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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Who Speaks for Whom? Moral Dimensions of the Right to Communicate

Presented by Carolyn Byerly; with Carol Boston, Worship Associate; Dayna Edwards, Director of Multigenerational Religious Exploration


Who Speaks for Whom? 

Moral Dimensions of the Right to Communicate[i]

Carolyn M. Byerly

Who speaks for whom?  Can you speak for me? Can I speak for you?  Who has the right to speak for us?  And how do we account for the silences of those who do not speak at all? 

It didn’t occur to me to ask these questions as a young girl raised by traditional parents in a military family, where I learned early on that “children should be seen and not heard” and that girls should not draw attention to themselves for anything but being pretty.  Girls in the 1950s were supposed to be good listeners and keep their opinions to themselves.  The fundamentalist Protestant church we attended in Colorado, where I mostly grew up, reinforced these messages.  Girls were supposed to be “good” and good girls were distinguished from bad girls by the conformity of their behavior and their modesty.  Goodness and godliness were things I aspired to in those days.  Well, some things change.

The matter of my right to speak up for myself came more strongly into my consciousness as a young woman in the 1970s.  My socialist feminist friend Merry Maisel convinced me to stop seeing my male psychologist and join the women’s movement as a way out of depression, and she and other women I began to meet gave me radical socialist and feminist writings to read.  One of those authors was the late poet Adrienne Rich, whose work helped me question my own silence and that of other women. Rich observed that she eventually had to face what she called the “underside of everything she had loved” inside those beloved books that filled her apartment.  Within those books, she said, lay the uncomfortable silences of women’s absence – “the ghosts of dead mothers, their hands clasped for centuries”, “the artists dying in childbirth”, “wise women charred at the stake”

[and so] we still have to stare into the absence of men who would not,

women who could not, speak to our life, this still unexcavated hole

called civilization, this act of translation, this half world.[ii]

Rich also examined the silences of Jews and lesbians – the other dimensions of her complicated life.  Her observations might ring true for anyone who has felt silenced because of their gender, religion, sexuality, race, or other markers of identity.  How many times have you or I felt excluded from literature, history, or the evening news?  How many times have we felt misrepresented when others tried to speak about things we live every day but they do not?  Who speaks for me, for you?

The right to express ourselves publicly is an American moral value that was enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution in the late 1700s.  Its global equivalent was imbedded in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. And, yet, the means to speak publicly often remains elusive or problematic.  The pursuit of free expression has occupied me– some would say preoccupied me –for all of my adult life. 

Nowhere was I more troubled by curtailment of speech and press than when working as a reporter for an English newspaper in Brazil in the early 1970s.  The military government censor, who sat in the corner every day in his blue short-sleeved shirt at our Rio de Janeiro office, read every word we wrote.  He decided which stories needed “revision” and which ones would not be published. For example, I had to rewrite one story on the closure of a Rio beach, which had been cordoned off without explanation to the public.  The health department officials I tried to speak to had refused to comment, but I had quoted residents along the beach who had seen sewage floating in the water.  Those comments were stricken from the story – something I have thought about recently as new stories about contaminated beaches surface in Rio just ahead of the summer 2016 Olympics.

A couple of years after I returned to the United States from Brazil, I left my short-lived career in journalism and public relations to become the administrator of a women’s shelter and rape crisis center in Olympia, Washington.  My young co-workers and I were in the vanguard of women breaking the silence on domestic and sexual violence.  We spoke to civic groups, generated education programs for public schools, trained reporters to cover the issues, and we arranged interviews for our clients to tell reporters their stories in their own words. Women thus began to gain a public voice on issues of violence, and in reframing their private torment as a political issue, they also helped to shift the blame from the victim to the perpetrator, to inspire new laws on rape and domestic violence, and to push police and prosecutors to pursue these as serious crimes.

I was recently reminded of the profound impact that the feminist anti-violence movement, which brought victimization into the light, has had on public conscience and the criminal justice system when I watched the film “Spotlight.”  The film dramatizes the Boston Globe’s brave investigative reporting of the Catholic Church’s cover up of sexual abuse by clergy – reporting that was motivated by the victims of that abuse who organized and told their stories to reporters.  The phenomenon would be repeated in dozens of cities across the US and world as victims and survivors of clergy abuse spoke out, and the press covered it.  The darkest, most memorable moment of the film for me was the end when the names of hundreds of cities in the US and other nations were scrolled across the screen starkly and in silence.

