Understanding Media Monopolies with Laura Flanders (Episode 45)

Date: 3 May 2018 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
Photo courtesy of Next System Project.

Media organizations are supposed to play a valuable role in our democracy: holding those in power accountable to the people and telling the stories of our fellow Americans. Over the last half century, however, most of that high-minded goal was steadily replaced by a simple motive for profit and corporate consolidation.

In this episode of the Building Local Power podcast, ILSR co-director and Community-Scaled Economy initiative director Stacy Mitchell sits down with Laura Flanders to discuss the disturbing trend toward a calcified and monopolistic media landscape. Flanders hosts The Laura Flanders Show, where she interviews “forward-thinking people who have real experience of shifting power, from the few to the many, in the worlds of arts, entrepreneurship and politics.”

In this conversation, the two move from discussing media monopolization into a broader conversation about monopolies in the economy, and then talk about specific policies and strategies we can use to create an open, diverse, and independent media landscape.

“We’re now in the digital age, and we have not made our demands,” argues Laura Flanders in reference to today’s deregulatory approach, which differs markedly from earlier periods when policymakers ensured that technological change in media was accompanied by policies to protect the public interest.  “Not only have we accepted a sort of quasi-deregulated or quasi-neutral net, which is not very neutral at all when it’s run by huge monopolies, but we’ve not demanded anything in terms of a protected sphere for non-commercial communications.”

Throughout our conversation, Laura and Stacy mention research and reporting on the tremendous toll that a consolidated media market takes on our democracy:

  • The Laura Flanders Show — The Laura Flanders Show is a TV and radio program that seeks to raise radical spirits by interviewing forward-thinking people who have real experience of shifting power, from the few to the many, in the worlds of arts, entrepreneurship and politics. Check out this episode that features our own Stacy Mitchell discussing consolidation across the economy.
  • Next System Media: An Urgent Necessity — This essay from Laura Flanders details a lot of the arguments that she makes in this podcast interview, including more robust support for a nonprofit media atmosphere.
  • How America’s Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers In Trump’s War On The Media — This mashup video from Deadspin is a disturbing reminder that our media is a consolidated realm, led by mega-companies like Sinclair.
  • Why “fake news” is an antitrust problem — In this article from Vox, Sean Illing interviews the Capitol Forum’s Sally Hubbard about shifting our thoughts on media monopolies into a larger discussion of concentrated economic power.
  • How Media Consolidation Threatens Democracy: 857 Channels (and Nothing On) — The proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger is a threat to democracy and this article lays out the case.
Stacy Mitchell: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power. I’m Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I have been so looking forward to today’s show. My guest is Laura Flanders. Laura is a long-time broadcast journalist, and I’ve been eager to get her on the podcast to talk to us about what the state of today’s media is and how we ought to think about it and what we need to do about it.

After many years in public and commercial radio, Laura founded the Laura Flanders Show in 2008 as a forum for in-depth conversations and reporting about policy, economics, business, and the arts. The show is distributed via several networks, and you can watch it by going to the show’s website, lauraflanders.org. I also encourage you to check out the Laura Flanders Show podcast. And in addition to the show, Laura regularly writes for news publications, including The Nation, and she’s appeared as a commentator on television, including on MSNBC and HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to be here.

Laura Flanders: Oh, Stacy, it’s totally my honor. I feel like this is a mutual appreciation society, and we’ve very much enjoyed always having you on our show, so I’m happy to be returning the favor.
Stacy Mitchell: Excellent. Well, I’m thinking about where to start. I think I want to start talking a little bit about the nature of the tangled problem that we face with our media system, and it’s really hard to sort out. I mean, on the one hand, we have a sense in the public’s mind right now that journalism matters more maybe than people have appreciated in the past, and certainly you’ve got journalists out there doing good work on trying to hold the current administration accountable. On the other hand, we have this explosion of fake news. We have this complete atrophying of local news. We have the rise of platforms and the role of Facebook and Google. Is what we’re experiencing something that … Has it all just been crystallized from us in this moment, and it’s really part of a longer-running problem? Or has something really monumental shifted? Or some of both?
Laura Flanders: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, I do think that we’ve got a scale of a problem that we didn’t have before. When we talk about 90% of news traffic, people going to news sites, even mainstream news sites like The New York Times through just a couple of platforms, be it the Google search platform or Facebook, then you’re really talking about a scale of a problem that we haven’t had before when it comes to concentration of power of gatekeepers.

