Those guys at Greenpeace have it pretty good.
Not only do they have a fleet of those super-cool Zodiac inflatable boats to save the whales and buzz French naval vessels, but whenever they need to fire up their eco-warrior base or cultivate support in the general public, there's always some cute endangered animal to parade about and rally around.
Now imagine you're in charge of getting people excited about media reform — promoting things like local ownership of press outlets, a free and open Internet, and vibrant public journalism that operates outside of party politics. Besides the considerable outreach, education, and advocacy work in store, you've got to deal with the fact that many people just don't like the media. Last September, Gallup reported that, for the fourth straight year, a majority of Americans — a record-high 57 percent, in fact — say they have "little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly." And 63 percent of those polled perceived media bias, either too liberal or two conservative.
Indeed, if anyone's looking to portray the media as baby seals, they'd first better hide the clubs.
And yet it's fair to argue that American media has never needed reform more than right now. Family-owned newspapers are all but extinct, bought up and consolidated into a handful of wealthy multinationals. The Internet's autonomy and diversity are under attack. The Republican-led House of Representatives is once again assaulting public broadcasting, and the massive loss of journalism jobs due to declining circulation and advertising dollars has resulted in a lack of quality news coverage at home and abroad.
"The media connects us to and affects almost every other issue that people care about, whether it's the environment, taxes, or women's issues," says Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the nonprofit media-reform-advocacy group Free Press, which brings its semi-regular National Conference for Media Reform to Boston's Seaport World Trade Center this weekend. "People have a lot to say about the media — 'I love this magazine,' 'I hate this TV show' — but they don't necessarily spend a lot of time looking into the policy."
Free Press started in 2002 in Northampton, as the brainchild of public-policy advocate Josh Silver and University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney. Today, the group has more than 40 employees and a half-million activists and supporters. The Boston convention is the fifth such event, and organizers are expecting 2500 attendees.
"The ground is very fertile," says Aaron. "It's been so long since people have been engaged and involved. The bureaucrats, the politicians, the lobbyists — they're not used to being scrutinized. So when you put some sunshine in there, you can make change."
Like many Free Press staffers, Tim Karr is a former journalist, with stints with the Associated Press and the New York Times under his belt. He spent four years in Vietnam as a correspondent for Time, Inc.
"As an American overseas, you tend to boast of the freedoms that journalists experience here in the States, especially in my case, working in a country like Vietnam, where censorship is an everyday experience," says Karr, who now oversees all Free Press campaigns and online outreach efforts. "When I got back, however, I found the freedoms I had took for granted as being homegrown were under threat."