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Acting on the Cultural Environment

Media Carta
Kalle Lasn, Adbusters Magazine, Canada

Abstract: What if ad campaigns attempted to challenge consumption, advertising and corporate agendas? Maybe television stations would refuse to run the ad campaign altogether. That's the story recounted in this article, which argues that in North America today it's often hard to speak up against the sponsor. A big part of personal freedom is the freedom to communicate: our intellectual freedom has evolved from the right to hold opinions to the right to expression to freedom of the press. Now we need to fight for the legal guarantee of a redefined right of expression, one that's toothsome and enforceable. The right to communicate -- to access -- is the final, logical step. Networks' refusal to sell airtime works against the right to communicate, and reveals what may be a glaring vulnerability in the media-corporate alliance: they are breaking international law.

Twenty five years ago, when North America had not quite lost all of its innocence and idealism, I was living in a film commune, churning out experimental short films - little 5- to 10-minute cultural commentaries. We were infatuated with film and its power to change the world. We showed our shorts to small groups around Vancouver for a couple of years, but yearned for wider exposure. It occurred to us to condense some of our most incisive efforts into 30- and 60-second TV spots and air them as paid "uncommercial" messages. In those days, a local 30-second timeslot after midnight cost only about $50. Even we could afford that. I walked into the CBC network headquarters with a few hundred dollars in my pocket and tried to buy time. The sales department was on the second floor of a tawdry downtown building. I remember feeling a bit intimidated and eventually being laughed out of the office. "That's not a commercial" the guy in charge of sales giggled as he looked over our storyboards.

I thought it was strange that a citizen willing to pay couldn't buy airtime on Canada's public broadcaster. I sent a letter to the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Committee - Canadian broadcasting's governing body - asking about the rights of citizens to access the public airwaves. I got a very polite letter back saying basically that the whole area was murky, that networks had some rights, individuals had some rights, the law was inconclusive on this point, yadda yadda. And that was that. I moved on to a career in documentary film making and the free speech issue slipped to the back of my mind.

Until 1989, when British Columbia's timber industry, its image rapidly tarnishing, launched a multi-million dollar PR campaign. Bus-stop posters went up all over Vancouver and every night when I switched on my TV, there was another smooth pitch explaining the wonderful job the industry was doing managing the forests. The slick series of spots, produced by one of the biggest ad agencies in town, always ended with the upbeat reassurance that we British Columbians need have no fear. Our forests were in good hands. We'd have "Forests Forever." The slogan spread like an infovirus throughout the province.

Environmentalists were outraged. The industry was bare-faced lying. In truth, the forests of B.C. and Pacific Northwest have been appallingly managed. They've been mined. For years the timber companies, whose executives seem to share the opinion that a tree is just an unemployed log, cut too much old-growth too fast and without proper public consultation, scarring the hills with clearcuts and contaminating salmon runs seven ways to the spotted owl. There have been mass demonstrations and civil disobedience about this. It's a big issue.

So a group of us-including myself, wilderness cinematographer Bill Schmalz and a few other environmental activists-came up with our own campaign. "Mystical Forests," tried to tell the other side of the story: the industry was logging at an unsustainable rate and the future of our whole province was now in jeopardy.

But when we tried to buy airtime for our ad, the TV stations turned us down. At the CBC, that same guy who had laughed me out of his office 15 years earlier again wouldn't take our money. (This time he did not laugh.) He refused "Mystical Forests" even while he continued to sell airtime to the Forests Forever campaign. It seemed ludicrous, undemocratic. It made us furious.

We mobilized. We issued press releases, hounded journalists, protested in front of forest company headquarters. There were editorials in the local papers, TV news coverage, appearances on radio talk shows - and suddenly the forest industry was backpedalling. Their Forests Forever promise caved under scrutiny. They looked bad. We'd popped their multi-million dollar PR bubble in their faces. And suddenly the CBC was on the defensive, too. Hundreds of British Columbians phoned their head office demanding to know why environmentalists couldn't buy airtime but the forest industry could. Then, unexpectedly, the CBC buckled. They never did air our spot, but they pulled the Forests Forever campaign - a major loss of face for the industry and a big boost for the environmental side. Many British Columbians - some for the first time - started having doubts about what was really happening in their forests, and, more to the point, seriously questioning what was being sold on TV as truth.