But in terms of concentration of access to audience for a slim sort of margin of views, a slim slice of opinion, if you will, that’s been a problem for as long as I’ve been in journalism. So that’s, what, 30 years or so. We’ve always had a situation where there were certain mainstream outlets that reached millions of people and then what I refer to as kind of “media on the margins” that did a lot of the core reporting. We would say it was the media on the margins that brings issues to the boil and the mainstream that inhales the steam, and we would always complain about the lack of resources in one end and the huge concentration of wealth in the other. I mean, this is a massive, massive industry earning something like $83 billion a year.

We would always complain, but in a way, we had a kind of cobbled together system that worked, and I think what we’ve seen in the last decade, really, is how that system is not working. And it’s not working not for information, for the public’s level of ability to understand what its options are. It’s not working for journalists, as we see our jobs shrivel and our options shrink. But it’s mostly not working for our democracy because you really can’t have a society with a free flow of ideas if you don’t have a media with more diversity. If you have a media in the hands of so few, we have a real democracy problem as well as a media problem, and I think that’s where we are today.

Stacy Mitchell: This problem of media being owned by too few hands, if memory serves, that really is something that started in earnest, that consolidation really started in earnest in the 1990s. Is that right? And there were specific policy changes that ushered that in?
Laura Flanders: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you remember correctly, in the late 1980s, you still had the idea that the news part of the TV, the television news, for example, was not a profit center. The news was subsidized by the rest of what was broadcast, the entertainment programming, the sports, the game shows. In the first Gulf War, I remember I was working at the media watch group FAIR, when we realized, oh, the first Gulf War was the first war where new owners of major media outlets in the US started demanding for the first time that even their news operations made money. As you remember, in the 1980s and ’90s, you saw Disney and Westinghouse and General Electric take over the networks, ABC, CBS, NBC. That kind of pressure for money coming out of news was new.

And then you saw in the 1990s with the Telecommunications Act passed under the Clinton administration doing away with many of the limits that existed on how many stations a single owner could own in a single market, and it went from six to more like 60. And today, you’ve got one broadcaster in the United States, the Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation, that at the moment owns 193 stations, reaching seven out of 10 of all US households. And if a pending merger continues or a buyout continues, they want to buy the Tribune Group, they’ll own over 200 stations and really be a universal carrier from coast to coast.

This is the network which was revealed not so long ago in a wonderful bit of activist media by Deadspin to have required that its local news anchors read a message, read a commentary ironically about trust and fake news, but it was all about, “Don’t trust what they tell you in the New York and Washington media.” But to see 40 or 45 local news anchors all basically reciting the same message in unison was pretty chilling, and people got it I think.

The power of a single broadcaster today, not just to own and influence programing but literally to tell anchor people at the local level what they should be saying on their local news, this is new. This is called a “must-read.” We always had must-carry, you have to carry some content that the monopoly owned or wants you to carry, but must-read, what that does is get the most trusted piece of this news ecosystem, the local anchor person that you might see at the store or at the PTA, get that person to mouth what’s the agenda coming from head office, and that’s really insidious and dangerous.

So, yes, there have been legislative changes. They happened in the ’90s. There’s been corporate and financial changes that happened a lot in the ’80s. Over the years, government has receded from the role of regulating any aspect of broadcasting. In the piece that I wrote not long ago for The Next Systems Project, I tried to remind people there was some history here. Government used to intervene at a very large level to regulate not only questions of ownership but local news coverage and local news broadcasting. We’re out of that business. We’ve been out of that business now for half a century, pushed, I think, by the very same advocates that dominate some powerful media. So you see why this is all so complicated, because media is both the way that we communicate about changes, and it’s also the way that we close off that communication and close off that change and intimidate politicians.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, that Sinclair Broadcasting clip that you referred to where people put together all of the reporters saying the same thing over and over again, it’s really chilling. And we’ll include a link to it in the show page for today’s episodes for people who haven’t run across it. But it has this feel of, anyone who read 1984, I mean, it’s really this sort of lockstep. Or it’s very Soviet in its quality. It was this sort of window in how Sinclair, it’s a corporation with an agenda, with a particular political agenda but also is this extractive machine in terms of the revenue that they’re pulling out of that in the ways that, as you said, they’re trading in the trust that these local news anchors and journalists have built up in their communities.

Just to layer one more big structural problem onto this, how do you think we should think about the role of Facebook and Google? I mean, a lot of people are getting their news now from Facebook or YouTube, which is owned by Google. And those companies are extracting a larger and larger share of the ad dollar, not only not supporting journalism with those ad dollars but also, because of the nature of their algorithms and sort of the invisibility behind them, really have become these machines for, as we’ve seen, for distributing fake news for the sort of outrage and things that aren’t productive at all.

Laura Flanders: The reason that I’m happy we’re having this conversation, Stacy, is I often feel as if the media conversation takes place in some different category than the conversation that you raise about local versus monopoly economic interest of different kinds. And yet, really, media is a victim of the same monopoly tendencies in our economy that you see playing out everywhere else.

So just think about it. I mean, 30 years ago, again, at the very sort of beginnings of the internet, people imagined, “Wow, we have this new world of free communication and decentralized control, diversity, democracy.” People felt like a whole new world was opening, but it coincided with a period of corporate consolidation that was happening everywhere and happening in media, too. And that corporate consolidation, that monopolization is driven by profit.

So when you have the same gamut going from the, whatever they say now, 400 individuals versus eight and a half billion people, when you have that contrast happening in the media sphere, you have a very dangerous outcome because what we’re talking about is not just the products that we buy but the ideas that get into our heads. And Facebook and Google, they never, I think, in their wildest dreams would’ve thought that they were the arbiters of our democratic communication system, that they were going to become the gatekeepers on our democracy, but that is exactly what’s happened, to the point that mainstream, old-school media giants like The New York Times are in no place to negotiate good terms with a platform like Google or Facebook, because they’re so dependent on the eyeballs that come to their website through that channel.

And the consumer feels, “Oh, I’m getting all this diversity. All these different news sources show up when I put in a search term.” But more often than not, they’re receiving the same article under different headlines served up from many different sites, and the profit, if there is any, is not going back to the original creator of that content. It’s going back to the purveyor of that content. And, therefore, the organs of journalism are made poorer and poorer and more and more vulnerable and more and more kind of subservient to corporate interests, and the monopoly control that algorithm-driven platform gets ever greater.

So, I mean, I think it’s hard to even kind of get it through one’s head just what a monopoly situation this is. Media is not different from Amazon. Media is not different from Walmart. This is a monopoly problem in a economy of inequality, and what we’re losing is information that is critical to our health. The other end of the consolidation is the desert. So you have the Sinclair story, for example. What is not being said when those Sinclair reporters, those Sinclair anchors are mouthing what head office told them to say? What’s not being told is the local news. What’s not being carried is the local story.

And I saw a really chilling report by a health reporter recently who talked to epidemiologists, people who study disease. And they said when you’re tracking the trajectory of something like the flu or H1N1 or the Zika virus, epidemiologists use all sorts of sources, and one of them is local news — the school was shut down because of an outbreak of flu, the local library is serving up new information about flu prevention. You get sort of wind of it at the local level. With the absence of local news — newspapers, radio, television, it tends to go together in similar areas — you’re losing that capacity to track epidemics. We’re losing our tentacles, the tentacles that absorb critical information about where, I don’t know, white supremacist militia organizing is taking off, where climate change is eroding the coastline, where bird patterns are changing or plant life is being affected.

So I try to turn things around. I say on our program, in the wake of the election of last year, a lot of people woke up, and they realized, oh, my goodness, we have the world’s most wealthy, powerful media industry, but half of us seem as if never to have met the other half, the most well-paid journalists in the world seem to have had no idea what was going on, and we were fundamentally wrong about key things in the election of 2016. And in the meantime, in the vacuum, profiteers and propagandists were making a killing giving people almost the craziest things to believe.

What we say on the show is it’s not that we need a new algorithm or a new app to protect us from fake news; we need a new level of attention to the media that we have, the media on the margins that still exists as your local community store does or your local small, family-owned business or farm. It’s not that we’ve lost it yet, but we are on the verge of losing it. I don’t think that we have more than three or five years of our current kind of wacky ecosystem with the little over here and the big over there because, while the little could really be flourishing in this new technological age, reaching an audience and integrating itself into public consciousness, it’s far more likely to be bulldozed by the monopoly in the town over.

