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Ford and the Media Democracy Movement, 1999-2008

When Susan V. Berresford assumed the Ford presidency in 1996, the foundation’s media grant making centered on content.16 Since the late 1970s, the foundation had been funding documentary filmmakers and other programmers, whose work typically appeared on public television or radio. The Eyes on the Prize (1987) civil rights series and the urban public school film Stand and Deliver (1988) were emblematic of the effort. All told, the foundation spent over $120 million on media content from the late 1970s up through 1996, the year Berresford became president.17 At the pre-Berresford Ford, content was king.

Berresford, a 25-year Ford veteran whose officer and management roles had centered on urban and women’s issues, changed this.18 As part of a foundationwide reorganization, Berresford folded the cross-program media content initiative, the Media Projects Fund (MPF), into a new Media, Arts, and Culture (MAC) unit. MAC was housed within a new Education, Media, Arts and Culture (EMAC) program—one of three overarching divisions in Berresford’s streamlined Ford.19 Though it is easy to get lost in the acronyms, the move was crucial for a number of reasons. First, the prominent place of media in the new Ford structure signaled a fresh commitment to communication issues.20 Second, media grant making was now housed in a dedicated unit, free to articulate its own goals. Under the pre-Berresford system, media funds had been dispersed to support other, nonmedia programs and projects.

Third and most important, the new MAC unit explicitly widened its mandate beyond content for public broadcasting.21 Here a key role was played by Andrea Taylor, a former journalist and founding director of the Media Projects Fund. Before she left the foundation in 1996, Taylor advised Berresford to take up media policy issues in the aftermath of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.22 Media policy, activism, and scholarship were now on the agenda.

After 1996, the foundation began to make relatively small-s cale, exploratory grants outside its traditional content-for-public-media focus. In 1997, for example, MAC launched a News Media and Diversity initiative, which included substantial funding for the study of racial bias in journalism.23 It was only in 1999, however, that the foundation established a funding “portfolio” devoted to policy and analysis, focused on Media Policy and Technology.24 The idea was to build an “enabling policy environment” for public interest media in recognition of the “systematic erosion” of legal and regulatory protections since the 1980s. One irony of the new Ford effort was that the foundation had, back in the mid- so-fate 1970s, helped nurture the market-oriented reasoning that justified the regulatory rollback of the 1980s and early 1990s—before abandoning media policy altogether in the late 1970s.25

To plan the new media policy portfolio, Ford in 1999 recruited Gigi Sohn, then director of the Media Access Project, a Washington public interest law firm that Ford had supported in the 1970s.26 As a full-time Ford consultant, Sohn also oversaw the new portfolio’s exploratory grant making.27 By 2000, new language had been added to the mission statement of the MAC unit, indicating

“support [for] the development of media policy.”28 That year, the foundation handed out 37 policy and advocacy-related grants, totaling $4.7 million—a big uptick from 1999, when the foundation spent $2 million on ten projects. The year before, in 1998, the foundation hadn’t made any policy-related grants.29

The 2000 spending did not signal a complete change of course: Ford continued to spend more on public media and journalism review subsidies than on policy—$6.7 million in 2000—but the balance was beginning to shift. Indeed, if the dollars spent on the ongoing news and diversity initiative— $5.4 million—are combined with the policy grants, Ford’s spending in 2000 was over $10 million. Among the policy grants was a highly symbolic $250,000 award to the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication, the Ford- supported group that, in the mid-1960s, had sparked the modern media reform movement.30

Sohn left Ford in early 2001 to cofound and direct Public Knowledge, a Washington nonprofit focused on intellectual property issues. The new director of the MAC unit within EMAC, Margaret Wilkerson, selected Becky Lentz, an outsider to the DC policy community, as the portfolio’s program officer. (Wilkerson was a former professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley who had served as a program officer within another EMAC unit since 1998.)31 Wilkerson’s choice of an outsider was not accidental; she was seeking someone who would reach out to marginalized constituencies and engage with scholars in the policy arena. As director of MAC—the unit that housed the media policy portfolio—Wilkerson supported Lentz’s efforts to develop a social justice agenda. Lentz also credits the vice president of the overarching EMAC division, Alison Bernstein, with backing her initiatives.32

