Just finished the pre-game show here in St. Louis. It’s already shaping up nto be a huge conference here. It made attending the fourth iteration of “the academic and the activist should be friends” worthwhile. Why do self-organizing iterative processes need to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat? More below . . .
Although the conference starts tomorrow, we had a warm up today with a meeting on the academic “brain trust” (must get better names! If anyone refers to us as the media best and brightest, they’re in a world of hurt). Basically, for those who do not follow the ebb and flow of policy, basic common sense is no longer considered a justification for regulation. Back in 1978, the Supreme Court accepted as perfectly reasonable that two media outlets owned by the same company would not contradict each other. Nowadays, the D.C. Cir. (which, coincidentally, hates media regulation, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence. It’s not like conservative judges appointed by Reagan and Bush would go all activist and warp the fabric of administrative law simply to impose their own pro-businesses prejudices on media regulation, would they?) wants proof, and will gladly indulge in ignorant spculation to get it.
Also, fact is, proof is just nice to have. It can even inform your policy decisions so that you can structure things to promote democratic values and economy development AT THE SAME TIME. (NB: Progressives believe this is true. Liberals and conservatives believe this statement is false, and choose which half of the equation they want to promote).
Most media activists, including yr hmbl obedient, are woefully undertrained for the sort of qualitative and quantitative analysis required to shape public policy. While I can talk the talk, I cannot walk the walk. Heck, I can’t even think of how to structure a study that would demonstrate that mutual ownership is bad for democracy and for local economies. I have no access to the academic literature, no way to evaluate it, and no way to find it.
So many of us have been turning to the academic community for help. The problem is, academics (a) do not work in real time, and (b) do not work in the real world. I do not mean this as a knock on academics personally. The problem is the university system. From what I have heard from professors, tenure committees HATE practical stuff. I mean, you’d think “I testified before Congress and persuaded our elected officials to vote against a policy that would have serious negative consequences for our country” would be cool, right? But apparently, in academic speak, that translates to “I don’t give a sh– about serious scholarship and I pee on the rug. Don’t give me tenure cause I’d rather be surfing, dude.”
Also, serious academic reasearch can take a significant amount of time to construct. The turn around time for most rulemakings is 45 days to comment after publication in the Federal Register and 30 days for reply comments. If you take an industry study proving that balck is white, slavery is freedom, and consolidation is competition to an academic and say “I need this critiqued and debunked in 30 days,” the usual response is “bwahahahahah.” (Which, in academic speak, translates to “bwahahahahaha” ).
There are other problems as well, but these are the main ones. OTOH, industry can get academics (particularly in economics) to pimp for ’em pretty regularly. This is because industry folks will pay for the goodies and, sadly, universities are much more like Madames of bordellos than Guardians of ethics these days. While tenure committees may sneer at real-world activism, all is forgiven when they skim 40% off the top of your “grant” from the good people at Viacom.
But when academics and activists get together, it can be amazingly effective. A small, daring band of academics bravely kicked butt and took names in the media ownership proceeding in 2003, which gave us a record to win on in 2004. So for the last year or so a number of folks have put a lot of effort in trying to solve the problem and foster closer cooperation.
The good news is, members of both communities want it to happen, and we have tools for self-organization. The bad news is, self-organizing in communities is a slow process, with multiple meetings repeating things over and over again and building up by increments until a tipping point is reached. Then, lo and behold! A structure emerges and the engine of media reform has gained another power piston with which to steam roll the forces of consolidation.
This meeting made me feel we’re getting close to that tipping point. A lot of familiar faces, but also a lot of new ones. Most of the ground covered was informative and starting to get away from repetition of the same old issues. A lot of people actually _working_ on different software tools to enable cooperation and cross-disciplinary stuff. And a number of academics and activists trying to think creatively about how to work around the limitations in each other’s communities.
So we’re off to a running start. We’re supposed to have 2200 people here over the next few days. My one complaint so far is that there is no kosher food around here (anyone familiar with where to find kosher food in downtown St. Louis email me ASAP!)
Stay tuned . . . .