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|Table of Contents|
|The Importance of Communicative Democracy|
|Defining the Concept|
|Obstacles to a Communicative Democracy Movement|
|Social Bases for a Movement|
|Conclusion: How to Build a Media Democratization Movement?|
Of all contemporary popular struggles, the struggle to democratize the communication media is arguably one of the most important and least recognized. In this article, I first argue for the importance of placing media democratization higher the progressive agenda, and briefly sketch its norme commitments. Then, I explore the potential social and political obstacles and bases for a media democracy movement, concluding with a few strategic suggestions.
This essay offers neither a detailed strategy, nor extensive case studies of media democratization campaigns. There is an urgent need for more participant research and critical scholarship in this area. Rather, this essay is intended to suggest questions and starting points for further research, debate and action. It is based mainly upon a reading of documents from several leading media democracy organizations and relevant published scholarship, as well as interviews with dozens of activists. While media democratization is increasingly a global project, it will assume different forms in different cultural and national contexts. This essay assumes the context of anglo-Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
The Importance of Communicative Democracy
The progressive project of redistributing wealth and power within (or against) global capitalism will necessarily have to confront and challenge the corporate media system. Why should this be the case?
First, social movements are to a considerable extent communication phenomena. Public communication, beyond face-to-face interaction, is essential to every stage of a movement's trajectory -- its emergence and mobilization, its self-maintenance and legitimation, and its ultimate demise or success, whether success be defined in terms of influencing state policy, re-framing public discourse, and/or forging new social and cultural identities. Public communication is dominated by large media organizations whose practices and representations tend to hinder progressive social movements, or to exert a 'conservatizing' influence on them, inducing movements to focus on single issues and specific reforms, rather than wholesale social change. This conservative influence is related to the media's workplace routines, occupational ideologies, organizational imperatives, and institutional connections -- influences which typically generate news discourse oriented towards elite and official sources, events rather than processes, and interpretive frames which emphasize the legitimacy of acquisitive individualism, private control of commodity production, technocratic expertise, the national security state, and the right and ability of authorized agencies to manage conflict and make necessary reforms. Moreover, commercial, advertising-dependent media privilege consumerism over other social values, the minority of affluent consumers over the less well-heeled, and increasingly, depoliticized infotainment over public affairs information. Since the 1980s, the dominant media have increasingly helped to naturalize and popularize the ideology of market liberalism, with its tenets of privatization, trade liberalization, and deregulation. Politically, corporations in the telecommunications, finance and information media sectors have been important players in the drive to expand and entrench market liberal policies.
Media institutions have become key bulwarks of global capitalism not only ideologically, but also economically. "Along with financial markets, communication and information have become the most dynamic features of the globalizing market economy, and the development of global commercial media has been crucial to the development of the global marketplace." Since the 1980s, a global media system has emerged with a number of tendencies which have undermined national states' potential role in providing democratic, egalitarian public spheres. These characteristics include the growth of transnational multi-media conglomerates, technological convergence between once-separate media sectors, the development of global markets in most media industries, the spread and intensification of commercialization, the decline of public service broadcasting, the erosion of the public service ethos in Western journalism, the growth and consolidation of the advertising industry, the development of communication technology spurred by business demand for the best global communication networks possible, and dramatic corporate consolidation (joint ventures, mergers) resulting in unprecedented centralization of media ownership globally. These changes occur within, and contribute to, the broader context of the integration of financial markets, trade liberalization, the rise of unaccountable supranational financial and governance organizations, and the reduced legitimacy of state intervention. The Internet, while an extremely valuable organizing tool for grassroots activists, is not likely fundamentally to shift the balance of political power. Quite apart from the inequalities in access to computers, the Net itself is becoming commercialized and colonized by many of the same corporations which dominate the conventional media.
In short, while there are undoubtedly certain openings for dissent, and while media may sometimes help to popularize and galvanize political opposition on particular issues, the dominant, transnational media on the whole are significant obstacles -- in the developed North, arguably even more important than military and state power -- to movements promoting progressive social change. Any challenge to the structures and ideology of contemporary capitalism is also a challenge to the dominant media. Can ecologically sustainable economies be achieved without challenging a media/advertising complex that cultivates the desire for limitless consumption? Can a level playing field for diverse political parties be achieved in the U.S. without bitter opposition from the television networks with a vested interest in hyper-expensive political advertising? Can ethnic and gender equality be achieved while media representations and employment practices continue to stereotype, marginalize or under-represent women and minorities? Do progressive policies on social programs and workers' rights have much chance when the agenda-setting media are closely tied to the corporate elite and its interests?
As U.S. communications scholar Robert McChesney observes, "Regardless of what a progressive group's first issue of importance is, its second issue should be media and communication, because so long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible, across the board." Judging from the growth of media activism in the past fifteen years, there are signs that this realization is beginning to take hold.
Defining the Concept
Before discussing the potential for a media democracy movement, we first need a conceptualization of what "media democratization" entails. From a progressive perspective, not all forms of media activism promote more democratic communication. Part of the problem is that democracy is a much contested concept. Unlike many other political ideas, democracy has widely shared positive connotations; what is contested is its denotation, its meaning. In the model of "competitive elitism," dominant since World War II, democracy is largely equated with the right of citizens to vote in periodic elections in order to select amongst contending teams of leaders, combined with a legal system which holds government power in check, and ensures individual rights and freedoms. In the current context of market liberal hegemony, one commentator suggests that democracy is virtually reduced to "individual freedoms to buy and sell property and the right to invest for profit." While that is an over-statement, "media democratization" for market liberals means essentially private ownership of media, protection from government censorship, and removal of government public-interest regulations in broadcasting and telecommunications. In this view, the market so unleashed can facilitate technological innovation and provide whatever fare consumers demand.
Such a view is a significant retreat from the classical conception of democracy as majority rule or popular sovereignty. Competitive elitism, with its emphasis on competitive elections as a procedure for selecting political elites, is not the only contemporary vision of democracy. Other models emphasize broader social conditions which make democratic government meaningful. Indeed, Raboy and Dagenais suggest that democracy can be considered a value rather than a system, a "normative concept" which implies equality, social justice, and meaningful citizen participation in decision-making. McChesney argues that democracy works best when it avoids significant disparities in economic wealth, and when it nurtures a sense of community and an effective system of political communication "that informs and engages the citizenry, drawing people meaningfully into the polity." This conception of democracy, clearly, is not only broader than the competitive elitist/market liberal notion of consumer choice in the economic and political marketplace; it may often be in conflict with market relations, which often increase economic inequality, acquisitive individualism, and private consumption, at the expense of civic equality, community and active citizenship.
This broader conception of democracy suggests expectations of the mass media beyond offering consumers what they are willing and able to pay for. The metaphors of public sphere and civil society are frequently used in the literature to describe the ideal of a media system which constitutes a space for equal participation in the formation of public opinion, buffered from the constraints and imperatives of both state and market. How do progressives envisage a democratic media system? My review of key programmatic statements reveals not detailed institutional reforms, but rather fairly consistent and enduring commitments. The human right of expression free from state repression is endorsed, but is held to be insufficient without access to the means of communication. Indeed, many media democrats advocate a right to communicate broader than free speech, one which also includes the right to inform, to be informed, to privacy, and to participate in public communication. The values of access, participation, pluralism, representative diversity and equality are proffered as guiding principles for both the structure and content of media.
At the same time, media access and freedom should be exercised within structures of accountability to publics, and an ethos of responsibility to fundamental values like truthfulness, peace, social justice, community, solidarity and human rights. Indeed, a leading drafter of the internationally circulated People's Communication Charter (PCC) sees the protection of universal human rights as the core normative justification for an egalitarian democratic arrangement of world communication. From a progressive perspective, obviously, not all forms of media activism can be considered democratic. For instance, free market think tanks which monitor the media for signs of left-liberal bias, and which seek to dismantle public broadcasting and to deregulate private media, are reinforcing the anti-democratic inequalities and biases of the commercial media system.
Rather, media democratization comprises efforts to change media messages, practices, institutions and contexts (including state communication policies), in a direction which enhances democratic values and subjectivity, as well as equal participation in societal decision-making. A Polish theorist suggests that a key principle of democratic public communication is the ability of each segment of society "to introduce ideas, symbols, information, and elements of culture into social circulation" so as to reach all other segments of society. This is at the heart of the progressive project of a more equitable distribution of economic, social, cultural, symbolic and informational capital.
To be sure, there are important ambiguities and tensions within the concept of media democratization. With all its emancipatory promise as well as limitations and contradictions, the Holy Trinity of Enlightenment political thought -- freedom, equality, and order -- informs democratic media theory too. While I cannot explore them adequately here, we can note potential conflicts between, for example, individual and collective notions of communication rights, and also between freedom and universal access, on the one hand, and ethical responsibility, equality, community and solidarity, on the other. Debates over censorship, pornography, and hate speech are indicative of the sometimes uneasy combination of commitments to social solidarity, egalitarian social transformation, and individual freedom from state or corporate power within the Left.
Nevertheless, media democracy manifestos exhibit an impressive degree of convergence around the goals of expanding the range of voices accessed through the media, building an egalitarian public sphere, promoting the values and practices of sustainable democracy, and offsetting or counteracting political and economic inequalities found elsewhere in the social system. The dilemma between freedom and moral order would be largely resolved if we could validly assume that creating the communicative procedures of equal and participatory dialogue would cultivate democratic sensibilities, like tolerance and public-mindedness, which improve the future prospects for democratic decision-making and reciprocal respect. If this is a contestable assumption, it is one shared by the entire Enlightenment political project. Indeed, Jakubowicz suggests adopting the term "communicative democracy" rather than "democratic communication," in order to underscore that democracy itself is premised upon egalitarian communication.
Obstacles to a Communicative Democracy Movement
As suggested by diverse traditions in social movement theory (such as Smelser's functionalism, Melucci's new social movement theory, and neo-Gramscian hegemony theory), a broadly shared collective belief system is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a social change movement. What other social and political forces condition the potential for converting the emerging paradigm of communicative democracy into a politically effective movement?
Let me begin with the formidable obstacles which any such movement would clearly face. Of the relatively few published case studies from which to draw historical lessons, perhaps the best is McChesney's analysis of an early and unsuccessful U.S. media reform movement, the coalition to support public broadcasting and oppose the commercialization of radio as it emerged as a mass medium in the 1930s. The movement comprised chiefly disaffected and harassed non-profit broadcasters (including some labour and religious groups, and universities), left-leaning intellectuals, some politicians from both major parties, civic groups, civil libertarians concerned about commercial broadcasters' willingness to censor dissident views, and some newspapers and their unions which had both principled and self-interested grounds for opposing the spread of advertising in radio. By the mid-1930s, the coalition's goal of reserving significant spectrum space for public interest, non-commercial broadcasters had been decisively defeated; conversely, the dominance of the corporate networks was entrenched through legislation and regulatory practice.
Why did the reformers fail? McChesney identifies several short-term factors. First, the reform movement coincided with the historical contingency of the onset of the Depression, which shrank the resources of public broadcasters and radically shifted national political priorities. To be sure, the Depression legitimized radical anti-corporate politics, but not until the late 1930s, when the corporate broadcasters were already well-entrenched.
While the Depression was an unanticipated external pressure, other short-term factors in the reformers' defeat were in principle within their own control -- their political incompetence, their lack of co-ordination, and in some cases, their elitist sympathies which militated against organizing a popular base.
Other obstacles confronting the reformers were more fundamental and long-term -- primarily, the ideological, political and structural power of their main opponents, the broadcasting corporations. The American corporate media, McChesney argues, "have actively and successfully cultivated the ideology that the status quo is the only rational media structure for a democratic and freedom-loving society." More broadly, American political culture since the early twentieth century has virtually precluded public discussion of fundamental weaknesses of capitalism, forcing media reformers to argue defensively that commercial broadcasting is a special case of market failure. This constraint has been reinforced by the near-absence of a viable Left, and by the dominant culture's reproduction of sanitized versions of capitalism.
Already in the 1930s, the structural power of corporate media was evident in their dominance over politicians' access to voters, and over the terms of public debate, including debate about media issues themselves. Today, the weapons of increasingly globalized media conglomerates also include their sheer financial resources, their ability through cross-promotional synergy, brand-name recognition, distribution muscle, high entry costs, economies of scale and oligopolistic markets to marginalize smaller players (especially those with unwelcome political agendas), and their ability to pre-empt or co-opt politically troublesome opposition through marginal concessions. One example is the mini-stampede by Canadian press owners to join (fairly toothless) provincial press councils as a demonstration of their accountability, in response to the threat of press legislation posed by the 1980-81 Royal Commission on newspaper concentration. Another example was the transformation of minority protests against U.S. network TV programming into network-managed forms of feedback during the 1970s.
In Canada, of course, reformers succeeded where their American counterparts failed in establishing a strong public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Several factors in Canada's political economy and culture are conventionally offered to explain the difference, most notably the stronger legitimacy of organic conservatism, social democracy, public enterprise, and British models (i.e. the BBC) in Canada, and the role of cultural nationalism and the Canadian state's own institutional interest in maintaining a national communications infrastructure. These factors meant that Canada's intellectual, political and even economic elites were more supportive of public broadcasting than were their American counterparts; they also implied potential tensions between such democratic goals as participatory community media and access for marginalized voices, on the one hand, and the elite-supported goals of cultural uplift and (central Canadian) nation-building, on the other. Today, not only in Canada but in such bastions as the U.K., public broadcasting faces severe challenges -- declining audiences related to channel multiplication, the decline of social democratic governments in western Europe, governmental pressure to become more commercial, the resulting identity crisis and dislocation, right-wing attacks on its perceived left-liberal bias, and broader critiques that see it as obsolete or irrelevant.
Conversely, the political and cultural currents of British Victorian social reformism, currents related to the emergence of a professional and service sector middle-class a century ago, have largely spent themselves. For all its contradictions, Victorian liberalism fuelled reforms in such key areas as public health, education, and prisons; and it gave intellectual and political credence to both public broadcasting and social democratic proposals for press reform.
The broader context for these political and cultural changes is the worldwide hegemony of market liberalism, and the multi-faceted process of media globalization, whose main characteristics were noted above. The flipside of the concentrated ideological and structural power of global media capital is the social and political indeterminacy of the potential constituencies for media democratization. For the most part, they are diffused, marginalized, and/or difficult to mobilize. The apathy of media audiences is not surprising during "normal" times of social and economic stability in the advanced capitalist societies. The culture of consumerism and the sheer burdens of daily life militate against all movements for social change, but especially one with goals as seemingly remote from daily concerns or immediate successes as media democracy. There is no widespread popular clamour for participation in mass communication (on the production side), nor for more access to a greater range of views (on the consumption side). If anything, given marketing and cultural pressures towards social fragmentation, many consumers want fewer voices and less complexity in their daily media fare, not more. Many consumers also identify with the branded images, products, programs and celebrities that constitute the corporate mediascape.
The current absence of mass involvement in media democratization, however, should not be taken as unduly discouraging. Demands for participatory communication are historically more frequent in times of revolutionary upheaval when people's stories, actions and protests are prominent in public communication. Traber identifies three such waves of change. The eighteenth-century middle-class revolutions in France and America established the democratic rights of the individual vis-a-vis despotic government. The early twentieth-century socialist revolts in Mexico and Russia posited a second generation of human rights in which the state has, in principle if not practice, a positive role in promoting citizens' well-being -- including their "right to information" in the Mexican constitution of 1917, and state provision of working-class access to the means of communication in the Soviet constitution of 1918. The third wave of communication rights derives from the postwar Third World anti-colonial struggles; these "solidarity" rights emphasize the duty of states and social organizations to place common human interests before national and individual interest.
During more stable periods, however, demands for expanded public communication rights are typically confined to advocacy groups, creative cultural producers, alternative journalists, scholars and others with professional and political incentives to seek media access. Indeed, some of the most articulate and energetic spokespeople for media democracy, at least in the U.S., have come from their ranks. But in many cases, they are marginalized, lacking the power resources strategically to intervene in a media system dominated by huge companies which integrate production and distribution. Compared to the 1930s, some of these groups have retreated from progressive political activity; most notably, progressive academics have provided little public intellectual leadership for structural media reform, especially in the U.S. Notwithstanding some admirable exceptions, the professional/industrial orientation of American journalism schools, and the fashionable pursuit of textual deconstruction and the "active" audience in cultural studies, have contributed to such political quiescence. Creative workers within the corporate media giants, like journalists, have more potential leverage than those outside, but it is being eroded by de-skilling and outsourcing. Moreover, journalists in the corporate media have an ambiguous relationship to media democratization. Their interests are not identical with those of freelancers and alternative media, who may be seen as potential rivals for audiences and wages. North American journalism's occupational ideology of objectivity has progressive aspects; but it also works to obscure the integration of news production with commercial imperatives, to reproduce hegemonic definitions of reality in news narrative, and to dissuade journalists from ideologically challenging corporate control of the media -- a reluctance exacerbated by economic insecurity and limited career options in the context of growing media concentration.
Even amongst the groups that would most directly benefit from communicative democracy, political mobilization has its costs, as the Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) tradition in social movement theory reminds us. Insofar as they are "rational" utility-maximizing actors, most beneficiaries of such a movement face disincentives against undertaking the work needed to achieve its goals, since the costs are greater than the benefits that they would personally receive. While RMT shares the rationalist and individualist biases of classical liberal economics, it does suggest that a media reform movement faces a particularly strong "free rider" problem. Accessible and diverse media programming is arguably a "merit good" like education, training or health; left to themselves, consumers "tend to take less care to obtain it than is in their own long-term interests."
Moreover, without a commodity-based revenue stream, media democracy groups in a market economy are perpetually short of money. Typically, they depend on supporters' donations, short-term contracts, memberships, government or foundation grants, or sponsorship by institutions, such as the several trade unions which help underwrite the British Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF). While the CPBF itself has largely maintained its democratic autonomy, such funding is elsewhere often tied to specific projects or institutional agendas. Even foundation grants, a major funding source for progressive groups in the U.S., have important limitations. They increase the sense of rivalry between groups pursuing the same funders, and they are often time-consuming to pursue: unlike their right-wing counterparts, "liberal" foundations still tend to fund specific projects rather than long-term institution-building.
Social Bases for a Movement
While the litany of obstacles is formidable, there are also deep and persistent social bases for media democratization. How else to account for the hundreds of local and national projects and groups in the U.S. and Canada engaged in one or more of the following dimensions of media activism, each of which is typically associated with specific kinds of actors? These forms include building autonomous or "alternative" media independent of state and corporate control, whose membership and definition is problematic, but which add diversity to the media system insofar as they give voice to the marginalized, convey counter-hegemonic information, and/or offer models of organization and communication more democratic than the dominant commercial media. While no inventory of specific groups can be offered here, other major avenues of activism include the media education movement, which is especially advanced in Europe; media analysis and monitoring projects, such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Project Censored in the U.S., and NewsWatch Canada; campaigns and publicity strategies to use and enhance openings for progressive voices within the existing media (media skills training, media relations strategies to gain access by achieving newsworthiness, etc.); satirical "culture jamming" which entails trying to subvert the intended meanings of commercial and corporate media; challenges to ideological hegemony and the logic of the marketplace from within mainstream media, in the form of struggles by journalists and other media workers; public interest interventions in legal, regulatory and political arenas, to challenge the processes and substance of state policy towards media; various forms of advocacy against censorship; and most ambitiously, efforts to build national and international coalitions around "the cultural environment," "media and democracy," "press and broadcasting freedom," or "the right to communicate."