At the time of her hire, Lentz had been working on a midcareer doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, after many years working on telecommunication issues in industry and government. Lentz’s mentor and main dissertation advisor at Texas was John Downing, a well known communication academic who writes on media justice and alternative media issues.33 Before joining Ford, Lentz had conducted research for the university’s Telecommunications and Policy Institute, and her dissertation (completed in 2008, soon after her departure from Ford) focused on the history of regulatory debates over new communication technologies.34

Lentz directed Ford’s media policy initiative over the next six years, from 2001 to 2007.35 By all accounts, she was the central figure in the foundation’s involvement in the media democracy movement that flourished over these same years.36 Ford’s annual reports during this period provide detail on the dozens of direct grants made by Lentz’s Electronic Media Policy portfolio. All told, Lentz dispersed over $20 million dollars during her six-year tenure—making Ford the media democracy movement’s most important bankroller by far.37

More significant than the dollar figure, arguably, was the range of grant making under Lentz. When the Ford intervention picked up around 1999 under Sohn, the media reform community was relatively insular and centered on a small number of chronically underfunded, Washington, DC-based policy groups focused on legal and regulatory issues. Many of these groups were formed in the 1970s with Ford’s support but were forced to scramble for scarce dollars in the 1980s and early 1990s after Ford stopped funding media policy work.

Under Sohn, Ford had already begun to fund these Washington nonprofits again. But with Lentz’s appointment in 2001, the Ford grants also began to flow to two other constituencies that had been largely absent from media reform circles before 2000: media justice advocates and academics. The other striking feature of Ford funding over the last decade is that in each arena—policy, grassroots activism, and scholarship—radical groups and individuals were funded alongside reformists and mainstream liberals.

It is helpful to divide Lentz’s tenure at Ford into two periods, the first stretching from her arrival in September 2001 to February 2004, when Ford gave formal approval to the portfolio under the new “Electronic Media Policy” name.38 (Until then, the portfolio had existed in Ford’s version of purgatory, with funding but no official sanction; it was, says Lentz, “never clear whether the foundation would continue to commit funds.”)39 The second period ran from the approval in 2004 until Lentz’s departure in 2007.40 In the first period, Lentz continued to fund media policy groups. But she also awarded a series of grants to support conferences and information-gathering reports, which in turn informed her funding strategy for the field. Over these years her goal became nothing less than the self-conscious seeding of a bona fide social movement.41 Recall that in 2001 she had encountered a reform movement centered on a small, Washington, DC-based policy community without a popular constituency and with very weak ties to university-based researchers. With input from the gatherings and reports that she commissioned, Lentz developed a plan to cultivate both grassroots media activists and committed scholars, with the aim of joining these to the existing policy community within an overarching social movement.42

An early initiative to fund a grassroots, beyond-the-Beltway conference at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee turned out to be a pivotal moment in the history of media activism. The choice of Highlander, the venerable labor and civil rights organizing school, was deliberate and signaled Lentz’s interest in connecting media policy-making to social justice traditions. Held in August 2002, the Highlander Media and Society Summer Camp— which came to be known as the Highlander Media Justice Gathering—gave birth to the “media justice” terminology that would, over the following years, become the key self-descriptor for media activists working from a social justice perspective.43 At Highlander and thereafter, newly christened “media justice” activists would identify with the civil rights movement and with historically marginalized communities more broadly. By design, about half of the 21 Highlander participants were people of color, and issues of race—linked as an advocacy issue to the predominantly white policy-making community—were prominent.44 According to the widely circulated report authored by the conference organizer, Nan Rubin, a “key strategic decision” was made to shift the terms of media organizing from “‘Media Democracy,’ to ‘Media Justice,’” in part to “put our efforts on the same level as other social justice and human rights organizing, and give us a new vocabulary to work with in terms of defining our various goals.”45 On the strength of the label, the nascent personal networks formed at Highlander, and Ford funding to come, activists would soon be referring to a full-fledged media justice movement.46

