Monday, January 22, 2007

The Stakes Are High: A Brief Recap on The National Conference for Media Reform

Starbucks has virtually wiped out independent coffee shops, Wal-mart has killed the corner store, and media conglomerates have devastated locally produced newspapers, television stations, and radio programs across the nation. The domination of local markets from coast to coast is rapidly increasing, along with the monopolization of information that the public receives. Television news broadcasts are now laced with sensationalism; sitcoms are filled with the product placements that aim to turn entertainment into infomercials; and news about local community projects, or reports on such important topics as the rise in diabetes, are frequently interrupted by coverage of high-speed pursuits or celebrity scandals.

It’s a fact that replacing home-cooked meals with a steady diet of Big Macs is a serious problem. Likewise, as Eric Klinenberg explains in his book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, replacing well-researched, quality media with a twenty-four-hour, all-you-can-eat-buffet of stale, extra-crispy news is crushing and destroying creative and independent voices. “With media the stakes are higher,” argues Klinenberg, “because both cultural diversity and democracy in American require a rich and varied supply of news and information in the public sphere.” Kleinberg is not alone. Thousands of individuals and political groups across the nation believe the stakes have already gotten high enough.

On January 12th through the 14th, the 3rd annual National Convention for Media Reform was conducted in Memphis, Tennessee. With a scholarship from the Free Press, and the support of the American Forum/Youth Media Justice Project in Atlanta, Alexa Harris, a senior Comparative Women’s Studies major at Spelman College and the 2005-2006 managing editor for the Spelman Spotlight newspaper, embarked on a life-changing journey to learn about media reform with nine other students from the Atlanta area.

Over 3,500 students, educators, freelance writers, staff journalists, and political activists gathered at the Cook Convention Center in downtown Memphis to discuss the numerous injustices plaguing the media, and methods with which to solve them. “Prior to attending the event,” said Harris, “I had no idea that media reform was such a huge issue nationwide, let alone that so many social and political activists with a passion for media justice even existed.”

Open-minded and ready to learn, Harris explained that because the National Media Reform Conference taught her a great deal she wants to share her experience with other students--especially young African-Americans in the Atlanta University Center. The speech by Bill Moyers of National Public Radio against “The Plantation Mentality” of media owners and the speech done by Jessie Jackson from the Rainbow Push Coalition about “Freedom’s Obligation” to all citizens, according to Harris, were two extremely informative and enlightening events at the conference. Three additional lessons stood out in her mind, as well, and were taught to her by prominent African-Americans who served as panelists throughout the weekend: Attorney LaVonda Reed Huff from the Syracuse University School of Law; Christopher Rabb, founder of the Web site, Afro-Netizen; and Lisa Fager, founder of the Web-based think tank, Industry Ears.

“During the ‘Race and Gender Matters in Media Ownership’ session on the first day of the conference,” said Harris, “attorney LaVonda Reed-Huff, from Syracuse University School of Law, conducted a dynamic presentation titled ‘Preserving Black Radio'…[H]er presentation discussed the history of Black news radio in America and the important impact it played on uplifting and uniting a conscience and active Black community.” Harris further explained that Huff said she believes that “there is a connection between the lack of social and political news on “urban” radio stations today and white ownership.” In her lecture, Huff explained that by finding ways that don’t require governmental support, women and minorities can overcome the barriers created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that prevent women and people of color from gaining media ownership. “[Huff’s] hope is that with more Black radio ownership, more social and political news with a balanced prospective can be brought back to the radio airwaves,” said Harris.

Harris also elaborated on what she learned in the session, “Citizen Journalism: Making an Impact in a New Media Landscape,” where Christopher Rabb was a panelist. “In addition to the other panelists, [Rabb] discussed ways journalists use the Internet to reach the masses, particularly through blogging,” Harris said. Rabb shared a story about his transformation into becoming an “Afro-netizen,” a term he created to identify himself as an African-American citizen who uses the Internet and who has a voice. That voice, Harris said, came “after realizing that white, ivy-league educated males were dominating the blogging world and that the content in their blogs did not relate to people of color, particularly in the Black community…[H]e decided to create a place for commentary about social and political issues that are pertinent to the Black community.” He created a Web site (Afro-Netizen) which, in his own words, is “dedicated to informing, inspiring, and engaging Afro-netizens and the community they touch.”

Another panelist Harris met during a networking event was Lisa Fager. “Fager has a great deal of media experience from working in both music and television industries. Because of her wealth of knowledge and yearning for media justice -- particularly for children who are unlawfully exposed to hip-hop music -- she has began a Web site called Industry Ears,” said Harris. According to its mission statement on the Web site, Industry Ears is a “new-generation, non-partisan think tank aimed at addressing and finding solutions to disparities in media that negatively impact individuals and communities.”

According to Harris, the “most interesting [aspect of] Fager’s work is a project she created for college level students.” The students in two of her classes were to listen to the radio for one hour a day during the hours of 6am-10pm and document the songs and lyrics that played within the hour. “The reason for this,” explains Harris, “was because the FCC states ‘it is illegal to broadcast sexually explicit content between the hours of 6am-10pm’” Harris noted that throughout the study, students documented numerous songs on the radio that violated this law and after each student complained to the FCC using the four methods of communication (e-mail, phone call, snail mail and fax), they were given no feedback.

“I believe conferences such as the National Media Reform Conference are imperative, especially for people underrepresented in media ownership and with unbalanced images in the media, because they give ignored voices a chance to speak on issues that are typically ignored by mainstream media outlets,” said Harris. “These conferences serve as a place for one to not only become educated about the latest issues that plague our freedom of speech -- such as corporations that are working against net neutrality [access for all to the internet] -- but also serve as a place for voices to be heard and groups from across the country to come together, have a support system and become encouraged in the fight against media injustice.”

--Irene Rose De Lilly
Spelman College '09
English major
Features editor,
Maroon Tiger newspaper

--Alexa Harris
Spelman College '07
Comparative Women's Studies Through Digital Media
Managing editor, 2005-2006,
Spelman Spotlight newspaper