Marching on Memphis: revitalizing the media movement

by Danny Schechter, Media Channel

“The conservative era is over,” proclaimed a well-known progressive activist on the day that the Democrats triumphantly took charge in Congress. There has been lots of smiling and back-slapping since the midterm meltdown election in which the hard right stumbled and took a well deserved fall.

The Democrats of course are a fractionated party with as many wings as there are Congressional committees. Progressives have been taking cover for so many years that it remains to be seen how open and forthright they will be as the likely Bush counter-offensive is orchestrated to swarm more troops into Iraq and keep the edifice of the national security state and its repressive legislation intact.

Remember, the Senate’s future turns on the health of one man, and the Supreme Court has been taken over by smooth talking Neanderthals who have tremendous power to overturn the popular will. The Democratic victory was less a victory for new ideas than a rejection of corruption, frustration with a war that many Americans still see as legitimate if unwinnable, disgust with the incompetence we saw in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina and a reaction against the demagogues with nothing to say but unlimited time to say it.


But even more importantly, please recognize, as many on left and right still do not, hat the conservatism of our society is embedded not just in one party but in our culture with its media fostered consumption orientation and celebrity fixation. Although it may appear radical to say, it the most conservative institution and one of the most powerful in our society is not in Washington at all, not even in the political zone. It is the media apparatus.

It is the media that sets the agenda and limits it. It’s the media that frames our issues, narrows our choices, deifies our icons and institutions, and pumps out the distractions that focus our attention and keeps us uninformed. If we are to revitalize our democracy, we need to make the media an issue and a target.

We need to fight for a different type of news and a different story. As Bill Moyers said recently, it’s more about narrative than negativity. “Everywhere you turn you'll find people who believe they have been written out of the story, he says, “the reality of the anonymous, disquieting daily struggle of ordinary people, including the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans but also young workers and elders and parents, families and communities, searching for dignity and fairness against long odds in a cruel market world.”

I saw this up close and personal while making my recent film IN DEBT WE TRUST on the credit crunch that is strangling the lives and hopes of so many Americans across the partisan and every other divide. Americans are hurting and our media system is not educating about why and what we can do about it.


Media activists have to recognize, embrace and even lead this broader fight—beyond partisanship and centrist politics--if we are to help roll back the conservatism that is choking our culture and desperately needed changes in our society.

Next week, 2500 Media activists will be assembling in Memphis for the third National Media Reform Conference (following in the footsteps of the two Media and Democracy Congresses of the 90’s).

The challenge there will be to redefine the media problem as an issue of culture and democracy, not just media rules or government regulation. We need a new vision and a new agenda to build the fight for better media, more public access for all, a public media system that serves the public, not just the professionals it employs. We seek accountability, transparency, and responsibility by a media system that makes billions off the people without serving the public interest or the needs of our anemic democracy.

In years past these events have been great arenas for inspiration and interchange. They have brought activists, advocates, media-makers and media critics together in dialogue, sometimes in diatribe. As is often the case, for every ten participants, there are twenty opinions and the ever-present festering cleavages of race, gender, and age.

Our system does a great job of angering so many of us—but righteousness and resentment is easier to express than building effective unity and a strategy for follow-up and ongoing action. We don’t all agree on everything but we know we need each other to make the kinds of changes that are needed. We don’t need to ventilate. We need victory,’


I will be there representing and premiering a new personal film, “A WORK IN PROGRESS: Putting the ME back in Media” chronicling my own media experiences over all these decades, as a dissector, producer, network media maker and indie trouble maker. Yes it has all the thrills of victory and the bitters stings of defeat. I made it in hopes that some of its lessons and achievements will inspire or at least inform a new generation of the media active. (I show next Saturday at l1 AM, and then hopefully later at colleges and universities nationwide.)

Our time is now. The media system is crumbling in front of us and not for just the lack of a “revenue model.” The public is sick of its dishonesty, cynical commercialization and obvious defense of the status quo. Can we do better? You bet! We already are, on the web, with so many vital indie media projects, radio shows, films, books and blogs.

So now, it’s back to the South where the civil rights movement gained strength in the early days of my own immersion in politics. Back to Memphis—where Dr King moved the movement into the economic terrain (and paid for his courage with his life.)

It’s the home of soul, the land of Otis and Elvis, and yes, also, Sam & Dave, Rufus & Carla Thomas, Booker T & the MGs, not to mention many who used their talent to wake up America including the Staple Singers, Luther Ingram, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Al Green, and I can’t forget Moms Mabley. (Yes, we need a sense of humor, not just hubris. John Stewart has shown us that.)

Let the Democrats have the pretense of Washington. Let’s make Memphis symbolic citadel, for a weekend at least, for a rebirth of the media and democracy movement.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits His new film is INDEBT WE TRUST ( Comments to

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey