The Media Stewards Project (MSP) is an effort to increase grassroots awareness and support for public interest media in America by
1) Demanding commercially based media do more to serve the public much more as citizens of our democracy, not simply consumers targeted for maximizing profits.
2) Fostering greater citizen and government support for local, regional and national public media operations, media accountability and media education.
The MSP believes new media technologies provide citizens with the capacity to fundamentally improve and expand responsible media coverage of important issues citizens need to comprehend better in order to elect government officials willing to address the issues they care about most.
The main problem, simply stated, is striking a new balance between commercially driven and public service media because the former, which have always dominated our media system, are failing to provide the level of quality, accountable journalism necessary for our democracy to function as intended by the framers of the Constitution.
When our leading American political thinkers realized the Articles of Confederation did not strike the right balance between state and federal authority for the country to prosper, they carefully considered and adopted a new constitution of these powers. The same must be done with the present constitution of commercial and public media in America.
As ever newer sources of public information have proliferated since the 1980s, the quality and quantity of “journalism that matters” has steadily decreased, thoroughly documented in recent major studies by Free Press, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the Center For Social Media at American University.
A major underlying factor is the progressive collapse of the commercial business model that sustained newspaper journalism in the US for most of the last century, steadily diminishing the foundation of accountability journalism. A 2011 Federal Communications Commission report, Information Needs of Communities, updated the serious extent of this demise but offered few recommendations.
The MSP was inspired by two leading figures in American public service media, James Day and Willard D. (“Wick”) Rowland. Jim Day was the founder of public TV station KQED in San Francisco and President of National Educational Television (NET). After the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was formed in 1968, Day became the first president of public TV station WNET in New York. He participated in the creation of Children’s Television Workshop and worked to establish INPUT, annual international conferences for public service television producers to share and debate best practices in their field.
The central point in The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television, Day’s memoir of working with leading figures in American public broadcasting, is that unlike the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and most of Europe, the United States has never seriously considered how commercial and public service broadcasting serve fundamentally different purposes, and must be viewed in relation to one another.
Wick Rowland, a leading expert in US and international public service media, was a colleague of Jim Day who devoted his academic and professional life as a public broadcaster to strengthening public media in America. Just as several framers of the Constitution read widely about alternative systems of government, Rowland has studied extensively how other industrialized democracies have debated and adopted media policies which strike a more balanced approach regarding the cultural and political influences of commercial and public media.
In 2010, Rowland published a series of articles, including Stewards for the Media Future, which articulates a plan for developing a much more robust American public media sector capable of providing the ever diminishing level of journalism that matters, especially at the local level. Elements of his proposal are echoed in a similar call to bolster public media by Free Press in 2012, Greater Than The Sum: Creating and Connecting Collaborative Public Media In America.
Based on the research and experience of Jim Day, Wick Rowland and other public media practitioners, the MSP seeks to increase grassroots awareness and support for public interest media in America in several ways:
1) To work with Free Press, Common Cause, the New America Foundation, Public Citizen and related public interest groups to inform and motivate small groups of citizens across the country to meet with managers and news directors at their local commercial TV stations regarding the amount and sources of money they receive for airing political ads; the degree to which those political ads were vetted for accuracy and egregious distortions; and the cost and quality of their own election and public affairs coverage. Arranging these meetings and reporting back their experiences to friends and others are simple first steps for engaging citizens to hold commercial media more accountable for the public interest they purport to serve.
2) To encourage citizens to attend local public meetings with their Congressional representatives to discuss issues of greatest importance to them, assess local media coverage of these events, and meet with local reporters and editors about doing a better job covering such issues. Besides increasing citizen engagement with their elected officials, these personal encounters are essential to forming a critical perspective on the quality of the information they and their fellow citizens have to rely on, and encourage friends, relatives and others to become more engaged in the crucial nexus of local politics and media.
3) To raise awareness of the great need to strengthen public media organizations at all levels because they treat accountability journalism, the lifeblood of a strong democracy, as a public good.
The dysfunction of our representative government to address complex public affairs issues at the local, regional and national level should be of great concern to all Americans, brought into sharp relief by the recent publication of Who Stole The American Dream? by Hedrick Smith, one of the most experienced and respected journalists in the nation. Smith carefully documents how a small group of business elites systematically lobbied Congress to enact legislation that greatly favored the super rich at the expense of the middle class over a period of forty years, a story still largely unknown to most Americans.
Unless and until middle class citizens overcome their sense of powerlessness, Smith asserts, and become as publicly engaged as they were in the 1960s supporting the civil rights movement, equal rights for women, environmentalism and consumer affairs, opposing the war in Vietnam, and protesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the relentless growth of income and wealth inequality in America will again threaten the nation’s future as it did a century ago, prompting Justice Louis D. Brandeis to remark:
We must make our choice. We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.
The steady decline of quality, accountable journalism readily accessible by all citizens is directly related to our ability as a nation to address these and a host of other complex issues. The resulting political dysfunction we are experiencing has profound global implications and signals a new urgency for greater citizen participation in strengthening the public interest obligations of all American media, commercial and public.
Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson, another leading figure who has addressed these critical issues for more than fifty years, long ago called for all citizens, regardless of what issue they regard as their top priority, to make media reform their second priority if they expect to have any hope of seeing constructive change on what matters most to them in this world. The MSP is committed to helping citizens realize the importance of media education, critical media literacy, and media stewardship to a well functioning democracy, all of which rely upon their understanding of these issues.