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Pressing for Media Reform

After a day spent hitting up foundations and wealthy individuals on behalf of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, Josh Silver one evening three years ago tuned into a local TV station to catch the latest news.

The lead story caused Silver to lose his appetite—not because his TV screen was filled with carnage or heartbreak but because of the news report's sheer triviality.

The station's choice for most important story of the day, according to Silver: the rising cost of lobster.

Crustacean futures might be big news to Maine fishing communities, Silver figured, but not in Washington, where local crime, politics, pending war with Iraq or any number of stories were immeasurably worthier of leading a local broadcast.

“I thought, 'My God! We've got to fix this!'” Silver recalls.

The lobster story crystallized in Silver's mind what he had long perceived as a problem with television news, which he says is too focused on the sensational and the trite and too rarely focused on government and corporate influence on society.

For most, an outburst at a TV-news broadcast would be nothing more than an idle expression of frustration. But Silver channeled his anger into action. He quit his job at the Smithsonian to take on the job of media reform full time. Today he is executive director of Free Press, the largest grassroots organization devoted to media reform.

Beating Back FCC Deregulation

The group has buttressed the small cadre of public-interest attorneys and activists in Washington with a desperately needed army of 200,000 news-alert subscribers ready to bombard policymakers with e-mails and letters urging them to reign in the effects of corporate consolidation in the media business. (The organization has about 5,000 members paying dues of $20-$50 annually.)

The full-court press from Free Press, along with Common Cause's return to the media-reform arena, caught much of the industry and Washington by surprise in 2003 by helping beat back the FCC's deregulation of media ownership both in Congress and the courts.

During that fight, Free Press played a critical role in recruiting disparate groups such as the anti-war Code Pink and the National Rifle Association to the anti-deregulation cause. The coalition helped convince Congress to partially roll back an FCC vote raising the limit on the number of TV stations one owner can control nationwide.

Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy credits Silver with energizing many average Americans on media issues and convincing them to speak out publicly: “Free Press is invaluable and is creating a long-term organizing base essential for achieving the goals of the media-reform movement.”

He predicts last week's cable Internet decision by the Supreme Court—which said cable operators were not obligated to allow rival Internet providers to use their broadband networks—will motivate the group's membership in the same way media-ownership deregulation did in 2003. Free Press is already planning its lobbying campaign to persuade Congress to mandate access rights for ISPs.

When Silver began searching in 2002 for a way to push for media reform, he contacted Robert McChesney, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor who has written extensively about what he believes are the shortcomings of the American news business, which he contends stem from corporate control of the industry and media consolidation.

“I was a big fan of his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” Silver says. “After reading that book I was inspired to change the horrific quality of television journalism.”

The cause is critical to the future of democracy, Silver says, because TV is where the majority of Americans get their news: “I called Bob for advice on what could be done. He told me that the groups actively fighting media consolidation needed a committed, formidable lobbying force.”

The conversation motivated Silver to join with McChesney and journalist John Nichols of the left-leaning The Nation to form Free Press. Silver's contacts in the grant-making community were put to quick use winning grants from the Ford, Knight and other major foundations to get the organization up and running.

“A fundamental roadblock to reform”

“When we got started, we found a lot of foundations felt like they were pouring money into making the country better in the form of stronger environmental laws and human rights, only to be continually losing in Washington,” Silver says. “They have begun to realize that structural issues like media consolidation present a fundamental roadblock to reform.”

This is not Silver's first venture into politics. He managed a successful election-reform campaign on the Arizona ballot in 1998.

And his epiphany on the night of the expensive-lobsters newscast was hardly the first time Silver had been put off by the media's approach to news. A tragedy 10 years ago made him the unwilling object of journalists' intense focus. During a rafting trip in a remote area of Peru, Silver was wounded by a gunshot and a friend was killed in an ambush. After returning home to Massachusetts, Silver refused to speak about the incident with the reporters camped in his parents' yard.

“This wasn't news; it was sensationalism,” he recalls. But for Silver, his terrifying experience in South America also was transformative: “I decided life is short and I should start working to make the world a better place.”