Signal interference: Tuning into the definition of “corporate media”

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Rich Broderick 6/10/2008 • There was an awkward moment at the end of “Minnesota Model: Countering Corporate Media,” a panel discussion at this weekend’s National Conference on Media Reform.

Alas, I must admit that I was the one who caused it.

The discussion featured presenters from five local media organizations: the Twin Cities Media Alliance; KFAI; Minnesota Women’s Press; Minnesota Public Radio; and the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder. Each presenter spoke about what his or her organization was doing to promote media reform. Sarah Lutman of MPR ticked off a long laundry list of undertakings, from MPR’s public journalism initiative to social networking/community organizing projects launched by The Current, which operates at 89.3 FM, the frequency once occupied by WCAL, formerly one of the country’s oldest member-supported radio services (more on that topic shortly).

As I sat listening, I found myself increasingly uneasy. My unease was underscored by a comment from Kathy Magnuson of the Minnesota Women’s Press who pointed out that, although WPM is a for-profit corporation, it hardly fits the description of “corporate media.”

Finally, near the end of the question-and-answer period, I could contain myself no longer. I rose and framed my question with an introductory statement about how the very essence of media reform – the ostensible goal of the conference – lies in providing access to voices and communities traditionally excluded from decision-making roles in the media. Not surprisingly this commonplace observation got everyone in the room nodding in agreement. But then I turned to Lutman and asked if she might clarify for me MPR’s position on low-power FM radio.

My question referred to the fact that MPR, other big broadcasters, and the National Association of Broadcasters have spent some 10 years trying to smother low-power FM in its cradle. Since low-power FM has the potential to offer the cheapest, quickest and easiest way to open broadcasting up to traditionally underrepresented voices and communities, any media organization interested in media reform ought to be pushing as hard as it can to see LPFM spread, not trying to nip it in the bud.

Or so you’d think.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog. The media reform movement needs to define its terms. What, for example, do we mean exactly when we say “corporate media” as in “countering corporate media?”

Let me take a crack at that.

In a nutshell “corporate media” does not necessarily have anything to do with an organization’s economic model – i.e., whether it is for-profit or non-profit or some hybrid of the two. A media organization deserves to be called “corporate” if it embraces what we might call a corporate system of values.

And what constitutes a “corporate system of values?” First, that acquisition and growth for the sake of acquisition and growth are both the means and _the ends_ of the organization’s undertakings. Secondly, the organization sees itself as operating in a zero-sum environment. If it is to acquire more, it must do so at the expense of other organizations. If it is to grow, it can only do so by preventing competing organizations in its industry from growing – or from ever coming into existence in the first place. It’s a fear-driven mentality that proposes, for example, that because there are only so many readers, only so much bandwidth, only so much donor money to go around, my organization can only prosper if others get less of those things. Third, the organization operates in a secretive and unaccountable manner – after all, you don’t want the competition to steal a march on you!

One of the hallmarks of corporate media organizations, then, is exclusion rather than inclusion – the polar opposite of the “media reform” being promoted by the NCMR.

Under this rubric, Magnuson was clearly correct. Minnesota Women’s Press does not deserve the label “corporate media” because it is an icon of media inclusion, not exclusion, seeking out traditionally excluded voices and viewpoints. It is also an organization that freely enters into collaborative – and egalitarian – relationships with other media organizations, like TCMA,

By the same token, MPR, though a non-profit organization, clearly fits the definition of “corporate media.”

I have no particular grudge against MPR. But when it comes to “corporate media,” consider the organization‘s 35-year record of non-stop growth, its efforts to stymie low-power FM, its earlier efforts to stymie KFAI, its acquisitions, like the purchase of WCAL, that have been dogged with controversy, its appetite for corporate welfare, as demonstrated by its thankfully unsuccessful attempt to convince St. Paul to fork over public money to help build a transmission tower as part of the WCAL deal. These dollars were to come from a special city fund earmarked for economically depressed neighborhoods – which seems a far cry from underwriting an organization with a $150 million endowment. Meanwhile, the last I heard MPR does not feel the public has the right to know what its top people earn.

Lastly, I would cite Lutman’s response to my question as a good example of corporate behavior. Rather than answer it herself, she passed it off to an MPR lobbyist who just happened to be on hand in the audience to provide the officially approved version of MPR’s position on low-power FM.

In picking up the baton, the lobbyist repeated the bogus claim that low-power FM poses a problem with “signal interference,” but that just as soon as this non-existent problem is worked out, MPR is A-OK with LPFM. This happens to be one of the same strawman arguments MPR trotted out when trying to curb KFAI. When I challenged his claim, the lobbyist cheerfully offered to speak with me after the session.

Will you be shocked if I tell you that once the doors opened on the hall, he seemed to disappear from view?

Talk about corporate stylin’!