And that’s what I’m really afraid of, is that we’re actually living on kind of borrowed time for this media system that we’ve cobbled together over the years, and it’s time for a real rethink. If we want a next system of anything, of agriculture, of transit, of communications, if we want a next system of economy, we need a next system of media because there’s no other way to raise the issues and the options and get that conversation started. We can’t wait until we’ve changed other things to change media. It’s almost like we have to change this one first. 

Stacy Mitchell: Let’s talk about solutions then and where we should turn. When you talk about this as a problem of monopoly, I mean, that really suggests, in my mind at least, that we have to think about this in big structural terms that this is a matter of public intervention. And I do want to ask you next about what our role is as readers and watchers of the news, but in our role as citizens, how do we think about this, and what should we do? What are the things that we need to do to nurture this more decentralized and diverse media and this local media and the media that isn’t corporate-controlled?
Laura Flanders: Well, the one thing we need to do is pay our pledges to our local non-profit media that we consume. So if you listen to a local community radio station or you read a local free newspaper in town, pay your pledge, make a contribution. If you listen to your podcast or mine, support the media that supports you. So that’s piece number one, each one needs to do our bit.

In terms of journalism, how do we break up the old monopolies? If you go back to the 19th century, you had Ida Tarbell blowing the whistle on United Steel, you had people like Ida B. Wells blowing the whistle on white vigilante groups, you had journalists really crusading out there talking about what was wrong, and you had governments that responded. I mean, to Ida Tarbell’s reporting, the result was the breakup of one of the biggest monopolies in US history. You had the same thing in the early part of the 20th century with the breakup of one of the large television networks into two networks because you had a upswell of popular attention and concern.

I think this is an issue that politicians can be forced to think about if they know that there’s a constituency there for them. There is certainly a job for journalists to continue does that kind of muckraking. There’s a job, I think, for we the public to say we’re not satisfied with what we have. It’s going to be a tall order because this isn’t a problem, I don’t believe, with a market solution. I think that we have to lobby once again for media as a public good, for part of our infrastructure for democracy.

At the local level, that means, I think, that our organizations, particularly those that think about new ways of structuring our economy, need to put, well, how do we imagine journalism in this picture? There are models out there. For example, the Dutch model, for example, for broadcasting is that the public television channels, the non-commercial channels are supported by taxation on the advertising that appears on the other channels. In the UK, if you own a television set or you want access to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC content online, you have to pay a licensing fee. And there’s a fine if you don’t pay that fee.

There are lots of ways we could fund public broadcasting. Dean Baker has suggested that every taxpayer in the United States gets the same amount of a check off on their income taxes, say, a $200 voucher that they then get to choose who it goes to, which non-profit outlet does it go to. So there you have kind of public support, government support going to independent media without government determining which independent media get the support. That’s a reasonable model.

There are lots of potential things we could argue for out there, but the very first thing, I think, is that we need to unravel 30 years of propaganda telling us that government has no place in communications or that this is all a free speech issue because it wasn’t. It wasn’t in the 1920s when church groups and educators and progressives got together to demand that the public airwaves belonged to the public and, therefore, should be regulated as a public asset. It wasn’t out of the question in the 1940s under the New Deal, where you had the FCC regulate local broadcasters by requiring that they carry an hour of local programming every night, that there be a local station in every community, that all sides of an issue were covered over the broadcast day. These were things that we accomplished through organizing, through advocacy, and through basically shaming our government into taking action, but we’ve been sold this bill of goods that it will all work out in the wash. It won’t. It’s not working out.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s so true. And it feels so much like this, you talk about this 30-year period of being trained to think that the market is going to deliver something to us that it’s obviously not delivering, and also this sense that our only response it ought to be as consumers. Oh, you can choose this or that or whatever. And it’s so remarkable when you … I read that piece that you refer to that you did for The Next Systems Project, which we’ll put a link to that on the show page because it’s terrific. But reading through that history from the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s when you saw citizens, we the people decide here’s what’s in the public interest, here’s what we need to do in order to have a media and communication system that actually meets our needs, that is compatible with a democracy. And just the ability to make those big demands and to exercise that citizenship muscle and not this sort of weak little consumer muscle that we’ve been sort of trained to demand.This idea of public funding, I really want to go back to that because it’s not a new idea in American history. When, really, the founding fathers and mothers, when they looked at the importance of news, they, very right, I believe, in the Constitution, right away effectively subsidized the postal service because it was a way of getting periodicals and newspapers delivered was extraordinarily expensive back then, and so there had to be a way to publicly subsidize that so everyone had access to that news. So we should resurrect that idea. 
Laura Flanders: Absolutely. I mean, Thomas Jefferson and … They knew that they owed a good debt to the Tom Paines of the world. They knew that the era of the pamphleteers had been the way that they had fomented rebellion against the bad old British. They understood the importance of communications in a democracy. So I think that they were regulating the technology of their time, so the postal service. In the 1910s, you saw activists regulating the communications industry of their time, which at that point was radio, and establishing this notion of the public airwaves as a public property that needed to be regulated. In the 1940s, it was television.

