citizens, we endeavor to become more than consumers of content, but also producers of content in the social media era, we can offer another way — or perhaps a return to the way of James Gordon Bennett.

    A hundred years ago, the American people challenged and then transformed the media establishment by picking up the tools of mass communication and showing there is a better way. I propose that we sieze the opportunity of the digital age and start a movement that restores credibility and professionalism to the practice of journalism, and helps to remind our fellow Americans that we are responsible as citizens to shape our government, and, we are responsible as citizens to shape the media. We have the power, not only as consumers, but also as producers of content. I hope you will sign up below and collaborate with me and others in the Coffee Party. Let's learn and experiment together as we set a new standard for the American media establishment.