Lentz, by helping to spark self-consciousness in the geographically scattered media justice community, had also inadvertently hardened an already existing divide between grassroots activists and the Washington policy community. Her work over the next two years, in collaboration with select grantees, was to try to bridge these two constituencies. The tension between the two camps was (and is) complex, deriving from the policy community’s legal-technical focus, real and perceived ideological differences, racial and generational gaps, competition over scarce resources, a national versus local frame, and center-periphery inequities.47 Already at the Highlander gathering, media justice activists were defining themselves against the Washington public interest groups.48

The Media Justice Network, founded in 2003 by over a dozen activist groups representing communities of color, soon issued “A Declaration of Media Independence.” In an unmistakable reference to the Washington reform groups, the declaration stated, “We are interested in more than paternalistic conceptualizations of ‘access,’ more than paper rights, more than taking up space in a crowded boxcar along the corporate information highway.”49 Aliza Dichter, an activist and researcher supported by Ford, observed soon after that the Media Justice Network “has established itself in contrast and opposition to the existing field of media reformers and advocates, calling for a movement that is grounded in a power analysis of race, class and gender.”50

A November 2003 article in The Nation by Makani Themba-Nixon, one of the Media Justice Network founders, and Rubin, the main organizer of the Highlander gathering, became an often cited founding document for the media justice community.51 The article, titled “Speaking for Ourselves,” carried a charged subtitle: “A movement led by people of color seeks media justice—not just media reform.” Themba-Nixon and Rubin, reflecting the emerging media justice frame, stressed the injuries inflicted by media coverage of marginalized communities and point to a “growing group of activists” who are “developing race-, class- and gender-conscious visions for changing media content and structure.” The article referenced not only the Highlander gathering but also the Youth Media Council’s successful 2002 campaign against a San Francisco- based Clear Channel station, which soon became a mnemonic touchstone for the movement.52 Cyril Malkia, the Youth Media Council’s young, queer African American director, emerged as a major figure in the media justice community.53

Media justice advocates, including Themba-Nixon and Rubin, also sought to claim the legacy of the United Church of Christ’s landmark civil rights activism of the mid-1960s. The claim was especially significant since the culminating court case in the UCC campaign established public interest groups’ legal standing before the FCC and hence is typically cited as the founding moment in the modern media reform movement. “Nearly forty years ago,” Themba-Nixon and Rubin open their article, “a few determined civil rights activists at the United Church of Christ and the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi, decided to take on the treatment of blacks by the television. They drew a straight line from the racism they faced on the streets to the racism they faced in their living rooms when they turned on the TV.” The “lobbyists and scholars leading the current efforts at media reform,” they continue, are focused on campaigns “which are a far cry from the issues of racism and unfair treatment that launched the earlier movement,” referring to the UCC. Media justice activists, they conclude, are “going back to the movement’s roots.”54

Some of the tension between policy advocates and media justice activists came out in reference to Free Press, the successful media policy nonprofit founded in 2002 by media scholar Robert McChesney and Josh Silver. Free Press, which played a prominent role in organizing resistance to the FCC’s proposed relaxation of media ownership rules in 2003, had burst on the scene and quickly occupied the movement’s “media reform” mindspace. Even though the fight against the FCC mobilized a broad coalition across the media democracy movement—and ended in a successful 2004 court challenge—Free Press’s self-appointed centrality attracted sustained criticism from media justice advo- cates.55 The Free Press—organized National Conferences for Media Reform became “flashpoints for questions of voice and representation within the movement.”56 It is no accident that the Themba-Nixon and Rubin Nation article ran alongside a cover story on the FCC fight coauthored by McChesney.

