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Foundations for Change

The philanthropic foundation comes off as an unlikely agent of social change. Foundations are, after all, constrained by law and by restrictions put in place by benefactors. Foundations are also—the big ones at least—hierarchical and many-l ayered. In theory, authority flows from a board of trustees, through to a board-appointed president, on down to a staff that awards grants and runs programs.

In practice, however, there is often a great deal of officer-level autonomy. Big foundations’ official flow charts disguise the on-the-ground freedom that some program officers maintain. It’s also true that newly installed presidents, depending on the foundation, are expected to launch initiatives and reshape existing programs—within limits. Crucially, those limits aren’t just internal— board oversight, say—but are also set by conditions outside, like the national political climate.4

The philanthropic foundation is, in short, a human institution, made up of real people whose convictions matter. The broader conditions of politics matter too. Foundations might be—have been—servants of the state or handmaidens of capital. But they need not be. My case in point is the Ford Foundation’s media-democracy agenda over the last ten years. Although substantial grantmaking in this area didn’t get under way until 1999, the roots of the initiative date back to 1996, when Susan Berresford became the foundation’s first female president. Berresford reorganized the foundation’s program structure, with special attention to Ford’s media-related grant making. Though uninvolved in its day-to-day operations, she was responsible for the original commitment to the media-policy agenda as well as the ongoing financial support. Berresford’s patronage mattered.

Becky Lentz was another key figure in Ford’s media initiatives. Lentz, a veteran information services professional and midcareer doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, took a leave from her graduate studies to head up, beginning in 2001, the Ford “portfolio” responsible for most of the relevant grant making.5 Lentz was embedded in a network of scholar-activists committed to media democratization as part of a broader social justice agenda. Over her six-year tenure at Ford, Lentz drew on this community for advice and strategic direction. More than anyone else, it was Lentz who gave shape to the foundation’s on-lhe-ground interventions in the media and democracy field. Lentz mattered too.

The initiative wouldn’t have happened—at least in the form that it took— without, however, certain enabling conditions. The end of the Cold War in 1989 was especially important. Since the early 1950s, right-wing politicians have assailed (and periodically investigated) the big US foundations, and Ford in particular, for alleged sympathy for socialism and, by extension, the country’s enemies. In a Cold War political culture that exposed left-leaning individuals and institutions to sometimes virulent red-baiting, Ford and the others charted an often cautious course.6 Skittish trustees and predictable flack from the Right led foundations like Ford to tread carefully around initiatives whose social justice goals might be taken up as evidence of disloyalty.7 After 1989, some of this pressure was lifted.

The end of the Cold War was important for another reason: the blurring of the Left’s once-sharp divide between reformers and radicals. The collapse of “actually existing socialism” occurred in the midst of an embrace of market- based solutions to public policy problems. Market fundamentalism, especially in Britain and the United States since the early 1980s, had justified policies that benefitted the wealthy at the expense of the social safety net and the poor. The US ideological spectrum, at least in electoral politics, had already shifted rightward by the time the country’s Cold War enemy buckled. In the face of the market juggernaut—and with no real socialist alternative—the traditional enmity between reformers and radicals lost some of its edge. If the word “liberal” was, for the New Left of the 1960s for example, a pejorative, the post- 1989 resistance to market fundamentalism served to rally liberals and radicals alike around concepts like strong democracy. The always-fractious Left was to some extent united by a common enemy.

In the years after 1989, the media’s role in a healthy democracy took on special importance for this broader Left. An emerging media democracy movement enlisted the energies of both radicals and reformers—hard leftists alongside defenders of mainstream journalism.8 The media democracy question, certainly by the late 1990s, was widely perceived to be a major (perhaps the major) front in the battle to halt the market’s momentum. The movement’s growth was fueled not only by both threats and opportunities (the ongoing efforts to rollback public interest protections) but also by the democratic promise of new technologies like the Internet. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened a number of public-interest limits on media companies, started a wave of industry consolidation. Wall Street demands for high profits led to increasingly underfunded newsrooms dependent on handouts from public relations firms. The creeping commercialization of the Internet, alongside uneven access to its benefits, also galvanized activists, scholars, and policy advocates to join the effort. The movement had attracted enough broad-based public support to stop, in 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from further relaxing ownership limits.9

Defensive efforts like these were joined by a number of alternative media experiments, some of which, like the various Indymedia sites, harnessed new digital technologies. Other projects have drawn on “old” technologies like radio: since the late 1990s, a number of groups fought, and ultimately won, FCC approval for low-power FM (LPFM) stations.10 Since at least 2003, major movement actors have campaigned to establish a “net neutrality” principle of Internet regulation, to prevent big media companies from discriminating among web content providers. Some of the same groups have sought to carve out more space, especially online, for the public domain in the name of creativity and shared culture.11 On the international stage, activists who coalesced around the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in the late 1990s have articulated a “right to communicate” alongside other human rights claims.12

Dozens of US-based groups—some, like the Media Access Project, venerable but resurgent, and many others, like Reclaim the Media, recently founded—make up a loose coalition of public interest nonprofits that work on one or more of these issues. Though US media reform efforts have been under way, with varying intensity, since at least the 1930s, the surge of activity since the mid-1990s is unprecedented.13 There is, to a significant degree, movement self-consciousness, and growing public awareness of, and involvement in, the movement’s campaigns.14 There are real fissures, to be sure, reflecting tactical differences, clashes over priorities, competition for scarce funds, and disputes between Washington, DC-based policy advocates and grassroots activists. Indeed, the movement’s name itself is contested terrain, with word choice—media reform versus media justice, for example—fraught with symbolic import.15 (The broader post-1989 rapprochement of reformers and radicals that I alluded to earlier was partial and tentative, and remains so.) Still, many of the constituent groups engage in a mix of reform-oriented advocacy and alternative media projects. The National Conferences for Media Reform—there have been four since 2003—gather together thousands of actors from all corners of the movement.

The Ford Foundation, as I detail later, has been the single largest funder of the media democracy movement, at least since 1999. Ford dollars have seeded efforts across the movement’s typical divides—from radical media justice work by and for the undervoiced to inside-the-Beltway lobbying. For now, I want to emphasize a different point: the Ford initiatives were only feasible in the context of a preexisting movement for media reform—even if the movement that Ford encountered was atrophied from funding neglect, with no popular constituency. Foundations are pliable, up to a point. Individuals like Lentz exercised autonomy, but it was freedom opened up by a changed social backdrop: new post-1989 political conditions and the reawakening media democracy movement itself. Ford may have enabled media reform, but media reform enabled Ford first.

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