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Conference in Minneapolis seeks media reform

The National Conference on Media Reform is being held this weekend in Minneapolis and while the gathering is largely being ignored by the corporate media that are the intended targets of reformers, the organizers offer plenty of ways to listen in to the speeches. The local alternative paper, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, covered the kickoff of the event. I had hoped to attend this conference myself but it would have been a costly exercise. My sympathies and energies go with the reformers, who correctly argue that mainstream media coverage is so insipid as to be misinformation. Just the other day a U.S. Senate committee criticized the White House for making misstatements about WMDs that led the nation into war. Months earlier a press watchdog group tabulated 935 falsehoods uttered by senior administration officials — all dutifully repeated by corporate news media.

The present news system is broken and the worst of it is the denial. Jay Rosen calls journalism a religion. Professional journalists cling to their sanctimonious self-image as public watchdogs and ignore evidence that the current system has failed time and again, and not just on issues of war. The news media touted the housing sector right up until it the current mortgage crisis. It pumped up the stock market during the dotcom excess. The public has so little trust in U.S. media that one recent poll found President Bush more credible.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune used the media reform event as a peg to editorialize in favor of the Free Flow of Information Act. This is supposed to be a federal shield law which is fascinating given that the word “shield” appears no where in the bill, which cleared the House last year and now awaits Senate action. The Star Tribune editorial notes that the Free Flow Act would “provide reporters with only modest protection” and goes on to say that:

This weekend’s conference will highlight the diversity of today’s journalism landscape, with bloggers and citizen journalists taking on increasingly important roles. Determining who’s actually practicing journalism — and who should receive protection — is one of the ongoing and important debates about the final shape of the law.

What is the paper’s position? Should bloggers have shield protection? Apparently there is not enough moral courage on the Star Tribune masthead to take a stand. The House version of this Free Flow Act limits its “modest protections” to paid journalists and excludes citizen journalists. How unconstitutional, not to mention stupid, would it be create a legal distinction between the press and the public at just that point in history when technology is erasing that distinctions. Now more than ever the First Amendment must cover all Americans or it covers none.

It sounds like the Star Tribune is ready to throw bloggers under the bus. I’d wager its editors never bothered to read the act which codifies dozens of reasons to jail journalists, however journalism may be defined. The bill contains one clause written for Steve Jobs. The Apple Ceo once tried to stop bloggers from reporting details of forthcoming products by demanding they reveal their sources. But the bloggers sought and received protection under the California state shield law (see case summary). The Free Flow Act would create a new federal cause of action that would allow any corporation to force a journalist to reveal the name of any source who discloses a trade secret. What a gift to Corporate America. Stamp “trade secret” on anything and it muzzles the media and trumps state shield laws.

Some months ago I reviewed a book by former Labor secretary Robert Reich titled “Supercapitalism.” Reich argumes that corporate interests now have so much political clout that the legislative process has become a competition for advantage between lobbies. Lawmakers are so overwhelmed by demands from these fictitious legal entities that they can’t hear the flesh and blood citizens they represent.

Like Congress, U.S. media have become corporate mouthpieces. The corporate agenda has become the media agenda. Each day BusinessWire and PRNewswire aggregate corporate press releases and funnel them to the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Press, Bloomberg and other the mainstream news outlets. Thousands of editors see these corporate press releases each day. Like Congress, the media is mesmerized by these corporate messages. Supercapitalism has created Supermedia.

So while we may hope for reform we should not expect it and plan instead to build the media we want.