Bringing Democracy to the Media

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In mid-October, hundreds of people gathered in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to discuss a topic guaranteed to raise the hackles of press barons — media democracy.

The first annual Media Democracy Day drew mostly youthful activists who wanted to talk about how to change the media so that it better reflects the diversity of experience and opinion in our society. In the context of war, the debates on how to create a more independent and diverse media have never been more important.

The burgeoning media-democracy movement is an important component of the anti-globalization movement. Young people are fed up with corporate control of our society. Nowhere is that control more destructive than in the media itself.

Corporate concentration of the media is worse in Canada than even in the United States. Chains own 72 per cent of daily newspaper circulation today, compared to 57 per cent in 1980. On top of that, these same chains now own two of the three television networks. The third is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Newspapers, radio stations and television channels are not just businesses. They have a critical role in the democratic system. We rarely hear the term “fourth estate” anymore, but it means that the press is as important to the democratic system as Parliament, the courts and the executive branch.

Yet we have allowed the vast majority of our media to fall into the hands of a smattering of rich men whose primary interest is making money. Where are the safeguards to democracy when the richest of the rich own the means of information?

In the United States, this system has led to a shutting out of any real diversity of opinion. Because we still have a public broadcaster in Canada, we have not suffered as badly from what Noam Chomsky calls manufactured consent. When money rules, rightwing opinion dominates the news.

Complaining about a pro-corporate media is practically a profession on the left in Canada. But it is not just left-wingers who are being poorly served. In fact, in most polls, journalists vie with politicians and lawyers for the lowest rungs on the scale of public respect.

Even so, the idea that more of the media should be publicly funded and independent of corporate or state influence doesn’t even seem to be a legitimate topic of discussion. It is a mammoth struggle just to protect the CBC from decimation. This week, an Ontario cabinet minister suggested we should sell the CBC to save Medicare.

Challenging the corporate media and defending the CBC are two of three pillars in the fight for media democracy. The third is to strengthen the independent media.

The emergence of the Internet has created the possibility of much broader alternatives to the mainstream. Since September 11, Internet sites that present alternative information and views, like rabble.ca, have enjoyed a dramatic increase in visitors.

Not only do more people use independent Websites to get daily coverage and views, but the existence of these sites challenge the corporate monopoly on information. The Internet is a powerful new tool that few in the mainstream understand how to use. As a result, independent sites are on the cutting edge of online news.

While there were a handful of mainstream journalists in attendance at Media Democracy Day in Vancouver, it was striking how few came. There is a gulf between professional journalists who want progressive change and the activists who want to counter the status quo. On the left, the hostility toward corporate media often translates to antipathy for the craft of journalism itself. One of the few mainstream reporters in attendance at the event out West thanked me for my remarks during a presentation. “You didn’t offend me once,” she said.

On the other side, journalists often have contempt for the critics who, in their opinion don’t understand the real pressures of deadline, lack of resources and the importance of storytelling. A lot also feel that political activism is contradictory to their professional role. If there is to be real media reform, it has to be led by a coalition of media activists and journalists — no easy task.

There has never been a better time to create such a coalition, because journalists are very worried about yet another round of cutbacks in newsrooms across the country, and are looking for allies in the fight against the Aspers’ bottom-line approach to their media monopoly. Despite that control, or maybe even because of it, the time has never been better to launch a campaign for media democracy.

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