And you come through to the ’60s, you had cable coming in. And again, you had organizers at the local and national level demanding something back from the cable companies. They said, “If you are going to be digging up our public streets, using the public thoroughfare to lay your cable, and that cable is going to give you access to profit making off a fairly” … Usually it’s monopoly access in any given community. That cable company is going to get monopoly access to a population that have put something into this mix with paying for the infrastructure that that cable company is using. Activists at that time said, “We want something back,” and they demanded full-equipped, non-profit community television stations with training capacity for local citizens.

And those were the PEG stations, the public information, education, and communications stations, often called the community access stations, which some of them not that great. They are run by free speech principles, first come, first served. But they’re a local outlet for communication that was obtained in a quid pro quo with the cable companies in perpetuity in the sense that their appropriation happens through, usually, city-based taxation on the cable company’s profits. And in a place like New York, we have three major television stations operating on this principle in New York, in Manhattan, and in the Bronx. And they’re good stations. It’s different from place to place depending on how the regulations have changed.

So you’ve gone from the postal service to radio to TV to cable. We’re now in the digital age, and we have not made our demands. We haven’t made our demands on the digital companies, and we’ve not required that they give anything back. Not only have we accepted a sort of quasi-deregulated or quasi-neutral net, which is not very neutral at all when it’s run by huge monopolies, but we’ve not demanded anything in terms of a protected sphere for non-commercial communications.

And we have another opportunity possibly now to make more demands because 5G is coming, the next level of internet communication, the next level of broadband. They will need to erect new antennae all across the country, and something … The 5G will actually be how the wireless and how the driverless cars with operate and how they’ll communicate, so it’s quite likely we’ll need these antennae and these new services very soon. They will once again want to lay and erect those antennae and erect their equipment on public land. In lots of parts of the country, that’s what’s on the side of the highway. What are we going to demand for that? What are we going to require back for that?

It’s really time that we stop accepting this bill of goods, as you put it, that our consumer power is enough. No, we have citizens’ power here. And in a monopoly media, we don’t just have the choice to pick another channel. We’re not given that option. I think as people are seeing now, their news is increasingly being served to them by algorithms. There’s not free choice of what you get access to. And in a democracy, we don’t just need free choice for ourselves; we need free choice for everyone so that there’s a level of information that’s going to everyone, not just those who search it out.

Stacy Mitchell: You’re listening to Laura Flanders, broadcast journalist and host of The Laura Flanders Show. I’m Stacy Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We’ll be right back after a short break.

If you enjoy this podcast, please consider leaving us a rating or a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcast. That helps us reach a wider audience. And we also invite you to check out our website ilsr.org and look over some of the resources and research that we’ve produced to help communities build local power. While you’re there, you can connect with us on social media and also sign up for one of our newsletters. Thanks again for listening.

And we’re back with Laura Flanders. I think that this argument that we have not made the demands now, that these technologies and these companies have continued to evolve, and yet we’re not making public demands of them the way that we did in all the generations before, of media technology. I’m thinking about Facebook and Google. I’m thinking, well, in exchange for being able to have our attention, which is an incredible public resource and all of the —

Laura Flanders: Not to mention our data and our friends and our photographs and our videos.
Stacy Mitchell: The data. Exactly. In exchange for that, how about a tax? A tax on your digital ad revenue, which would generate a lot of money. And we can imagine putting that into non-profit, public interest funds of various kinds to fund journalism, including at the local level. And as you suggested, Dean Baker’s idea for a thing to check on your taxes where you can say which of these funds you want your particular piece of that tax revenue to go to. What do you think about that idea?
Laura Flanders: I think it’s a genius idea. I mean, you mentioned how media is an extractive industry. It’s extracting from us. These are our resources that they’re exchanging, and I think that we have to begin to see ourselves as having some power in relationship to those companies, even as we acknowledge that we are in a very powerless state right now. This is our data they’re exchanging, and I think you’re absolutely right that there’s a good case to be made that we should get something back and something that funds non-commercial media. We then need to make the case around that non-commercial sphere and make our argument that we need a part of our democracy that is not driven by market interest, and I think that’s another piece of it.

