I didn’t think my 60s childhood in Edenwald Projects in the Bronx was much different than other kids. We all live in a kind of bubble that only travel and education can pierce. It wasn’t until we moved to Queens that my social consciousness began to awaken. The awakening began when I noticed that within two months after my parents purchased our home in Queens Village, for-sale signs popped up all over the neighborhood. This was white flight on steroids and the beginning of an education that has continued for me to this day.
Maybe it was George Carlin’s 7 words, maybe it was my teenage determination to find my own path, and break parental taboos like listening to George Carlin or Richard Pryor, but somehow, in the early 70s I discovered WBAI. Breaking the rules, I read “Manchild in the Promised Land”, “Go Tell it on the Mountain”, and listened quietly to Richard Pryor all while pretending to clean my room.
It was WBAI, a radio station in New York, that taught me about the cruelty of apartheid in South Africa. This wasn’t being covered in the early 70s in mainstream media. I was becoming increasingly aware that the world wasn’t represented in the mainstream news in an even-handed way -- especially as it related to issues impacting Blacks and other people of color. While still in my teens, it was clear that mainstream media wasn’t giving us the full story.
Like many of us, raising a family dominated a good portion of my early adulthood. But having had a taste of alternative, independent news in my teens, I couldn’t trust that mainstream media would give me the full monty. I was delighted to find KPFK 90.7 FM a few years after leaving New York and arriving in Southern California. Little did I know, the media would become a big part of my world.
Looking back, certain pivotal moments in history weighed heavily on my deep interest in the role media plays in maintaining a civil society. One such memory takes place during the weeks following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost immediately following the collapse, an American news outlet sent a team of journalists to the streets of Moscow to interview passersby. No doubt to gin up the notion that capitalism won out. But anyway, the journalists asked the Moscovites what they did to prepare for or even prevent the collapse of their country. Without exception, each person interviewed said they had no idea their country was in so much trouble – then they rushed by as they hurried to stand line for bread.
That memory has stayed with me partly because the people of the U.S. aren’t much different than the pre-1989 people of the U.S.S.R. in that they rely on a single source of information. Since 1989, the United States media ownership has been consolidated to just six mega-corporations. More on this in a moment.
Over these years we’ve watched the gulf between the haves and the have-nots widen, we’ve witnessed obscene abuses in policing, immigration, the rise of the gig economy and the explosion of Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Agra, Mass Incarceration, the gutting of the American middle class and a host of other symptoms of a full-on corporatocracy.
Three essential roles the media plays in a civil society are to; 1) serve as a “watchdog” over government; 2) set the public agenda; and 3) support the free exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. From the days of Ida B. Wells’ effort to put a spotlight on lynching, to the lack of coverage of the plight of Palestinians, to the lack of balanced coverage in the march up to the war with Iraq, we’ve seen mainstream media fall short in satisfying the three essential roles of media.
But for news and commentary providers like Margaret Prescod, Glen Ford, Amy Goodman, Rick Wolff, Eric Mann, Ann Garrison and so many other Pacifica radio hosts making sense of the changes we are seeing in this country would be almost impossible. This is particularly true when we look at our injustice system.
At this point, no one can predict what will happen in the coming days and weeks as this nation struggles to come to terms with what we’ve witnessed in the most recent trial for yet another police involved killing of an unarmed Black man.
On the one hand, untold millions around the world protested in support of Black Lives Matter while at the same time, thousands of people, including police and public officials donated to fundraisers for far-right white nationalists and fellow officers accused of shooting Black and brown people.
The visual of this split is both striking and frightening. It speaks to both the deep divisions along racial and ethnic lines and to the fact that both sides have a very different take on what common sense tells them is right.
A lot of what we typically call “common sense” is neither common nor sensical. On the heels of the Amazon unionization failure in Alabama, Prof. Richard D. Wolff, an economist I’ve learned more from than any economics course, spoke to this idea in a video he made for Democracy-at-Work.
In the video, Wolff tells us that our views or what we call common sense is shaped by what we learn in our homes, schools, churches, and by the corporate media. According to Wolff, corporate America understands the importance of shaping common sense and shifting perceptions. He says they spend huge amounts of time and energy shaping what we hear and see -- to their benefit.
The problem, as I see it, is that the power differential between corporate media and independent media is making it almost impossible to counter the impact corporate media is having on society.
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a half dozen media giants have taken control of 90% of our media AND on-air entertainment. This small group of powerful interests controls the message consumed by the vast majority of Americans. Compare that to 30+ years ago when 50 companies had skin in the game.
The outsized power and reach of outlets like Fox can’t be challenged by the left. And we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that MS-NBC, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the others aren’t in the business of shaping common sense as well.
So what do we do? Is it all hopeless?
No, it is not hopeless but it would be foolish to sit idly by and do nothing.
First, we have to understand the power of the media to make or break this country. While the media giants are mostly interested in the bottom line, the message the media carries can be so much more important than creating billionaires. The media has the power to change the world. At the bottom of this piece I’ll provide some podcasts that shed light on the power of the media.
But beyond understanding this power, we have to support independent media.
After more than three decades -- working in the trenches to affect change on the political and media landscape, I was feeling weary. Like Ed Asner said in a recent LA Progressive article, sometimes it feels like we’re trying to knock down an infinite series of byzantine obstacles.”, but ”Every once in a while, though, a cause comes along where people can actually make an enormous impact”.
That’s what I believe is true about what is happening with the Pacifica Network, a national radio network that is not funded by corporations. The network that introduced me to a broader more expansive way of seeing the world – the network that helped to counter the narrative that mega-corporate media spoons up.
This past spring, a friend called and asked if I would head up a transition team to try to save the Pacifica Network. I spend several months communicating with people from across the network and researching the origins of the problems that have recently plagued the network.
I completed my research feeling hopeful. Every person I’ve communicated with wants the network to maintain all 5 of its current stations (including my old New York station WBAI). What’s even more exciting is that there is a desire to not only maintain but expand the reach a broader national audience.
Won't you join me in supporting the New Day Pacifica. I'll be providing you with updates along the way.
Publisher, LA Progressive