The Movement in Memphis

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More than 3,000 media reformers flocked to the Third National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR) in Memphis, the weekend before the Martin Luther King Day holiday. They left filled with momentum.

But the growing movement is also wrestling with the internal contradictions that bedevil coalitions that try to remain simultaneously non-partisan while still appealing to a passionate base.

The speakers, the dozens of group sessions and panels, and even the decision to hold the conference in the city where King was assassinated on the holiday weekend, demonstrate the depth of commitment.

Speakers in the crowded auditorium say media reform is the “new civil rights movement,” essential to the broader progressive platform of renewed government accountability and vital to ending the culture of corruption. They talked of grassroots organizing, network neutrality, community broadband, digital inclusion, state franchising bills, citizen journalism and even low-power radio. Call it public-interest convergence.

As the movement grows, it’s switching from defense to offense. The first NCMR in ’05 boasted big-name supporters like Bill Moyers and Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. At that conference, talk centered on holding the line on media consolidation and foiling further efforts to deregulate broadcast ownership.

Contrast that with Memphis. There was a return of these faithful speakers, now augmented by the powerful voices as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), and actors Danny Glover and Geena Davis.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) spoke of the need to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Markey promised unstinting oversight of the FCC. Copps introduced a “New American Media Contract” that would give Americans a “right to media that strengthens our democracy.” Adelstein called on Congress to overturn any further deregulation by the FCC’s Republican majority.

Internal contradictions still remain. The media-reform movement prides itself on being non-partisan. With Democrats in power and influential progressive organizations such as in the mix, will Republicans such as Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) continue to support media reform?

In his remarks, Moyers warned that progressive movements have an unfortunate history of focusing on their internal divisions and ripping apart just when they seem strongest. Can a movement that thrived on fighting defense against powerful forces successfully go on the offensive? As someone who attended the NCMR in Memphis, I strongly believe it can.