But there are some interesting models. In New Jersey right now, there is a interesting struggle going on around the state’s, under Chris Christie’s decision to sell off some of the public spectrum. Some of the public television spectrum was sold off under the last administration. And they got something like $350 million for the sale of just one station’s license. There’s now a whole community organizing, saying, “We just want 10% of that to fund a community reporting fund,” as you mentioned. And we’ll see how it plays out, but it’s a very good example, a very good experiment.

There’s also the idea that you could have a local tax on local businesses that would fund communications in a given community and that the given community would have a certain amount of journalism funding it could decide together how to spend. Sort of like participatory budgeting, how would we just throw it in the mix? What are we budgeting for for local media? And that’s another idea, that you could just extract it from the local taxation pool.

But I think there could be a lot of ideas out there. We just have a lot of intimidated politicians, and they’re partly intimidated because so much of our campaigning happens through the big media that we’re critiquing, so I always think, what network is going to raise the question of public financing for elections, for example, when they receive such a handsome proportion of all of that money? Well, this is the same thing. It’s like, how do we get our organs of communications to communicate about how to change a system that’s working so well for them? This is going to have to be a fight that’s bottom-up.

But I think as more and more people are learning, as you are and I do, about what comes from being in control or owning your own means of communication, I think we realize both how powerful it is and how critical it is and what the potential is. I mean, extraordinary potential going back to those years of the first Gulf War. I remember when I was working there at the media watch group FAIR in the late ’80s, our only means of critiquing The New York Times or other influential media outlets was sending a letter to the editor. Our only way of knowing how newspapers in other countries were covering what we were covering was getting a manila envelope of clippings in the mail weeks later.

I mean, today we have such incredible potential means of communication globally and spectrum-wise in terms of the array of ideas that are out there. It’s an exciting time to be fighting for media rights, as well as a very critical one, and maybe it’s another chapter that is brought to boiling point by the Trump administration. I hope that’s what’s happening. We certainly saw it right after the election, a lot of people talking about subscribing to their local … Well, they were mostly subscribing to the big, most powerful media. I hope they also subscribed to their local media. But I think this is a conversation that is bubbling up.

Stacy Mitchell: On that note, I want to ask you, and we’ve been talking about policy solutions and citizen solutions to this problem, but as we’re working on those, do you think we as readers and watchers of the news have a responsibility with how we’re directing our attention? I mean, I think it’s really easy to come home at the end of a long day and turn on cable news and sort of stare at the spectacle of whatever the latest scandalous development is with regard to the Russia investigation, for example.

Meanwhile, I happen to live in a place that still has a daily newspaper despite being a relatively small city that’s pretty good. And we have a weekly newspaper that goes out and covers school board meetings and planning board meetings and the like. And the temptation to turn on the TV and watch news that I can have no effect on, and it puts me in a different kind of space versus actually reading about stuff that’s happening in my community that I can affect. I mean, how do you think about what our responsibility is, and how do you advise people to navigate this space?

Laura Flanders: That’s another phenomenon where you realize, “Ooh, this is insidious” in the sense that I think that the media that we’re complaining about has also affected our appetites for anything in depth. Our attention span has shrunk. Our brains apparently are getting wired differently with the constant resorting to our phones to find out who sent us a text message. We have to be conscious that something has changed in our own way of living in the world.

And this sound so corny, but I got a dog not so long ago during the Trump administration. I thought, well, after Donald Trump was elected, and I thought, “Oh, god. I’m going to finally just go and get the dog that I wanted for a long time.” So now I spend a certain amount of time walking around and talking to people and not plugged in and not looking at a screen. I’m happier. I’m more engaged in my community. I know more about what’s happening in my block than I ever did before.

I mean, this is not the same as going to a community board meeting, but I do think it’s given me a little bit of a wake-up call where I realize, wow, I need to think more carefully about how I’m spending my time. And am I doing the due diligence of imbibing a variety of news sources? Am I reading in depth anymore? Am I actually reading books anymore? I do think that there’s a different quality of attention that we get in an engagement with a page than a screen.