It was this heady mood of having turned the tables on the forest industry, the euphoria of beating them at their own game on a budget of zero, that gave birth to the Media Foundation. We decided to produce more TV campaigns about seminal issues of our time, and insist on our right to purchase commercial airtime for them. And we started the media activist networking magazine Adbusters. We produced "Autosaurus" (a takedown of the auto industry involving a rampaging dinosaur made of scrap cars), "Obsession Fetish" (a critique of the fashion industry featuring a bulimic Kate Moss lookalike), "TV Turnoff Week" (a yearly campaign encouraging TV abstinence), and a Buy Nothing Day spot - and all of them were systematically, repeatedly rejected by the North American TV networks, including the big three, NBC, CBS, ABC. (CNN would eventually air the Buy Nothing Day ad, but only after a terrier of a Wall Street Journal reporter pressured the network to justify its position of refusing the ad.) Now, these are not crummy low-budget commercials that offended the networks' delicate sensibilities. They're slick and professional. The networks couldn't object to how they looked. They objected to what they said.

And the stonewalling continues to this day.

Sometimes it's maddeningly blatant. Every Christmas season, the airwaves are chockablock with consumption messages as the whole culture embarks on another whirlwind buying binge. But year after year, the big three networks refuse to sell us airtime for our Buy Nothing Day announcement.

I've spent dozens of hours arguing with network executives about why they're censoring us. Here's what some of them have replied in their own defense:

"There's no law that says we have to air anything - we'll decide what we want to air or not," said ABC New York station manager Art Moore.

"We don't want to take any advertising that's inimical to our legitimate business interests," said NBC Network commercial clearance manager Richard Gitter.

"This commercial (Buy Nothing Day)... is in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States," said CBS Network's Robert L. Lowary.

"We don't sell airtime for issue ads because that would allow the people with the financial resources to control public policy," said CBS Boston public affairs manager Donald Lowery.

I get a creepy sense of déjà vu listening to remarks like that. I was born in Estonia, where for 50 years during the Soviet era people were not allowed to speak up against the government. There simply were no media channels for debating controversial public issues because the government did not want such discussion to take place. Soviet dissidents used to talk about a "public sphere of discourse" that was missing from their country. The oppressiveness of that situation was rightly decried. And a lot of Westerners watched the Soviet Union fall apart with at least some sense of vindication.

But in North America today there's a similar, if less draconian, public void. It's the lack of media space in which to challenge consumption, advertising and corporate agendas. In the old Soviet Union you weren't allowed to speak up against the government. In North America today you cannot speak up against the sponsor. And this inability to speak up, this public information void, extends across all media at all levels. Reporters who cut their teeth at small-town newspapers invariably have stories about how they ran into a wall the moment they tried to do real investigative work.

The tales often go something like this. There's a smelter or a pulp plant on the outskirts of town. It employs a lot of the townsfolk and donates a lot of money to good causes. But it's an environmental nightmare: for years it's been dumping heavy metals and poisoning the aquifer. The reporter tries to ferret out the facts. He calls the company's media liaison, who blows him off. He calls up that guy's boss, who fails to call back. The next day the publisher takes the reporter into her office and tells him to drop the story. Our newspaper never criticizes that company, she says. They're an esteemed member of the community. Besides, every year they buy a huge color supplement, and they host the annual summer barbecue that all the other advertisers attend. So just drop it. There are plenty of other things to write about. Look: they're painting the tennis courts tomorrow. Go find the essential drama in that story.

This is how it works. Lessons about power, privilege and access are learned at the lower rungs by young writers who take this received wisdom with them as they move up into the media congolmerates, which enforce exactly the same set of rules. From the smallest community weekly to Los Angeles Times to the NBC TV network, our whole social communications system is rotten to the core.

Surely this is not what the country's founding fathers intended. And I don't believe it's what the majority of North Americans want. Personal freedom has always been one of Western civilization's most powerful metamemes. The concept goes back to the ancient Greek's institution of "democracy" ("rule by the people,") and it has grown stronger ever since. It took a great leap forward with the Magna Carta in England before spreading to the colonies and inspiring the end of slavery, universal suffrage and, eventually, equal status for all people, regardless of their race, sexual orientation or age. The progress of human rights has been mankind's gradual awakening. We've grown alive to the notion that things do not have to be as they are. We are under no-one's thumb. We can control our own destiny.