Where does such activism spring from? I would not want to imply a reductionist view of social movements which ignores their creative role in forging new identities; but it is possible to suggest some of the structural conditions most conducive to media democracy activism. Mosco's excellent review of the critical political economy of communications suggests some starting points. While it has emphasized a critique of repressive media structures, sometimes unwittingly implying their immutability, the political economy tradition nevertheless suggests potential social bases and dynamics for resistance.
At the risk of stating the obvious, structural contradictions within a class-stratified capitalist social order have spurred various forms of social, cultural and political resistance, most classically the organized workers' movement and socialist parties. Communicative democracy can be seen as a product of the ways that subaltern classes constitute themselves through their own media and culture. The struggles of workers and social democratic parties have been a major backbone in western Europe of both a Left press, and advocacy for reformist state media policies. The CPBF in Britain is an exemplar. It was founded in 1979 as, in effect, an alliance between journalists, academics, public sector workers facing hostile press coverage, and print media unions facing technological annihilation. CPBF attempted to increase workers' influence over media employment and coverage, and to influence, with some success, the communications policy stance of the Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party during its long stay in opposition. While Tony Blair's New Labour clearly has no interest in challenging the media conglomerates, CPBF continues to be probably the most impressive progressive advocate of media reform in western Europe. It also inspired the formation, in 1996, of a fledgling Canadian counterpart, spearheaded by the Council of Canadians and several media unions opposed to the growing concentration of Canada's daily press. In the U.S., unions have to date shown little interest in coalitions for media reform, preferring to put most of their eggs in the basket of conventional public relations strategies.
Within the cultural industries themselves, their "logics" may provide more fertile ground for resistance, by comparison with many other industries. This is related to culture's tendency to define divisions, and to its inherent "creativity crisis". Miege distinguishes between three logics in the cultural industries: first, the manufacture of hardware products through a rationalized labour process; second, artisanal production, which is not easily reproducible, and thus involves more control by producers; and a third type, which combines creativity, a reproducible product, monopoly control over distribution, and a mix of labour processes, making it a site of conflict within and between capital and labour. The bitter strike at the Calgary Herald, which began in fall 1999, may be indicative of confrontations to come, and of new alliances between media workers and other social sectors.
Some forms of nationalism comprise localized resistance to the logic of globalized capitalism. The centrality of language and culture in nationalist politics gives it immediate relevance to struggles over communication policies and structures. Anti-capitalist Third World nationalism was a driving force behind the movement for a New World Information & Communication Order (NWICO) in the 1970s and 1980s. A landmark for this movement was the UNESCO-commissioned report Many Voices, One World, authored by a commission headed by Sean MacBride. While a sympathetic critic described the report as "ambiguous, contradictory and deficient" in its efforts to straddle different positions, its commitment to the right to communicate and to a "balanced flow" of information between North and South, arguably the report's most important legacies, implied the structural reform of the dominant, western-based corporate media system. Not surprisingly, these ideas were anathema to the corporate media and their political allies. NWICO's demise as an inter-governmental movement was ensured by the implacable hostility of the Reagan and Thatcher governments, the implosion of the Soviet bloc, the global hegemony of market liberalism, and the retreat from socialist and anti-imperialist versions of nationalism by Third World political elites. Those elites have abandoned NWICO "in favor of negotiating national and regional relationships with the global media powers."
Nevertheless, the impetus behind NWICO has not altogether disappeared. Rather, given its appeal to the "communication imagination" of the Third World, it has arguably become a "people's movement" with "deep roots in a historic socio-political and cultural process" of decolonization, participatory development, and democratization. Today, NGOs, social movements, local cultural producers, and some communication policy experts and institutes are the main torchbearers for more equity and autonomy within global communication, and/or for more participatory communication institutions and stronger indigenous cultural expression within nations. Such developmental communication needs in the South have become the major focus of the ecumenical World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), which explicitly promotes media democratization and the right to communicate. Based in London and financed largely by development agencies and Protestant churches in the North, the WACC sponsors training programs and over 100 communication projects in the South, many of which give voice to marginalized people's criticisms of existing social injustices. Even in the North Atlantic geopolitical region, cultural nationalism in countries like France has helped put some brakes on global trade liberalization. Moreover, even such liberalization has a "silver lining," according to a leading Irish communications researcher: as the state deregulates and commercializes media, the ethic of public service (still strong in many liberal-democracies other than the U.S.) can be used to lever state funding for democratic alternative and community media. The opportunity lies in the state's need for legitimacy, and in the widely perceived centrality of media to "society's own image and sense of identity."