Soon after her arrival at Ford in 2001, Lentz had sponsored a pair of interview- based stock-taking and information-gathering studies, which helped lay the groundwork for her own 2004 internal Ford proposal for an “Electronic Media Policy” portfolio. The aim of these studies was to identify strategies to inform her plan to catalyze and support a full-fledged, media-oriented social movement. Among other things, the studies needed to address the divisions between the media justice and policy communities and identify strategies to incorporate university-based scholars into an umbrella movement. In 2002, Lentz awarded a grant to the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning to direct a “Listening Project,” an expansive study of the existing field. The report, published in 2004 as The Making of a Social Movement?, was explicitly oriented around finding common ground among the movement’s fractured constituencies: policy advocates, scholars, grassroots organizers, and funders.57 OMG, which based the report on interviews with 71 stakeholders from 59 organizations spanning the movement’s spectrum, employed carefully chosen language to signal inclusiveness.58 The report not only refers to “existing tensions . . . particularly apparent between those organizations doing local organizing (primarily the media justice and activist crowd) and those working in Washington, DC,” but also frames the division as surmountable in the service of the larger movement’s goals.59 In order to “fully maximize the movement’s potential,” the report calls for “constructive conversations and forums,” capacity-building for activist groups, the cultivation of a popular constituency for media issues, and more diversity in the movement’s leadership—in order to “strengthen and catalyze a movement.”60

The “Listening Project” report, in its effort to build “bridges across real and imaginary boundaries that exist in the field,” also called for new intermediary organizations.61 In 2003, Lentz provided the seed money for one such intermediary, the Center for International Media Action (CIMA). The New York- based CIMA, while clearly rooted in the media justice community, had as its explicit mission to connect and support “diverse voices and actors in media reform, media production and media accountability.”62 Lentz commissioned CIMA’s Aliza Dichter to interview participants in, and review documents from, the promising but ultimately ineffective media reform efforts of the 1990s. In her 2005 report Dichter drew many of the same lessons as the “Listening Project,” with particular attention to the movement’s past missteps.63

These two Ford-funded reports were joined by a third study coauthored by media justice advocate Nan Rubin, published in 2003 and sponsored by National Network of Grantmakers. The report, directed at the foundation community, was devoted to building a “persuasive and compelling argument for increasing donor and foundation funding for a wide range of media activi- ties.”64 Especially in this early stretch of her tenure, Lentz says she devoted about a third of her time to educating the philanthropic community, since the bulk of funding had been devoted to content.65 As founder of the Working Group on Electronic Media Policy at a funders’ consortium, the Grantmak- ers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), Lentz organized three Ford-hosted sessions bringing together funders and movement actors in early 2005.66 She served, too, as the first chair of the Technology Funders Collaborative, an international grantmaking group on IT issues, and commissioned a 2003 report on grantmaking strategies.67

All of this frenetic fact-finding and strategy development in Lentz’s initial years at Ford culminated in a Program Officer Memo (POM)—an internal Ford proposal to formalize her portfolio. Though the POM was not formally approved until early 2004, Lentz had already been disbursing media reform grants in accordance with the strategy outlined in the memo, drawing on an annual budget of three to four million dollars—a funding level that would remain more-or-less constant throughout her six-year tenure.68 The POM is, in effect, a persuasive document—a pitch to Lentz’s superiors at Ford, especially Wilkerson and Bernstein.69 The memo opens with a muscular account of the “systematic erosion of policies that protect the public interest,” in the federal communication policy-making arena. The deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996—the legislation that led to the portfolio’s creation in 1999—makes an appearance in the first paragraph, and the already-iconic 2003 FCC ownership rule changes are invoked as a “recent example” of waning public interest protections.70 Lentz highlights the disparity between industry lobbyists and the “small ecology of under-funded institutions” devoted to the public interest.71 She observes that most media-related philanthropy underwrites content creation and neglects “more systemic issues”: “policies that shape and govern the production, distribution, exhibition and exchange of information and ideas in society using electronic media resources.”72 To support her case, Lentz briefly summarizes the other major foundations’ initiatives and concludes that Ford is “unique” in its policy-related grant making.73