In spite of journalism’s triumph on important events like clergy abuse, Watergate and other milestone stories, all is not well in the media world.  In graduate school in the 1980s, I first became aware of the rise of media conglomeration and its impact on the public’s right to communicate. 

But, before I share how I came to my awareness of media conglomeration, let me share a brief backstory.  On a cold, snowy night in January 1980, in Edinburgh, Scotland, my traveling companion and I sat in the living room of our little hotel talking with the hotel keepers about the state of the world.  The wife commented, “that new president of yours shows that anyone in the movies can become president of the United States!”  But as she talked on, we realized she thought Americans had elected John Wayne president.  In fact, the real cowboy in the White House was Ronald Reagan, and he and his neoliberal posse would waste no time restructuring our tax codes, privatizing our government personnel system, and launching an era of deregulation that would lead to concentrated ownership in banking and other US industries, most especially communications. 

When Reagan came into office, there were 50 corporations that owned the majority of the newspapers, TV and radio stations, magazines and book publishers.  Today there are 5 or 10 media conglomerates (depending on how you count them) that own the vast number of media companies, including Internet and cellular technology.  In Reagan’s era, there were also 1750 daily newspapers, many of them family owned operations like our own Washington Post. Today, there are only 1300, and most cities now have only a single daily paper.  The Washington Post was purchased by Amazon a couple of years ago and I will say more about the impact of that in a minute.  Under local ownership, media were far more likely to cover the news we care about – in fact, there’s a name for this.  We call it “localism,” in the policy world, and it’s becoming a thing of the past.

Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon. . . these are the giant telecoms’ familiar names.  We use their services every day because our choices to do otherwise are limited.  Every president since Reagan has participated in the concentrated ownership we have today, most especially Bill Clinton who signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law.

What is less visible to us as consumers, though, is these companies’ control of public discourse and debate through a process of what my British colleague Nick Couldry[iii] refers to as the disappearance of public voice that has occurred through media conglomeration.  Instead of more open debate about issues of war, labor and public spending that we had several decades ago, today we have the few corporate voices and values that they circulate.  They have stolen our discourse and dominated our public sphere, according to Couldry and many other critical thinkers.  Those who dominate the media are the wealthiest among us.

Not all of these thinkers are aging gray hairs like me.  The Occupy Wall Street movement was short lived but its young instigators pointed out the great divide between have and have nots, what they called the 1% and the 99%.  Yet, how shall we have meaningful, sustained inquiry about our wealth divide and social class, if the 1% billionaires own all the news outlets?  How can we understand the politics of the workplace if there are no labor reporters?  I am not kidding – the last known labor journalist in America was silenced from mainstream reporting when the Washington Post fired columnist Harold Meyerson in December.  Was Meyerson’s firing a reflection of the paper’s new corporate ownership by Jeff Bezos, who has no experience in journalism, and whose company Amazon has fought – and continues to fight – its own labor battles?

Television is still the medium where most Americans get their information, but public affairs programs have mostly been replaced by talk shows, and serious economic and political news is increasingly replaced by weather, sports and sentimental stories.  The Internet, which requires a selective search for information, cannot fulfill the role of investigative journalism and the debate it generates.

In a nation where women hold few political offices and still make only 70 cents to a man’s dollar, how can we have a serious national dialogue about gender equality if women own less than 6% of the radio and television stations and sit in few numbers on the boards of media companies?  In a land where unemployment falls heaviest on our black and brown communities, where prisons are filled by black and brown men, and where the ongoing demographic shift will make us a nation with a white minority in only a few more years, how can we have a serious debate about race relations and equality if people of color own less than 4% of the radio and television stations and sit on few boards of other media companies?  Who speaks for these, the racially diverse public and the less privileged? 

Most of us don’t see the daily routine workings of conglomeration.  Let me ask, how many of us listen to the radio in our cars when driving?  Well, if it’s a broadcast station (instead of XM satellite radio), chances are we are listening to a station that belongs to Clear Channel or one of the other conglomerates.  What we hear sounds like a local station, but chances are the songs and announcers’ comments are actually coming from a remote location somewhere else in the country.  Most so-called “local” radio stations are staffed by a single technician who makes sure the signal is transmitting.  All the programming is packaged and broadcast from somewhere else.  Public concern about this situation has been minimal, but there was some flurry of protest after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed several years ago up north and there were no local stations with functioning personnel who could get the word out to local residents. 

Deregulation and the concentration of ownership in media industries and their impact on the racial minorities and women have been the focus of my academic research for more than a decade.   In 2008, my students and colleagues at Howard University and I formed the Howard Media Group[iv] to track the problems associated with conglomeration and to make our research findings available to the Federal Communications Commission and others in a policy making role.  We have a website, Facebook page, present our research at conferences and speak publicly wherever we can.  But conglomeration is an insidious enemy that stalks the very halls we occupy. 

