The Quest for Democratic Media

“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

This quote from James Madison inspires the title for the new book by Mark Lloyd, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and telecommunications policy expert. Former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani joined Lloyd at an event at the Center for American Progress last week to discuss his book, Prologue to a Farce: Communication and Democracy in America.

“The ongoing American experiment in democracy is failing, and it is failing because we have allowed our public sphere to be dominated by the interests Madison called merchants,” Lloyd read from the book. “The ideals of political equality and a government that operates and responds to the informed consent of the governed are for most Americans only romantic notions.”

Lloyd and Tristani explored the problem of commercial domination over media outlets and discussed how the current state of telecommunications policy affects civic engagement. “During the Clinton administration when I was on the FCC, commercialism still ruled the world,” said Tristani. “I came into the FCC right after the enactment of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was supposed to promote competition—which was supposed to benefit consumers—and I think in the long run has done us a lot of harm [because] it allowed an already consolidated media to be further consolidated.”

Tristani also voiced her views on speech issues brought to light by such recent incidents as Don Imus’ racial slurs. “We need to be talking about the people, the companies—CBS, ABC, NBC—who are hiring Imus [and others] to say those things, because they hired them to say those things,” she said, tying it back to Prologue to a Farce, “which talks about the tolerance for monopolies and the tolerance for consolidation that has permeated our public policy since the middle of the 19th century.”

She discussed how Americans can help determine the content of their media, particularly when they object to what they hear on their radios, see on their televisions, and read in their newspapers. “There are a lot of things Americans can do if they’re concerned about this: complain to the companies that sell this, complain to the advertiser, complain to their legislators, to see if there is something you can do that’s constitutionally friendly.”

Lloyd and Tristani remain hopeful about the direction of telecommunications in America. The two went on to talk about some of the positive examples of democratic media in this country.

They discussed the Chicago Access Network, a public access cable station that works actively toward a balance in programming. The station works hard to involve the community in free speech and political engagement. Another example comes from Click TV in Tacoma, WA. Click TV works to reduce the cost of telecommunications services for people in Tacoma. The telecommunications service presents a challenge to the mainstream industry in Tacoma, Seattle, and other cities in Washington state.

Lloyd said, “What we really need in this country is… a competitive alternative to commercial broadcasting” that would be supported by the public and fully financed.

Voicing the main theme of his book, Lloyd discussed our country’s movement away from democratic media. “Our philosophy, our lived practice of public policy looks very different from what we hoped for,” he said. “If we have not become the farce [of which] Madison warned us, we are certainly not the democracy that we hoped for—that we dreamed.”

For more information about the event, see: