Last night I returned from wet and misty Memphis, the site of the third National Conference on Media Reform. The dreary mid-south weather did nothing to dampen the spirit of the conference. Leaving the hotel, a wonderful man entered the full shuttle--he turned out to be the owner of the shuttle company--to thank all of us for bringing the conference to his city. His words were genuine and moving. He said that he had heard most of the major speakers and was impressed with the warmth and graciousness of the attendees. Most of all, he was happy to have Memphis chosen for the venue, since the city had come such a long way since 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in the southern end of downtown Memphis. Now, he said, the city was trying to move toward a deliberated vision of democracy: all citizens living in harmony and getting down to the real job of making life better for all and educating its children to live together in diversity and democracy and peace as our Constitution intended.
I was traveling with about 10 men and women, most in their twenties, who were returning to Boston. All of them were staff members of FreePress, the non-profit organization founded at the end of 2002, which had sponsored the Conference, and all of us, without exception, had managed to visit the National Museum on Civil Rights either yesterday--the national holiday and birthdate of Doctor King--or on Sunday right after the conference.
No one can visit the museum quickly, there is so much history and so much emotion to contemplate, one panel to another, picture to portrait to quote, from slavery many decades before 1776 , through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, burnings, migration to the cities, sit-ins, the marches, the freedom rides, the terrible racist violence that black people in the United States had to bear and struggle against, through the old garbage truck from the Memphis strike in 1968, with its motto on the signs held by the silent statues of garbage workers: "I am a Man."
And then you climb and arrive at that inexpensive motel room #306 of the Lorraine Motel--where black people preferred to stay, even then still finding prejudicial treatment at the better hotels of Memphis. You look out onto the angled balcony where Dr. King fell, then you look out at the building across the street to a metal cage protecting the room where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the rifle. That building has been converted into further museum property, and the main building of the museum incorporates the facade of the Lorraine, with two vintage cars, large, befinned gas guzzlers parked outside.
No white person walking through the museum, walking through our shameful history, can do so without weariness and sadness and contrition, and I could see, in the faces of many of the black people in the museum the tightening of jaws, the moist eyes and stiff chins, the explaining to their children why these things were important. You go to the museum knowing you will be saddened, and yet you leave it--after viewing exhibits about Gandhi and films about human rights all over the world with images of Nelson Mandela and Tiananmen Square--with a firmer resolve than ever to preserve what has been accomplished and knowing that there is so much more still to do.
For Dr. King was about more than the struggle for justice for black people and minorities in the United States. In the final years of his life, he spoke out for justice for workers, he spoke out against the War in Vietnam. When he was preaching non-violence in the face of biting dogs and fire hoses, he was admired and only spied upon by the FBI, but when he began to speak out against the war and economic exploitation, he was ignored, vilified, threatened, ridiculed, and condemned.
Had he not been assassinated, he would have been 78 years old yesterday, and I am sure he would have been a speaker at this National Conference on the Media, eloquently decrying the enormous harm that Media consolidation has done to broadcast and print over the past twenty-five years and more. That consolidation has weakened democracy in this country terribly, and 3500 of us went to Memphis to help to return democracy to this country through concerted opposition to corporate damage to the press and public knowledge.
If you do nothing else, please read, listen to or watch the keynote address Bill Moyers delivered on Friday morning. You can find the complete text at http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/01/16/159222, or you can listen at http://www.freepress.net/conference/=full_schedule07; or you can watch videos of the conference at http://www.freepress.net/; (Just a side note: when my friends asked me why I was going to the Conference, I told them I wanted to meet Bill Moyers, one of my heroes, and by golly I did. As I was finishing dinner on Thursday night, I heard his voice, and then when I stood up, saw his shock of gray hair, so I walked up, introduced myself to him and told him to knock 'em dead tomorrow morning. Was I right or what? He made a great speech, and it sums up the battle and gives the facts.)
This movement to reform the media cuts across party lines. It is not a "liberal left" movement, because a whole spectrum of interests, from conservative Christians, Goldwater and Reagan Republicans, the National Rifle Association, center Democrats, as well as Progressives have all united to set limits to corporate expansion, to save the internet from the fate of radio, television, and cable. We are all involved in this struggle to return democracy to the press and the airwaves that are the property of all of us, not just a priveleged few corporations who have forgetten their civic duty.
And to my conservative friends who might be put off by my enthusiasm: ask yourself why Clear Channel makes millions off its use of the public airwaves yet pays less than you do for your drivers' licenses; ask yourself why your cable bill keeps increasing but the Cable Company has yet to find a way to let you pay only for what you want rather than having to buy it as a premium package; ask yourself why you'd rather watch the history channel than the latest reality TV show; why you find commercials running all the time on Public Television; the next time you have to wait an age for something to download, go to this site and find out how your service compares to someone else's in Japan or Europe: www.speedmatters.org/yourspeed
0n January 18, 2002, in Minot, North Dakota, one person died and hundreds were treated for inhalation problems partly because the Clear Channel-owned radio station responsible for being the emergency broadcast channel continued to play automated music as clouds of anhydrous ammonia from a wrecked train spread over the community. The emergency broadcast system didn't work very well that night. Initially no one was at the station to pick up the phone even when city officials called. Citizens breathing in the toxic fumes tuned to the frequency for emergency information and found only music, even as late as two hours after the disaster occurred. The story can be found in Eric Klinenberg's Fighting for Air.
Things are not right, and that's why I went to Memphis.