Such was the case this past October when our Howard University President Wayne Frederick announced to the campus community he was considering placing our Howard-owned WHUT-TV up for sale through the FCC’s incentive auction.  This set our Howard Media Group in motion, crafting an argument[v] as to why this was a bad idea for our university and constituency.  WHUT-TV is the only black-owned public TV station in the US, and it serves 2-million viewers with progressive and ethnic-oriented programming not available elsewhere in our metro area.  In January, President Frederick announced that WHUT-TV is to be auctioned off all or in part, but the exact arrangements are confidential until later in the fall.[vi]  The university stands to gain a sizable windfall in profit from the deal at a time when the campus is faced with considerable debt.  But what is lost will also be sizable to Howard’s African American constituency and others like me who count on it for another point of view. 

The story doesn’t end there.  It’s not just WHUT that may disappear.  The same day that President Frederick announced he was auctioning off some or all of the WHUT spectrum, NBC, CBS and other of the nation’s largest broadcast companies also announced they would auction off the spectra they are licensed to use.  Why is this happening and why does it matter?  The large telecoms that control cellular and Internet are clamoring for more access to the electromagnetic spectrum as the nation shifts to digital communication technology.  This might seem like a logical progression for broadcast to disappear in this high-tech moment we live in.  But what is not commonly known is that the airwaves were established as a publicly owned resource by the Communications Act of 1934 and are required to be used for the “public interest, necessity and convenience.”  The FCC is not establishing regulations to facilitate local community-owned broadband services, though a couple of small communities have actually done that.  Instead, the FCC rules in favor of the huge, powerful telecom companies time and again, so that they gain more and more profit from our public resource. 

Shall we speak publicly today one tweet at a time, hoping our messages reach a wide enough circle to make a difference?  Will be rely on Facebook to tell our stories, hoping we have enough Facebook friends to share our postings with others, and they with others, and so on?  If these are our communicative tools, how shall we stimulate a reasoned exchange among a general public on matters of common concern?  In a nation founded on dissent and the pursuit of truth, we find ourselves in a conundrum as far as public expression today. 

I am thinking again of the investigative work by the Boston Globe and wondering if that kind of important work will soon be gone forever.  If so, what other crimes and misdemeanors will never come to light?  How will individual stories that signal some kind of oppression felt by others ever be voiced so that social movements can coalesce to challenge the status quo?

We might look at the online alternatives cropping up in place of our disappearing news organizations.  There’s the Pulitzer Prize winning online publication ProPublica – will it bring renewed life to journalism and citizen-oriented media?  Well, we should know that ProPublica was started by a handful of billionaires a few years ago, but has since widened its funding base.  And yet, ProPublica’s chairman of the board is the former editor of the Wall Street Journal, and its board and writers are nearly all white and strongly male in composition. Can they represent the diversity of voices we need in a rapidly shifting society?  Do they bring alternative views?

More than two decades ago, black feminist and social critic bell hooks observed that “Our families and communities are in crisis,” and she asked:  “Can we face the crisis with militancy and the will to resist and the commitment to struggle that will lead to transformation in our lives and society?”  Hooks wonders, who will answer?[vii]  And, I also wonder, who will answer our call for a national commitment for freedom of expression, the guarantee that is our birthright and moral expectation?

Who will speak for me, for you, when the channels of communication are closed to our views, our issues, our criticisms, and our lives?  The stifling effects of media conglomeration will only go away when the big telecoms are broken up, some say.  Such an idea falls in line beside calls to break up the big banks.  I believe both are ideas for our time.   



[i] Delivered as a guest sermon at the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist church, Adelphi, MD, February 7, 2016.

[ii] From Adrienne Rich. “Twenty One Love Poems,” in Dream of a Common Language, Norton & Co., 1978.

[iii] See Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism, Sage, 2010.

[iv] See Howard Media Group’s website www.howardmediagroup.org.

[v] To see the position paper Howard Media Group members wrote and circulated, see http://www.howardmediagroup.org/news/hmg-position-paper-possible-auction-whut-tv

[vi] To see Howard Media Group’s response to President Frederick’s announcement that WHUT-TV would participate in the spectrum auction, see http://www.howardmediagroup.org/news/hmg-replies-presidents-announcement-howard-will-participate-auction-12016

[vii] From bell hooks, Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics, Between the Lines Publishing, 1990.

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