The guest list read like a who’s who of journalism: a J-School dean, the Associated Press Executive Director, a former TIME magazine Editor-in-Chief, publishers, professors…and Walter Cronkite. The audience was probably more illustrious than your average lecture-hall crowd, too. Only one person there had any executive power to do anything, but free speech is always good, right?
The “Media Reform” buzzword has been bandied about liberally in the last few years, but even those leading lights of journalism weren’t able to come up with a definition of what it really means at today’s Media Reform conference, a succession of panels convened in the J-School’s third floor auditorium. The venerable Walter Cronkite, speaking to a reverential silence that overlooked a decline in his diction since his days on the air, intoned against the “sound bite culture that turns political campaigns into political theater,” while Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen warned of a “crisis of democracy” brought on by media consolidation (although his own Seattle Times company owns six papers in two states). The main contrarian, Northeastern University professor Ben Compaine, argued for a pure free-market approach–but noted that he felt like “Ahmadinejad walking into a synagogue in Tel Aviv” sitting in a room full of public interest-oriented scriveners.
The best speech of the afternoon–surprise!–came from the one government bureaucrat in attendance, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who railed against the legacy of former Commissioner and local media bogeyman Michael Powell. “When no longer required by law to serve communities…it’s not a surprise that viewers and listeners become the products that they sell to the advertisers,” he said. “Stockholders have totally trumped stakeholders.” The red-tied Commissioner, in keeping with the other panelists, admitted that he didn’t know the answers, suggesting the appointment of a blue ribbon commission to figure it all out.
Slate‘s Jack Shafer, as per usual, injected a jolt of skepticism into the fervor for protection of the little guy. “When I hear media reform, my bullshit detector goes off,” he said, holding a can of Coke (regular). His take: media reform should really be called media regulation, since it almost always take the form of rules restricting the industry. That stance put him in the camp of both Compaine and former TIME Editor-in-Chief (now an advisory to the Carlyle Group) Norman Pearlstine, who advocated more open entry into publishing and broadcasting rather than corporation breakups.