Throughout the memo, Lentz carefully navigates internal Ford politics. She pays homage to Ford’s legacy of public media support and invokes the foundation’s mid-1960s grants to the United Church of Christ.74 She also acknowledges Ford’s two other New York—based media portfolios, directed by fellow program officers, and argues that her portfolio “complements” these others “by building an enabling policy environment for media in the public interest which include but are not limited to public interest media such as PBS and NPR.”75 Her new name for the portfolio—“Electronic Media Policy”—was chosen in part to claim turf distinct from the two others.76 Lentz’s decision to stress social justice not only reflected her own commitments but also dovetailed nicely with Ford’s longstanding attention to social justice initiatives.77 Lentz maneuvered adroitly within the opportunity structure that she inherited at Ford.

The memo observes that there is no widespread popular constituency for media policy reform and invokes the nascent media justice community that Lentz had helped cultivate. She refers to the Highlander gathering, citing The Nation article, as the “‘coming out party’ for media justice work in the U.S.” The memo mentions the issues raised at Highlander and after, including the lack of racial and age diversity among movement leaders, and calls attention to the media justice community’s relative marginalization:

Until very recently, the dominant voices in the emerging field of electronic media policy reform have been highly specialized public interest lawyers and high profile academics or journalists who interact mostly with Washington and university elites as well as national press. Non-experts, ordinary citizens, and grassroots groups have had little voice in this field because public interest advocacy has been monopolized by these legal and technical professionals. Also until very recently, few social justice organizers, labor organizations, arts and culture institutions, civil rights coalitions, and environmental justice groups have taken up issues in this field because the “harms” of deregulatory media policies have not been adequately explained or publicized.78

In keeping with the “Listening Project” report, the memo’s essential thread is a call to “support the evolution of a consensual definition of the public interest to unite disparate efforts.” Until advocates find a “common language and a shared cause,” writes Lentz, the movement’s efforts will “continue to be disconnected, fragmented, and under-funded.”79

With these arguments as the backdrop, the memo proposes three goals for the portfolio: (1) to strengthen public interest advocacy institutions; (2) to activate and unite diverse constituencies; and (3) to build strategic knowledge.80 The first goal is targeted at supporting advocacy organizations, including capacitybuilding for outside-the-Beltway organizations. The second goal focuses on the field uniting—“more engagement between social justice advocates and media reform groups.” The last goal is centered on research, with the explicit aim to support university-based scholarship that builds “a sustainable case for public interest values such as diversity, freedom of expression, and universal access to electronic media.”81 The memo, in short, is a blueprint for Lentz’s more expansive vision for a broad-based social movement—a vision that self-consciously stretches the funding agenda in place during the brief, Washington-centric Sohn period.

The approval of the POM memo marked the beginning of what I am calling Lentz’s second phase, which lasted until her departure from Ford in 2007. Though many of the second-phase initiatives, and the thinking behind them, were already in place before the POM approval, the bulk of the funding and activity occurred after the memo was officially endorsed.82 Since the fact-finding reports and Lentz’s memo placed a special emphasis on intermediary grantees, I highlight three major grant recipients, each of which passed along Ford dollars to specific groups and projects: the Media Justice Fund, the Media Democracy Fund, and the Social Science Research Council.83

Lentz had seeded the Media Justice Fund (MJF) with $500,000 back in 2003—in concert with the founding of the Media Justice Network in the aftermath of Highlander—and supplied another $2.4 million to the entity through 2007.84 The MJF, which closed its doors at the end of 2009, was operated by the Funding Exchange, a coalition of 16 community foundations that support a range of progressive activism.85 Relative to other Ford efforts, the MJF prioritized smaller grants to grassroots social justice groups, many devoted to empowering voiceless communities in specific regions.86 The Fund’s explicit commitment to social and media justice signaled its radical, small “d” democratic orientation; in keeping with the media justice framework, the MJF claimed to work in the “spirit” of the landmark 1966 United Church of Christ case.87 According to an evaluative report, the MJF “broadened the social justice movement infrastructure, and has been especially successful at involving marginalized communities and populations in work that has been the historical domain of a fairly insular circle of Beltway-focused actors.”88 The Fund’s typical grants ranged from $15,000 to $25,000, awarded to progressive groups like the low-power FM radio advocate Prometheus Radio Project and the People’s Production House.89