The defence of minority languages is a related wellspring of demands for media access and diversity. Economic and media globalization contributes to cultural homogenization, as a handful of dominant languages are expanding at the cost of others. Within the next century, 90 percent of the world's languages may die out. Control over language, crucial to cultural and personal identity, is a primary means of exerting power over other aspects of people's lives. Millions of people are denied the right to use their own language (and may even be legally penalized for doing so) in state-supported education or public communication. Nor is forced linguistic assimilation peculiar to authoritarian Third World regimes. Residential schools still haunt the living memories of aboriginal people in Canada, where dominant media still arguably contribute to their marginalization and misrepresentation. A 1998 referendum in California, intended to deny Spanish-speaking children bilingual education, was one of five international cases selected by supporters of the PCC for the first public hearing on languages and human rights at the Hague in 1999. Access and expression through public communication is the oxygen for such developmental and cultural needs. This point can be expanded: The tension between use and exchange value, and the defence of non-commodifiable values (like friendship and citizenship) in private and public life, indicates a broad dimension of potential resistance to commodification and system-rationality. The critique of distorted communication raises questions of how to establish the procedural conditions for communicative reason, and of revitalizing the public sphere, as part of the project of decolonizing the life-world.
This seemingly abstract contradiction underlies quite concrete resistance to, for instance, the commercialization of public education, the erosion of public broadcasting, commodification of public information, or the intrusion of violent television programming in family life. Perceptions of the corrosive impact of commercial television on the socialization of children have led parents and educators to media activism. Librarians have joined alliances to defend public access to information.
Even more powerfully, religious commitments, too often ignored by the contemporary Left as a potential agent for progressive social change, have also inspired media activism. In one analysis, if it is to survive in a world in which unmediated communities (including local churches) have declined between modernity's polarities of the private, and the mass-mediated public spheres, religion has no choice but to project itself through public communication and to challenge the dominance of commercial and political speech there. Does such religious intervention constitute media democratization? Clearly it depends. Patriarchal, univocal and exclusionary forms of religious fundamentalism have fuelled efforts to censor and demonize homosexuals, for example. But the ecumenical, inclusive and dialogical vision of the WACC and other progressive religious organizations, committed to values of human dignity, love and solidarity, has inspired critique and action against the materialistic, consumerist and narcissistic individualist biases of commercial media.
The communicative needs and practices of "new" social movements emerging since the 1960s have been another crucial springboard for challenges to the corporate media. The anti-Vietnam war protests and "counter-culture" of the 1960s generated an upsurge of oppositional media forms, notably "underground" or alternative urban newspapers. To be sure, most of these commercialized or disappeared as the youth counter-culture re-integrated into the middle-class mainstream. According to one of its veteran editors, however, the alternative press enjoyed a revival during the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s, in response to the mainstream media's political timidity and the emergence of a culturally progressive baby-boomer market. Other movements have had more staying power than the youth counter-culture.
Most notably, movements for civil rights, first for blacks, then Latinos, aboriginal peoples and other ethnic minorities, have generally sought not the revolutionary transformation of the social or media system, but rather fairer and greater representation within it. (The most militant such groups either politically marginalized themselves or, like the Black Panthers, were crushed by state repression.) Nevertheless, the reformist civil rights movement has generated demands for change in the dominant media -- against exclusion or stereotyping of minorities in media content, and for more diversity in media employment and ownership.
Since the 1970s, movements for gender equality have engaged in similar kinds of media activism. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD), "great strides have been made toward more accurate and inclusive representation" of gays in the dominant U.S. news and entertainment media. Arguably, the value to advertisers of the affluent gay male market has given the latter media leverage not enjoyed by many other minorities, like African-Americans.
Likewise, feminism has unleashed energy for media transformation. At the national level, some elements of the feminist movement have long specialized in monitoring and advocacy work around media representation of women. Canada's Mediawatch is one example. At the international level, no longer inhibited by the backlash against NWICO, women's rights conferences have increasingly placed the question of media power on their agenda. Women have expressed specific concerns about their commodification in advertising, their victimization in media violence, and their degradation in pornography.
Definitions of communication rights, feminists argue, must take into account women's perspective before they can be considered genuinely "universal." At the same time, many feminists argue that their struggle is not simply for their own power but rather for a more just, sustainable, people-centred world order. Male domination over women can be taken as a template for all in-group/out-group rankings, according to Eisler; and because of the social construction of gender, women may be better placed than men to understand the need for, and to implement, more empowering and inclusive patterns of communication. To be sure, there is no single feminist approach to media analysis or action; one must speak of feminisms.
Mattelart distinguishes between liberal feminists operating within a logic of identification, seeking equal participation in existing media structures dominated by patriarchal codes of professionalism and "objectivity," and a more radical questioning of the role of media structures and codes in constructing gender difference and colonizing women's subjectivity.
Other critical social movements have also emerged in anglo-North America during the 1970s and 1980s, notably movements for environmental sustainability, for peace and nuclear disarmament, and against American intervention in Central America and elsewhere. One example of media-oriented activism engendered by these movements was a 1986 campaign by peace groups and their allies against the ABC network production Amerika, a film depicting a UN-backed Soviet occupation of the U.S. One legacy of this campaign was the creation of America's leading progressive media watchdog group, FAIR.