A big part of personal freedom is the freedom to communicate. That, too, is as old as the ancient Greeks, who recognized the citizens' rights to hold their own opinions. With the introduction of the world's first mass medium - the printing press - it became apparent that simply holding an opinion wasn't enough. (The "Gutenberg revolutionaries" were continually censored and repressed when they tried to express their opinions on royal and religious matters.) So the notion of freedom of expression was born, guaranteed in the English Bill of Rights and finally, as printing presses and newspapers flourished, expanded to freedom of the press, guaranteed in the US constitution.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, in part: Everyone has the right...to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

Article 13 of the 1979 American Convention on Human Rights reads, in part: The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting, ...or any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.

And yet even as we sit at the tail of the second millennium, with hundreds of newspapers, magazines and TV channels to choose from, with CNN beaming live news all over the world 24 hours a day and the digital revolution opening up the vast reaches of cyberspace for us explore, we find that the struggle for freedom of opinion, expression and speech is not over. One element is missing. Access.

If we can't tell our stories, share our fears and visions, register our dissent against a corporation or government that has done us wrong, then those vaunted American values of freedom and human rights aren't worth the sheepgut they're written on. Without citizen access to the most powerful social communications medium of our time, this land-of-the-free-business is a sham. The networks' refusal to sell airtime has revealed a glaring vulnerability in the media-corporate alliance: they are breaking international law.

Since the Fairness Doctrine was neutered during the Reagan era, there hasn't been a serious effort to call the networks on that breach. All of the First Amendment challenges - questioning the networks' right to selectively exclude ads - have been based on single 30-second spots, and it's been pretty easy for the court to find specifics that tilt the judgment in favour of the networks. But culture jammers have real ammunition now. We have reams of letters from the networks, plus faxes and transcripts of phone conversations with network executives that prove this issue is about more than any single case. We're talking about a broad principle. We can show that whole classes of information are being kept off the airwaves simply because they threaten big-money sponsors. This isn't about Kalle Lasn: it's about Madison and Jefferson. It's about the country's very origins.

I placed a call to one of America's most powerful litigators, a specialist in First Amendment issues, and explained our position. When a citizen cannot walk into their local TV station and buy 30 seconds of airtime for a message he or she believes in, then surely that's a travesty, no? His reaction was immediate, almost visceral. He and I couldn't have been more diametrically opposed. I doubt we could read War and Peace and agree it involves Russia. He was a fierce defender of the First Amendment, true, but chiefly with respect to how it applied to broadcasters, whose rights to free choice he seemed to defend above all others. "In America, I don't think you can compel a publisher or broadcaster to carry a particular message," he said.

"But if the networks have a First-Amendment Right to decide that Nike or McDonald's can buy 30 seconds of airtime and say, 'Buy hamburgers' or 'Buy Shoes,' why don't I have the right to tell my side of the story?"

"You do have your rights, but you can't diminish their rights in order to enforce yours."

I got that déjà vu again, like I was talking to one of those network flacks. Who's rights were being diminished here, anyway? "I think I have the right to speak out on TV," I said. "Those airwaves belong to you and me."

"I think that's a fiction. The air may belong to you, but not the studios and broadcasting facilities of ABC. What if Saddam Hussein wants to buy time to promote his side of the debate on what's going on in the Middle East? What if the Ku Klux Klan wants to buy time? Who should decide if you have a better message than the Ku Klux Klan? Who's going to be on the committee to decide which messages are in the public interest?"

"It should be a free marketplace of ideas."

"It is."

"It is not! Nike can come on and sell their product but I can't speak against them."

"Then you take out a newspaper ad, which is what a lot of people do."

We weren't getting anywhere. I suggested that my learned friend was missing the basic distinction between a privately-owned newspaper and publicly owned airwaves.

"The airwaves aren't publicly owned," he said. "This isn't England, where they have a BBC [or, he might have added, Canada, where we have the CBC]. In America, private companies own radio and television stations which are licensed by the government, but that license, under the FCA, says they cannot censor on the basic of content."

