Tell us the truth

Thursday, November 13th, 2003

Michael Powell may have helped launch a bigger firestorm of dissent than his old man, Colin, did this year — no small achievement for a low-profile federal bureaucrat.

And he has certainly inspired more rock tours — one, that I know of, but it’s awesome. Dangerous, even. Rock and politics are back together, uniting, in the words of Bill Moyers, to save the soul of democracy. You have wrought a movement, Chairman Powell.

I saw the spark ignite in Madison, Wis., on the first weekend in November, at the far too soberly named National Conference on Media Reform. Call it, maybe, the National Conference on Seizing the Conversation, or even the National Conference on Making Sure a Body Bag Isn’t Called a Transfer Tube.

Whatever you call it, 1,400 of us showed up for it, for the most part seething with outrage and incredulity over a government with an agenda impervious to our voices and a mass media with too little grit to sound the alarm — a celebrity-saturated, hypercommercialized media unable even to acknowledge the depth of dismay in the land, over the policies of an unelected president who has declared war on the world.

Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has given this anger a focus by ramming through rule changes this year all but guaranteeing monopolistic concentration of power in the national media and ushering in, as Moyers, one of numerous speakers and presenters at the conference, put it, an “alliance of a partisan press, right-wing government and powerful economic interests.”

This “marriage of media and state is worse than the arranged marriage of church and state,” he said. “Never have hand and glove fitted so comfortably — secrecy in government, the rise of megamedia corporations.

“If free and independent journalism is suffocated, the oxygen goes out of democracy.”

The three-day conference, sponsored by Free Press, an organization founded by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, was wide-ranging and intensely informative, serving up nonstop panel discussions, film screenings and exhibitions on everything from low-power radio and “the future of music that matters” to free trade to wartime propaganda.

It was an intimate poke into the crannies of neglect. You could hear, for instance, John Freeman of the Southern Development Federation report from St. Landry Parish, La. — “the birthplace of zydeco” — on how activists got the local radio station to begin playing the region’s homegrown music. They launched their own station and began competing with Citadel Broadcasting Co. for listeners.

This was a gathering of “the silenced majority,” who are demanding their say in the big debate. As huge media outlets trivialize even the war —“Jessica! Nude photos!” — Vermont’s Bernie Sanders wondered, why has no one bothered to put the U.S. invasion of Iraq into historical context?

“We supported the contras in Nicaragua,” he said. “Maybe the press should be examining how successful that intervention was. In Nicaragua, 50 percent of the people are unemployed today. Children are starving.”

Finally, the hope and outrage were given shape by rock and roll, by blues and rap, by the music of democracy. The conference was the launching pad for the Tell Us the Truth tour, which is coming soon to a city near you.

Billy Bragg, Lester Chambers, Tom Morello (the Nightwatchman) and Boots Riley lit up two nights of the conference with an electrifying convergence of musical forms, most memorably, perhaps, with their rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s old gospel song “People Get Ready.”

People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

This is the humanity express, barreling out of the era of Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, into the aftermath of 9/11 and another time of peril and change.