By and large, however, while the peace and environmental movements sought to use the media to promote their primary political objectives, they have generated relatively few efforts to democratize the media themselves, by comparison with movements for gender and ethnic equality. Why would this be the case? One reason may be the relative self-satisfaction on the part of the environmental movement with its ability to convey its concerns through the existing media during the 1980s and early 1990s. Most notably, Greenpeace seemed to have spectacular success in building itself as the globe's leading environmental advocacy group precisely through staging media events. Greenpeace leaders apparently regarded the media, particularly television, as a politically neutral tool, available for exploitation by those who understood its technological logic. A second reason for the relative absence of media challenges by environmental and peace movements was their focus on challenging state policies, and thus finding openings in the existing media to mobilize public opinion. By contrast, movements for gender and ethnic equality are comparatively more concerned with cultural status and recognition. For these latter groups, the media loom more immediately as part of the landscape they wish to change.
As a hothouse for social movement media activism, the special case of Quebec should be noted. Its unique context of "cultural resistance to the centrifugal forces of the great North American melting pot," rapid political and social modernization during the 1960s, growing working-class militancy, and a crystallizing polarization between the political options of federalism and independence in the 1970s, created "some unique examples of social and political uses of media," covering every kind of activism noted above.
Taken together, these elements have created "a distinctive media culture and a situation in which media are considered as part of the normal terrain of social struggle" -- undoubtedly to a greater extent than elsewhere in North America, where national and class cleavages have not overlapped, and public media have not been used to forge and defend collective identities, to the same degree.
The most recent emerging "new" social movement today, however, is international rather than regional or national in scope. The growing opposition to corporate-driven trade liberalization, and conversely, the defence of democratic human rights, is bringing in a new generation of media-savvy activists. The communication needs of this movement are generating new forms of alternative international communication, most notably through the Internet and related new technology. As a partially successful effort to both influence and bypass the corporate news media, the Independent Media Centre at the "battle of Seattle" World Trade Organization protests is being replicated elsewhere. At the same time, the continued indifference or hostility of major corporate media to the progressive anti-WTO movement could help increase activists' awareness of the need for structural media reform, and the need to add the right to communicate to the emerging global human rights agenda.
There are indications of other new openings to gain hearings for communicative democracy. As the flipside of media commercialism and infotainment, public cynicism towards journalism, as measured in polls, has grown sharply in recent years, especially in the U.S. Media mega-mergers, layoffs, and management attacks on professional notions of editorial integrity are making once reticent media workers more willing to join unions and form alliances. Trade unionists, environmentalists, and left-of-centre parties and movements in Canada and the U.S. are becoming more aware that the rightward shift in the press, the elimination of social affairs and labour beats, media concentration, and the displacement of independent, public-interest journalism by commercially-driven infotainment, all mean that conventional media relations practices will have decreasing success in gaining media access for progressives. They will be forced to consider alternative strategies and coalitions to gain a public voice. Finally, the Canadian government's embrace of trade liberalization and ongoing retreat from protecting vulnerable cultural industries like magazines, is thrusting cultural sovereignty once again onto the agenda of Canadian nationalists.
Conclusion: How to Build a Media Democratization Movement?
I have argued that, notwithstanding formidable obstacles, there is an urgent need, a reasonably coherent paradigm, important social bases, and multiple forms of activism prefiguring a radical project of media democratization. The question remains: Can these factors cohere into an effective new social movement? This question in turn raises others. Could media democratization be achieved simply as a by-product of the political and communicative practices of existing movements? Or is a distinct new movement indeed necessary for, even coterminous with, media democratization?
If so, around what strategies, core program, and collective identities should such a movement mobilize? Should it be a movement of the Left, or a broader coalition? Should the Left put communicative democracy atop its own agenda, in hopes of finding new supporters for progressive social change, or would such a move further marginalize the Left? To what extent is communicative democracy connected with and dependent upon broader social and political change?
Space does not permit adequate exploration of these questions here. Moreover, neither I nor most of the veteran media scholars and activists I interviewed could offer more than provisional and speculative answers. I conclude this essay with some of them.
Does media democratization require a movement? Robert White argues that new social movements are not only the main source of, but also a model for, democratic communication. Indeed, he virtually equates the two, for two reasons. First, movements need to practise horizontal, participatory communication internally, in order to attract loyal members, challenge hegemonic definitions of reality, enhance the movement's cultural capital and project its symbols into the public arena. Second, communicative democracy involves not only structural media reform, but also normative change, diffusing participatory dialogic communication throughout all social practices and relations. Movements are the birthplace of such cultural transformation.
Such a view arguably romanticizes oppositional social movements. More importantly, it conflates democratization through the media (the use of media by groups seeking progressive change in other social spheres), and democratization of the media, processes which are not equivalent. To be sure, the two processes overlap. In engaging in public communication for their primary objectives, progressive movements add to media diversity; conversely, structural media reform would create more public space for critical movements.
The latter, however, is unlikely to be achieved without a popular movement devoted specifically to this objective. Only sustained popular pressure is likely to persuade governments to challenge the power and earn the wrath of media conglomerates. Examples of socially progressive governments retreating from media reform in the face of virulent hostility from media capital abound, from Venezuela in 1974 and Mexico in 1977-1980 to Britain's New Labour government in the 1990s. In one case (Peru in the 1970s), a progressive nationalist military government expropriated major media outlets and turned them over to peasant and labour organizations, only to find that the latter were neither prepared nor very interested in managing the media.
