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Media's Role in Citizen Activism

Nicholas Johnson Exchange with Barbara Ehrenreich

November 15, 2004

NOTE: Barbara Ehrenreich, lecturer and widely published author, most notably in this connection of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001), delivered a campus-wide lecture at the University of Iowa on November 15, 2004. She discussed, among other things, citizen activism generally. Following her lecture there was a question and answer exchange with members of the audience. What follows is her exchange with Nicholas Johnson.

Nicholas Johnson (NJ): Thank you.

When I used to organize coalitions I would tell people, "Whatever is your first priority, your second priority has to be media reform."

And back in those days we limited owners to seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations. Now Clear Channel has something like 1200 radio stations.

This is further complicated by the fact that the Supreme Court now rules consistently, with regard to all media, that with their First Amendment right to speak goes their First Amendment right to censor all others. You do not have a legal right to buy an ad in the New York Times or the Press-Citizen. You do not have a right to buy time on KXIC or a local television station.

I'm curious, as a long-time great admirer of yours, what you have to tell us about the importance of media to citizen activism -- and the prospects for media reform.

Barbara Ehrenreich (BE): Good question. What a huge issue.

I tend to rely on FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a group that is a media watchdog group. I'm sure they have a Web site, and they encourage people to form local chapters. They encourage people to meet with the editorial boards of local newspapers. They encourage people to also just be pests, be individual pests.

It may sound strange, but I believe this is true from having a glimpse from inside some media conglomerates, they pay attention to letters the editor. They really do. And to complaints.

If Clear Channel got enough complaints that might make a difference. We shouldn't underestimate our power with these things. If we are good media consumers, we will have our phone in hand whenever we are watching TV, prepared to call and say, to complain about these things.

NJ: Thank you.

BE: So, that's my little rule of thumb, "Be a pest."