Shortly after we inaugurate the next president, the 75-year history of over-the-air broadcasting, as created by the 1934 Communications Act, will come to an end—to be replaced by what? Should faith communities, already fighting war, poverty, and global warming, take up the task of answering this question?
The authors of three new books say yes, and here's why: The media, technology, and telecommunications industries are in the middle of a wrenching shake-up of historic proportions. New technologies, new business models, and the upcoming move to digital TV in February 2009 have created the best opportunity in decades for people of faith to shape our communication environment to reflect our values.
If we take advantage of this turmoil to insist on radical change, then the struggle for every other change we want to make—universal health care, ending homelessness, ending war, or saving the planet—will get easier. If we fail to seize this moment, the most powerful communication tools in the history of humankind—from radio, TV, movies, and the next-generation Internet—will continue to be deployed primarily by people whose primary mission is to move merchandise off store shelves.
Eric Klinenberg, author of Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, and Jeff Chester, author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, describe the efforts of a lonely group of scholars, attorneys, and activists to counteract millions of dollars that corporate lobbyists spend in support of mergers and acquisitions among an ever-shrinking number of larger and larger multimedia, multinational conglomerates.
Klinenberg, a New York University sociology professor, has produced what he calls a field journal of the emerging media reform movement. His book is a wide-ranging look at the new movement since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The 1996 Telecomm Act is also a pivotal event in Digital Destiny, but Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C., writes more from the perspective of a frontline activist.
Both authors explore the battle over media ownership regulations that began in 2002 and ended in a Philadelphia courtroom after the Federal Communications Commission ignored more than 1 million complaints from citizens against a proposed set of rules that would have radically increased the power of media conglomerates.
As a longtime media reform advocate, Chester's insider's view of the battles in Congress and at the FCC is the book's greatest strength. From the Reagan era regulator who said TV was nothing more than a toaster with pictures, to the Clinton era sellout to broadcasters that gave away $70 billion worth of airwaves and ended up contributing to the loss of half a million jobs, Chester knows this territory well. He does a great job explaining how the lobbying efforts of the broadcasting, cable, and telephone industries have overwhelmed the fragile concepts of public service that are supposed to be the touchstone of communication regulation.
"Every [FCC] chair for the last three decades has gone to work one way or the other with the media or telecommunication industry," Chester notes glumly.
How this damages the free press that democracy depends on is another strong point of Chester's book. If a handful of companies control the major sources of information, and those companies have powerful incentives to please powerful people, is it any wonder that we don't get the vigorous debate we need to avoid such tragedies as the war in Iraq?
Benjamin Barber, author of Consumed: How Capitalism Corrupts Children, Infantilizes Adults, and Swallows Citizens Whole, argues that global capitalism, at least in the developed world, has reached the stage where capacity to produce goods and services wildly exceeds the basic needs of society. Only by using all the tools of communication and marketing power can the modern economy create enough demand to absorb the overwhelming supply.
During a book-tour lecture, Barber, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of Jihad vs. McWorld, said he finds a diverse audience for his message and has made appearances on Christian radio stations. In fact, Barber believes "religion may be the sector with the most potential for resistance from the outside to the infantilist ethos and its consumer culture."
Unfortunately, however, none of the three books provides a convincing road map for what to do next.
Klinenberg is a scholar and observer who makes no pretense about suggesting future strategies or giving readers anything more than the names of media reform groups around the country.
Barber concludes, surprisingly, that relief from the dominance of the marketplace might best come from better behavior in our roles as consumers. "The challenge is to demonstrate that as consumers we can know what we want and want only what we need. ... Once we resume our lives as complex human beings with diverse wants, only some of which can be satisfied by material consumption, capitalism will be compelled to resume its role as an efficient respondent to real human needs." How people will learn to live diverse lives as complex human beings while all the tools of communication preach the gospel of shopping, Barber does not say.
Chester is the most disappointing. His book spends 10 chapters outlining in grim detail how the media fail us, how regulators who are supposed to protect us care more about getting hired by the industries they're regulating, and the dire consequences of letting existing cable and phone monopolies strangle the potential of the Internet. In the last chapter, Chester tries to suggest what we might do to turn this around, but, sadly, his proposals don't seem up to the task. If FCC commissioners and staff routinely ignore laws that prevent them from lobbying their colleagues for a year after they leave public service, is it really going to make a difference to change the "no lobbying" rule to five years? If members of Congress are cravenly devoted to the broadcast lobby, is it really a recipe for significant reform to demand that Congress appoint truly independent people to the FCC?
What, then, are we to do?
There is the path of conventional activism. For example, is there a media reform or study group in your community? A committee seeking a low-power FM station? Is your city or suburb considering a municipal broadband effort? If not, maybe you could start one. But people of faith could do more than that. We could put "communication justice" on our social justice agendas alongside ending poverty and war. Beyond media reform, communication justice calls for a radically new system of allocating and regulating communication resources that recognizes the voice of the divine within everyone, not just the voice of the marketplace.
In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink writes that "churches, which continually complain about their powerlessness to bring about change, are in fact in a privileged position to use the most powerful weapon of all: the power to delegitimate. But it is a spiritual power, spiritually exercised. It needs intercessors who believe the future into being."
If ever the people of faith were called upon to believe a new future into being, the age of Google, YouTube, fiber optics, and podcasting is such a time. If we want our voices to be heard, now is the time to speak up.
Bart Preecs is a technology writer and media activist in Seattle. He worships at New Creation Community.