The communicative practices of various existing social movements are not on their own likely to put media reform on the political agenda. Industry structure and state policy institutions have created technologically-mediated public communication as a distinct sphere of economic and political activity. Co-ordinated popular action and the naming of a collective project -- media democratization -- is necessary to counter corporate power in this sphere. Such a project will likely be spearheaded by the groups with the most direct stake in media issues (independent journalists, communication researchers, etc.) but it will need to draw from the energies and frustrations of other social movements prepared to second a small portion of their resources to it. Clearly, the Left as a whole has a stake in the success of such a movement, but it will have greater cultural and political resonance if it can attract groups (such as parents, librarians, churches) which are critical of the corporate media but which do not currently identify with the Left.
Is such a coalition possible, without sacrificing the progressive aspects of media reform? We do not yet know, but the 1996 founding convention of the Cultural Environment Movement in St. Louis offered encouraging evidence that it is. Founded by senior U.S. communications scholar George Gerbner and endorsed by 150 organizations, the CEM brought researchers, educators, policy-makers, cultural workers and producers together with religious, environmental, public health and children's rights groups. The CEM endorsed both the PCC and a "Viewer's Declaration of Independence" which called for change to a brutalizing and homogenized cultural environment dominated by media conglomerates with "nothing to tell but something to sell". Before it can fulfil its promise of becoming a genuine mass movement, the CEM still needs to attract organized labour, and fully to address such organizational needs as long-term stable funding and staffing, representative structures, and accountable collective decision-making. Still, the breadth of its vision and coalition indicates an embryonic movement.
What should the strategic priorities of such a movement be? A 1998 survey of U.S. media activists found differences of opinion -- for example, between building autonomous media and influencing or reforming the dominant media; between "insider" strategies of working with media professionals and policy elites, and the "outsider" strategy of mobilizing marginalized groups for an assault on the citadel; and between the inward-focussed strategy of mending fences within the movement, and campaigns to spread the message outwards.
Too often, activists disdain strategies for change which differ from their own. To be sure, one must often choose between the different forms of media activism; it is not simply a matter of allocating scarce resources, but also of choosing between constituencies which cannot simultaneously be attracted with the same language and tactics. For instance, San Francisco's Media Alliance, an impressive membership-based coalition which originated in the 1970s as an effort to reform and reinvigorate local journalism from within, may have later alienated potential media supporters by organizing demonstrations against certain local news outlets.
At the same time, media democratization is too big a project to be accomplished through any single strategy; and there are potential synergies between different approaches. For example, "those who focus directly on existing power structures and those who work to foster alternatives beyond them expand each other's social wiggle-room... The presence of oppositional movements can force dominant power structures to bow to opposing viewpoints, while activists who engage with mainstream media can push for practices and policies that offer more opportunities and resources for oppositional cultures to grow and thrive."
Interviews with various activists suggest some of the guiding principles for any successful strategy. It must involve carefully building coalitions which are broad enough to be politically effective, but not so broad as to contain internal, potentially paralyzing divisions. Greater co-ordination or collaboration are essential, but it is neither possible nor necessary to fit all progressive media activism into the same tent. A movement needs a common and compelling focus, such as the right to communicate, but one which allows different groups to participate in different ways without sacrificing their autonomy; the Equal Rights Amendment, which energized the women's movement in the 1970s, has been suggested as an exemplar. Ideally, communicative democracy campaigns need to connect with deeply felt concerns of broad constituencies, find supporters within political and economic elites (or at least exploit divisions within them), and make possible links between local, national and international action, as well as between "grassroots" and "tree-tops" (elite, policy-making) levels. Such campaigns need to use existing resources to reduce the costs of mobilization, give individuals psychological and material incentives to participate, and build networks which can respond quickly on different issue-fronts. Where possible, a campaign should not be simply reactive, but should create agenda-setting or springboard effects, for example, by participating in the institutional design and implementation of new technology, such as digital television. A media democracy movement needs to draw on the strengths rather than the potential divisiveness of its diversity. It should identify short-term, winnable objectives, building on the momentum of initial successes; and develop a "strategic capacity", which builds from individual initiatives to global organizations. Several candidates for such coalitions and campaigns present themselves. These include adding the right to communicate to the emerging international human rights agenda, building coalitions to defend media workers' rights and/or challenge media concentration, and re-invigorating public broadcasting: in the U.S., the recently-formed Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting joins the older Friends of Canadian Broadcasting as two of the leading media reform groups in their respective countries. The first step, though, is for progressive movements to place communicative democracy higher on their own agendas, as a precondition of their own political advance.
I thank Laurie Adkin and this journal's reviewers for their helpful comments, and acknowledge two Small Grants from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, administered by Simon Fraser University and awarded in December 1997 and 1998 respectively. An earlier version of this essay was presented to the Society for Socialist Studies, University of Alberta, May 29, 2000.