Lentz has also supported the Media Democracy Fund (MDF), a collaborative effort involving many other liberal and progressive foundations. The fund was started by Helen Brunner of the Albert A. List Foundation, who convinced List—then spending out its endowment—to seed a “Media Action Fund” in 2003.90 The fund was relaunched in 2006 as the Media Democracy Fund, with Ford supplying over half of its $1.2 million budget.91 Under Brunner’s widely praised leadership, the fund has supported some of the same grassroots advocacy groups that received MJF funding, in addition to established, Washington, DC-based policy groups like Free Press and the Future of Music Coalition.92

The third and final grant recipient I touch on here is the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which has since 2005 received $2.4 million to fund its Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Public Sphere program, directed by Joe Karaganis in cooperation with the Ford-funded Center for International Media Action.93 As we have seen, the idea of drawing scholars into the media reform movement’s orbit was an early Lentz goal, reflected in commissioned studies and a pair of scholarly convenings (in 2003 and 2006).94 The purpose of the SSRC grants was to stimulate cooperation between legal and media scholars and the broader media democracy movement, inclusive of media justice activists.95 Academics’ slow research pace, notoriously dense writing style, and perceived indifference to on-the-ground developments were obstacles that the SSRC program was designed to challenge.96 The Ford grants have supported an online Media Research Hub, dozens of collaborative academic-activist grants, student internships with activist groups, papers and reports on media policy and activism, and scholars’ participation in the broader National Conferences for Media Reform.97 One 2008 collaborative grant, for example, brought University of Louisville researchers together with Kentucky Jobs for Justice to study Internet access in minority Louisville neighborhoods.98

These three intermediary grant recipients (MJF, MDF, and the SSRC) represent a fraction of the overall Ford spending on media democracy issues since 2000. Dozens of direct grants were awarded over this period, to grassroots activist groups, Washington policy nonprofits, and university-based academics alike.99 The Ford funding was strikingly ecumenical, by ideological, tactical, and topical measures.

The media democracy movement flourished in no small part thanks to Ford intervention. The funding mattered most, of course, but so did the alliancebuilding incentives written into the grants. Lentz’s success depended, in turn, on the growing movement; it is impossible, of course, to tease out causality. Still, there’s something remarkable about this turn of events. In the 1950s, recall, Ford underwrote Cold War propaganda research. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the foundation supported a few liberal media reform organizations but funded market-oriented research too. With a changed political climate, an emergent social movement, and the efforts of a few individuals—Lentz and Berresford among them—Ford recast itself as an agent of media justice.

Susan Berresford stepped down as president in 2007, and soon after Lentz left the foundation to finish her dissertation and, in early 2009, to take up a post at McGill University.100 It is too early to tell whether the new president, Luis Ubinas, or Lentz’s successor as program officer, Jenny Toomey, will maintain Ford’s media democracy commitments. As part of a sweeping 2008 reorganization, Ubinas established nine “core issues,” one of which (“Freedom of Expression”) is dedicated to media-related issues.101 Total funding for media, arts, and culture declined from $93.3 million in 2007 to $60.7 million in 2008—a 35 percent drop-off.102 Still, many media reform groups continued to receive funding in 2008 under Toomey, a former indie rock musician and former director of the Future of Music Coalition.103 The departures of Berresford and Lentz may augur badly for the media democracy movement—an irony, if true, given the relatively progressive media policy orientation of the Obama administration.

 
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