Building Media Democracy One Brick at a Time
by Eric Alterman with Paul McLeary
February 3, 2005
It should surprise no one that coverage of last night's State of the Union message exhibited a certain uniformity and unwillingness to challenge the president's many misstatements. We may have hundreds of channels, countless newspapers, websites, radio stations, etc., etc., but the sad fact is that big media limits democracy by limiting debate in the places where most people hear it. Following Bush's inaugural address, for instance, Media Matters for America documented that on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News, "Republican and conservative guests and commentators outnumbered Democrats and progressives" by 42 to 10. "Moreover, the rare Democrat or progressive guest usually appeared opposite conservatives, whereas most Republican and conservative guests and commentators appeared solo or alongside fellow conservatives." The ratio on CNN was 10 to 1.
But the cause of free speech and a freer press is hardly a lost one. Last week, in what amounted to a rebuke of the big-media-friendly policies of outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the Bush administration announced that it was abandoning plans to ask the Supreme Court to allow the loosening of restrictions on how large media conglomerates can grow. This was welcome news to all who believe that a diverse and decentralized media is essential to serving the needs of a democratic society. Moreover, it offers a potential opportunity for progressives to shift our energies toward building our own communications infrastructure, rather than our being forced to focus on endlessly fighting the powers that be.
Conservatives have long practiced the art of marrying the market to their political interests, giving rise to a vast media network of talk radio programs, cable programming, mass book purchasing, magazines, talking heads and pundits-for-sale. Progressives have long been playing catch up, but some of us are catching up faster than others. While most of the attention in recent times has gone to efforts to set up well-funded national counterparts like this Center, Air America, MoveOn, etc., much of the most important work being done is local and regional in nature. A key pioneer and visionary in this area is Wally Bowen, founder of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a progressive Internet portal and information resource, and its FM radio station, WPVM, anchored in Asheville, N.C. Bowen believes that the left – by placing an emphasis on communication technology at the local level – can begin to strike back at the entrenched corporate interests that now dominate the American media scene. "Progressives need to employ the analysis of 'political economy,'" he explains in an interview, "and recognize the relationship between power and money not only at the macro level (our strong suit), but also at the micro level."
After successfully offering local dial-up Internet service in North Carolina, MAIN has recently launched an ambitious nationwide project called IndyLink, a nonprofit ISP that offers dial-up Internet service for about 30 percent less than plans provided by corporate interests such as AOL or Earthlink. Because IndyLink is run by a nonprofit organization, it doesn't rely on advertising revenue to survive. It is free of advertising and refuses to collect information on its users or sell information to third parties.
Drawing on his long history as a media activist, having founded the nonprofit Citizens for Media Literacy in 1991, Bowen sees IndyLink's mission as being more than just an ISP. He views its mission as promoting civic involvement and democratic dialogue. Bowen says that early on, "I saw the Internet as revolutionary technology, but I also saw that leaving the ISP function to the private sector would eventually jeopardize the Internet's democratic potential."
Inspired by Robert McChesney's Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy in 1993, Bowen began to champion the idea of locally owned, locally accountable computer networks to try to counter the disappearance of locally owned media in favor of faceless, profit-hungry conglomerates. As he wrote in his essay "Community Networks at the Crossroads," "In 20th-century America…only those voices and ideas which meet rigid marketing criteria and formulae are available for general, widespread consumption. The validity of these voices and ideas are judged primarily by standards and values based – not on the health of the body politic – but on the health of Wall Street and the bottom-line."
Bowen sees this as a good time to expand his IP service nationwide, because progressives are becoming increasingly sensitive to the implications of how and where they spend their money. IndyLink, he notes, has already signed up customers in Michigan, Seattle, Louisiana, and New York. Even so, he professes to discern a telecom "blind spot" among many progressives. "I think it has to do with the telecom marketplace being driven by technology," he says, "and in this culture, technology is viewed as being the domain of the corporation. So if you require a technology service, such as Internet access, you must turn to a corporation. The idea that a nonprofit ISP could provide a superior service to AOL or Earthlink is very alien to most folks who have grown up marinated in the ads of corporate America."
Providing affordable IP service is only one facet of IndyLink's mission. No less important is Bowen's ambition to spread information technology to those who can't otherwise afford it. Bowen envisions the IndyLink homepage as a progressive portal, with links to news stories as well as audio and video feeds from a variety of progressive voices. More importantly, perhaps, is the example that small, dedicated organizations like MAIN provide to progressives trying to break into the marketplace while promoting their vision of a just society.
"First," Bowen explains, "progressives have to figure out a way to make their efforts and organizations sustainable, so it's critical that progressives develop an entrepreneurial instinct. When we were launching MAIN in 1995-96 as nonprofit ISP, I was amazed at how many progressives resisted the concept of selling Internet access. They thought we should be focused on training, organizing, and publishing content. Selling Internet access, they argued, should be left to the 'for-profit' sector. The implication was that it was somehow 'illegitimate' for a nonprofit to be selling a service in order to sustain itself."
Implicit in all this is the fight over reinvigorating the ever-shrinking "public sphere" in American life, in which citizens, acting independently of big business and government, can share ideas and foster debate on a range of topics. Borrowing from the ideas of the Frankfurt School philosopher Jurgen Habermas, among others, Bowen hopes that by marrying a progressive vision with low-cost Internet access, IndyLink can serve the progressive community while drawing more people into the marketplace of ideas.
He marries these ideas in an online presentation entitled "A Progressive Response to an Undemocratic Media," which outlines how government/corporate power filters through the public sphere, obscuring the lines between public and private. Together with his efforts to launch a public access TV operation, Bowen is busy fostering relationships with "a plethora of progressive organizations who rely on our infrastructure for media coverage." These may sound like small steps in the days of billion-dollar election campaigns, but the fact is that Wally Bowen is building media democracy one brick at a time. We could all learn from his example.