"But they are censoring me. They're censoring me on the basis of the content of the message."

"No, that's just the economic consequences that you don't have enough money to buy a radio station."

"I have enough money to buy a 30-second spot."

"And so does the Ku Klux Klan."

"Fine. So let us all on."

"How?! It's a limited resource. If you had every ad of every group that had a social message, that's all you would have on television."

It was clear he would not be representing us in a class-action suit anytime soon. But what was more alarming was how unbending he was. There was a Tweedle-Dum-ish quality to the way he impeccably argued an absurd premise. ("If it were so it would be, and if it was so it might be, but as it isn't, it ain't.").

I tried another lawyer, this time a high-profile Los Angeles media attorney and past president of the Los Angeles Law Society. I told him about the first lawyer's surprising (to me) failure to support our position and take our case on.

"Well, he's a very, very highly respected First Amendment Specialist, and if he thinks the law doesn't support your condition, I really wouldn't dispute him because he litigates these kinds of things all the time. I can philosophically sympathize but I wouldn't want to get involved with litigating if he thinks we wouldn't get anywhere."

Uh oh.

"Networks have the right to quality control," he said. "I suppose they have a right to say, 'We won't carry a message that'd be offensive to the other sponsors because we don't want to lose those sponsors.' Then I suppose they have a certain amount of editorial judgment they can exercise.

"If you want to get a message out, you can publish it in any number of forms. There are politicians who buy 30 minutes of airtime. And the major markets will always be willing to sell time for infomercials.

"I read the text of one of your ads and it sounded like a political ad. You have to figure that political ads are going to be in a different playing field from regular commercial ads. I think that's where you need to focus your efforts."

"But that's the old way of looking at it," I said. "These days people are realizing that every ad, to some degree, has political content. An ad that urges you to consume has political content to someone who thinks consumption itself has now become a controversial issue. So if you have a broadcast system that broadcasts 15 minutes of these messages an hour, that itself is political."

These lawyers were giving me was a lucid defense of the status quo. They didn't seem to understand I wasn't asking for that. I was asking for guts. "I understand that their right to run a commercial business is opposed here to my right to freedom of speech on the most powerful communications medium of our time. I guess I'm looking for a lawyer who believes more in my right to say my piece, and for any American or Canadian citizen to have the right to access their legally owned airwaves."

He gave me the number of another lawyer to try and disengaged. I had a nasty feeling he wanted to bill me for the call. "Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great deal of their time not on the spot, not here and now in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control it."

Aldous Huxley nailed it in the forward of his revised 1946 edition of Brave New World which, maybe more than any other work of 20th century fiction, predicted the psychological climate of our current wired society. Critics have pointed out the parallel between "soma" -- the pleasure drug issued to citizens of BNW -- and television as we know it today. Both keep the masses tranquilized and pacified, and maintain the social order. Both chase out reason in favour of entertainment and unconnected thoughts. Both encourage homogeneity of thought and deed. Both devalue history in favour of the pleasures of the sensory now.

What's less often noted is the relationship between the citizens and the controlling elite. Unlike, say, the people in Orwell's 1984, who while they resent being controlled by Big Brother feel powerless to resist, residents of Huxley's realm willingly participate in their manipulation. They happily take soma. They're in the maze and, by god, they love it. The pursuit of happiness is its own end, there's mindless consumption and free sex and perfect mood management and they love it. It's Utopia. Only you, the reader (and a couple of "imperfect" characters in the book who somehow ended up with real personalities) know it's Dystopia. It's a hell that can be recognized only from outside the system. (The Marxist currents in Huxley's book were lost on no-one. Some of the political points can be adapted to explain Western society today. In Revolutionary Russia, the workers controlled the means of production - that was their leverage. Today, the corporate image factory controls the production of meaning - that's its leverage.)

In 2 000 years, our intellectual freedom has evolved from the right to hold opinions to the right to expression to freedom of the press. Now we need to fight for the legal guarantee of a redefined right of expression, one that's toothsome and enforceable. The right to communicate-to access-is the final, logical step. "Communication needs in a democratic society should be met by the extension of specific rights such as the right to be informed, the right to inform, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public communications," said author and long-time communication activist Howard Fredrick. "[These are] all elements of a new concept, the right to communicate."

