National Conference for Media Reform underway in Memphis

The National Conference for Media Reform, the third gathering of its kind, is underway at the Cook Convention Center in Downtown Memphis.

References to Martin Luther King Jr. abounding, its organizers pointed to the symbolism of the event, its setting in the Bluff City and the importance of protecting a free press.

This morning's opening remarks featured strong criticism of the local media from Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who complained of media bias in the local market.

Actor and sometimes activist Danny Glover introduced journalist and documentarian Bill Moyers, who is currently heralding the opening of the three-day event.

WMCTV.COM will have updates from the event in this space.  Stay tuned.

2:10 P.M:  Juan Gonzales, columnist from the New York Daily News, is speaking now.  He is also co-host of Democracy Now (with Amy Goodman).

Gonzales says the function of the mass media is still not clearly defined.  Mass media is an essential component of democratic society, he said, during an explanation of the development of commercial media during the last century.

"It is very rare for the official press to oppose government during a time of war," he said.

Gonzalez says Donahue's removal from MSNBC - after making comments critical of the Iraqi war - was not accidental.

He says technology is outstripping content producers of the ability to produce content and that the "people" have new opportunity.

1:50 P.M.: Laura Washington from the Chicago Sun-Times and a columnist with In These Times is introducing herself and talking about racial biases she experienced as her career developed.

"The corporate media today is in really big trouble," she says.  As much as this group is critical of big media, she says, "big media" is struggling now more than ever.

Her critical points:

- Content is still king and is, in fact, more important now than ever.

- Important to have different voices on the air, in print or behind the scenes.

1:45 P.M.: Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, is speaking to a panel moderated by Phil Donahue.  The topic is media ownership by big corporate entities.

Cohen is deeply critical of pundits who he says, "virtually live on television."

Also a former producer for Donahue on MSNBC, Cohen is critical of his former employer who he says put too much pressure on balance, so much so that over-compensation was out of control.

He says shaking up the media system is the job of the grassroots group gathered at this conference.

12:30 P.M.: New Sardis Baptist Church Pastor LaSimba Gray introduced Jesse Jackson to thunderous applause.

Jackson made a number of critical remarks at the beginning of his address about President Bush and the Iraq war.

He is speaking critically about television networks for not adequately representing the diversity of their viewership.  He asked audience members where the black and latinos are in news management at the networks and asked when the last time audience members saw a farmer on the Sunday talk shows.

Jackson spoke eloquently about Dr. Martin Luther King and his last meeting with the civil rights icon shortly before his assasination.  Jackson noted how discussions in that meeting, with topics ranging from health care, jobs, and the war in Vietnam paralled many of the same issues that face many Americans today.

Jackson's speech centered around the idea that media consolidation has allowed large companies to often dictate what news is delivered to the American people.

Jackson echoed the sentiments of many in the room when he spoke of the lack of voice many people have in the current media envionment.  Jackson referenced the "Call me," advertisement in the recent election campaign between Bob Corker and Harold Ford, Jr., noting how media messages can distort views with little basis in truth.

Jackson cited examples of how major media outlets control opinions in America by the questions they ask.  He said media has been quick to ask his opinion on popular culture topics like the recent Michael Richard controversy, or the Duke lacrosse scandal, but not about the war in Iraq, even though he worked with Americans in Iraq and met Saddam Hussein.  Jackson alleged that major media outlets, not wanting to hear his unpopular opinions about the war, simply don't ask, in attempts to control the messages that are sent to consumers.

"We must fight to open the airwaves for all people," Jackson said.  "We need to regain more access to media, more local control."

The assembled crowd was very responsive to Jackson's speech, making him pause many times for applause.

10:20 A.M.:  Bill Moyers is criticizing general media, pointing to the limited ownership of the nation's most powerful media organizations by a few companies run by shareholders and business people focused on making money.

"What you see from the couch is the view from the top," he said.

The press, he says, has been a mouthpiece for powerful officials, pundits and companies.  He criticized all of the networks for not being critical enough of the war in Iraq, even though polls showed a quarter of the American people were opposed to it.

Moyers is working on a documentary called, "Buying the War," about how major media organizations were willing to act as "hand-puppets" for partisans in supporting the war effort.

"This is the moment freedom begins, the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story and it's time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself," he said, citing the pivotal Memphis garbage workers' strike that preceded MLK's assassination.

Moyers touted the influence of digital media and the opportunity for the public to tell its own story.