And then I think the point that you made at the beginning about, how much of my value am I giving to media that I also hate, that I really do feel is leaving me feeling shallow and sort of polarized from my fellows? I think we do have a responsibility, absolutely. It sounds a little bit like, “Eat your vegetables,” but maybe think of it a different way, which is there’s a whole lot more going on than you think. And a lot of it is actually pretty exciting when you’re going out and seeing what’s happening at the local level.

I mean, I’m fascinated by how many people show up for participatory budgeting meetings. I was excited the other day to be York in the UK where about 80 people showed up for a local town meeting on the first nice day they’d had in that part of England in months. The sun was actually in the sky, and you had 80 people in the local town hall going through a process of trying to decide their priorities as a town for the next election later this year.

I think the people want engagement of the sort that they’re not getting through just absorbing the sort of hatred on the screen, and I think that we’re beginning to realize that our media is setting us at each other through its constant focus on DC-based party bickering. Even the Russia scandal. It’s like, we’re not talking about what is actually going on that led to the election results of 2016, what’s actually happening in our communities.

American democracy has always advanced on the backs of storytellers with their ears to the ground and local publishers and broadcasters who were willing to fund and carry those storytellers’ stories. The civil rights movement was brought to us by the black press that was covering Rosa Parks and Dr. King long before white people had ever even heard the names. Low-power FM radio stations are expanding in number and in scope. They’re broadcasting in multiple languages to farm workers in the fields about their right.

In Detroit, you have local residents weaving together an internet system that is serving a population ignored by the big cable companies at a price people can afford. And in creating that inter-knit, meshed network, neighbors are having to meet each other and communicate and trust one another. And it’s enabling them to communicate with each other, not just with the internet, and they’re sharing information about immigration raids and pollution outbreaks.

I mean, there’s some amazing things happening right now, too. The Highlander Center, the civil rights school in Tennessee, just erected a new antenna on the top of its famous mountain so that it can actually receive bandwidth and beam it down into the hollows of that part of Eastern Tennessee, serving a community, again, that had been underserved by the big companies.

So in the sort of shadow of monopoly, in the places where the monopolies have no interest in going, you see people meeting their needs in new ways that’s actually putting communications power, not just of the word but of the wire, in people’s hands. And that’s exciting. I still think that we have just begun to think about, how do we share information and the new technology, and how do we create our own networks that serve our audiences other material we think they might be interested in? And some challenging material, too. And I hope that not too long from now we will have developed some platforms where we can do our own evening news, and we come to you for the local economy reporting, and we go to other people for weather news.

I think we could do this. I’m hopeful. And the energy and urgency is at our back. We just have not all that much time, I don’t think, so these are critical moments, and I’m really glad that this conversation around media is beginning to happen in circles that haven’t really engaged with this yet. 

Stacy Mitchell: Well, I’m so glad you’re out there covering what’s possible. I think so many of the things that you just touched on in terms of what’s happening at the local level, what’s happening in Detroit and with the Highland Center and so on are the same kinds of stories that you’re covering on your show. And it’s a different kind of media, one that is inspiring and gives you very much a sense of what’s possible and how to get there and who’s doing it, and it leaves you with a sense of empowerment, which is really terrific, so thank you for that.
Laura Flanders: We try. No, the tagline of our show is, “It’s the place where people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it,” and it’s really true. I mean, there are people out there doing just about anything you think needs to be done; we just don’t get to hear about them, so let’s keep talking.
Stacy Mitchell: Laura, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Laura Flanders: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
Stacy Mitchell: Laura Flanders is a long-time broadcast journalist and host of The Laura Flanders Show, which you can find at lauraflanders.org. And I also encourage you to check out The Laura Flanders Show podcast. Thank you all for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ilsr.org, and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media. And once again, please help us out by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends.

This show is produced Lisa Gonzalez and Nick Stumo-Langer. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Stacy Mitchell. I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by rating Building Local Power on iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts. And please become a subscriber!  If you missed our previous episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage

If you have show ideas or comments, please email us at info@ilsr.org. Also, join the conversation by talking about #BuildingLocalPower on Twitter and Facebook!

Subscribe: iTunes | Android | RSS

Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Area Librarion via Flickr.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.

Avatar photo
Follow Nick Stumo-Langer:
Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.