Last winter, the worst snowstorm in 100 years hit this part of the Pacific Northwest. In Victoria, home to Canada's mildest climate (think Seattle with half the rain), five feet of snow fell. A dead calm settled over the paralyzed city. For days, no cars moved. To say Victoria was unprepared is a gross understatement. The city has a total of two snowplows. Nobody owns a shovel. People were trapped in their houses. Old folks were seen trying to clear their sidewalks with dustpans and garden tools. Virtually no stores were open because the employees couldn't get to work. The brave ventured out, pulling supplies on sleds. A city of 300,000 was essentially plunged back to pre-Industrian Revolution days.

I mention this because a fascinating media story grew out of that storm. What happened at a local radio station called CFAX emerged as an example of the potential use (and long-forgotten past use) of public airwaves as a purely democratic medium.

A couple of CFAX employees who had been trapped in the building by the snow decided to open up the air as a kind of jungle telegraph of emergency information. Any citizen who could trudge to the station was put on the air, and they told the city what they had seen out there. Someone needed help saving a greenhouse on the Island Highway. An old couple was stranded and in trouble on Pandora. A family harbouring two-dozen refugee motorists on Fernwood was running out of food. Soon everyone knew CFAX (and to a lesser extent, the Internet) was the source of breaking news, delivered by individual sets of eyes and ears, in old, Roman foot-courier style. Every newscast contained information valuable to someone. Every broadcast, in the widest possible sense, served the public interest.

It struck many Victorians that this was the way the world was supposed to work. Unlike the regular radio news, which is full of flack-generated dispatches that commercial interests want you to know about, here was news you really could use, the stuff that mattered, the lifeblood of community. The CFAX story is obviously a unique case - a kind of impromptu emergency spasm response - but it contains, I think, the essence of what we're trying to reclaim here. Victorians, though physically isolated from one another by the snow, never felt more connected than during that storm, when for that brief time the media fulfilled a social agenda, and everyone's two cents were welcome and equal. I wonder how many of those people, when the snow had melted and their lives had returned to normal and the commercial pap was back on the air, looked at radio - or media in generally - differently. I wonder if any of them thought, This is the way radio could be if it had taken a different evolutionary fork way back when. I'm sure some did. I hope so. (Within a year, co-incidentally, Victoria was granted a license for its own public radio station, something the city had been lobbying for for 20 years.)

Media reform is less sexy than a lot of other issues we've been talking about in this book and a lot harder to pull off. But in a way, this is the big one, the ticket, the catalyst. What's at stake is who will control the production of meaning and the flow of information in the 21st century. Whose vision of the future will prevail? Will it be the people's vision or the corporations' vision? In 1995, the Media Foundation launched a legal action against the CBC that's currently winding its way through the Canadian system (it's now at the Supreme court of Canada level, and a decision is expected by 1998). By the time you read this, we'll almost surely have a First Amendment case going in the U.S. as well. A lot is riding on these actions. If we lose them, the corporations will be cleared to carry on bulldozing. They'll continue to amass cultural power over every aspect of our personal and collective lives. We won't be able to push through any decent alternate transportation, nutritional, economic, electoral, or cultural agendas. We'll be constrained, if not outright prevented, from building the sustainable society of the future. But if we win our legal battles, if the TV networks are forced to open up the airwaves by a judge who upholds the First Amendment right of citizens to access the airwaves, then the payoff will be huge.

We'll have the first significant human rights victory of the information age. The commercial image factory will start closing down as people and groups stand up and speak back at their corporate "masters." We'll be released from a tyranny greater than any monarch's or Orwellian government's: the tyranny of packaged beauty, packaged stories, packaged heroes, packaged myths, packaged spectacles, the blight of a tested, flattened culture. We'll no longer have to swim in someone else's tank. We will be free to communicate with one another. Unable to compete in an open marketplace of ideas, the sponsors of the old culture will be spooked. The enormous corporations like Westinghouse and Disney and GM will cease to be the omnipresent command centres of our consumer culture. And the mental landscape will be lit with sudden, telling moments of truth.

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