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Surveillance state

There were elements of irony as President Obama paid tribune to Martin Luther King on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

While Obama stressed the need for economic progress in his speech, he honored the memory of a staunch proponent of peace while himself planning a military assault on Syria.  And he honored one of the most prominent victims of illegal surveillance in the nation’s history, at a time when he’s defending a surveillance program of unprecedented scope.

Some of these issues will be explored Thursday night in a program on “the rise of the total surveillance state and the war on a free press,” sponsored by Chicago Area Peace Action at North Park University, 5137 N. Spaulding (August 29, 7:30 p.m.).

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Super PACs: Bad for democracy, good for TV stations

Super PACS “represent much of what is wrong with American democracy rolled neatly into one package,” said Marites Velasquez of Illinois PIRG, announcing a new report showing that fundraising monsters suddenly dominating our elections are funded by a very small number of very rich people.

Of itemized contributions by individuals to Super PACs in 2010 and 2011, 93 percent came from 726 individuals giving $10,000 or more, and more than half came from just 37 people who gave over a half-million dollars each, according to a new report from Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Demos.

Super PACs are “tools for powerful special interests” that work by “drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans in a sea of sometimes-secret cash,” Velasquez said.

“They undermine core principles of political equality in favor of a bully-based system where the strength of a citizen’s voice depends upon the size of her wallet,” said Adam Lioz of Demos.

Noting that 17 percent of Super PAC money came from businesses, the groups recommend the Illinois General Assembly pass legislation requiring shareholder approval for corporate political spending, among other reforms.

A bonanza for broadcasters

At the Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney (co-founders of the media reform group Free Press) detail the cost to democracy — and the bonanza for TV stations.

TV stations will take in up to $5 billion from political advertising this year – nearly twice the $2.8 billion they got four years ago.  The amount being spent on TV ads for House races is up 54 percent since 2008; for Senate races it’s up 75 percent.

Political ads accounted for 1.2 percent of total ad revenue in 1996; this year it’s likely to be 20 percent, and more in key states.

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FCC Hearing In Chicago

Community and media activists across the city are mobilizing for Federal Communications Commission hearings September 20 at Operation PUSH on proposals to allow greater media consolidation.

[UPDATE 9-25-07: Audio and video clips from the hearing are being posted at stopbigmedia.com]

FCC proposals to lift restrictions on cross-ownership of media outlets would further weaken local coverage and minority ownership, opponents argue. And with Chicago falling far short of other large cities in minority media ownership, that issue will be front and center at next week’s hearing, they say.

Community groups are holding prep sessions for next week’s hearing in coming days, including the West Side chapter of the NAACP, Illinois PIRG, Chicago Media Action, Radio Arte, and We The People Media, publishers of Residents Journal (schedule below).

The FCC proposals are “outrageous,” said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG. The Commission “should be protecting local control of media, because it’s so important to democracy and the flow of ideas.”

Karl Brinsen of the West Side NAACP chapter points out that radio conglomerate Clear Channel owns four of Chicago’s major black-oriented radio stations and last year signed an agreement to lease one of its frequencies to WVON-AM, Chicago’s only black-owned radio station.

He questions the negative images emphasized in youth music promoted by absentee owners, while local hip-hop artists with positive messages toil in obscurity. “It’s a big issue – how local conscious artists don’t get an opportunity to have airplay,” Brinsen said.

Chicago has the lowest level of minority ownership among the nation’s 22 largest radio markets, according to the StopBigMedia.com coalition led by the Free Press and including major consumer, civil rights and labor organizations. Of the nation’s ten largest radio markets, Chicago is the only one with minority ownership in the single digits, according to the group.

This is the second round for Republican commissioners on the FCC pushing rule changes to ease media consolidation. After rules were passed in 2003, a public uproar led Congress to vote against the changes, and a federal court required the Commission to seek public input.

FCC staff studies have shown that easing restrictions on media consolidation has led to reduced local news coverage, according to Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action.

Prep sessions for people interested in testifying are being held:

Sunday, September 16, 7 p.m. at Chicago Media Action, 3411 W. Diversy

Monday, September 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the West Side NAACP, 3559 W. Arthington

Tuesday, September 18 at 6:30 p.m. at Illinois PIRG, 407 S. Dearborn

Wednesday, September 19 at 4 p.m. at Charles Hayes Family Center (We The People Media), 4859 S. Wabash

Wednesday, September 19 at 6 p.m. in Spanish at Radio Arte, 1401 W. 18th.

The Future of Music Coalition and Chicago Independent Radio Project hold at “Rock The Media” party Wednesday, September 19, starting 8 p.m. at Delilah’s 2771 N. Lincoln.

The FCC hearing, the fourth of six being held across the country, is scheduled for September 20, 4 to 11 p.m. at Operation Push, 930 E. 50th.

Reform Group Challenges Rush Telecom Vote

The media reform group Free Press has called on Rep. Bobby Rush to abstain from voting on any bills that could benefit AT&T, the telecommunications giant whose charitable arm donated $1 million to Rush’s Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corp.

The AT&T donation to Rush’s charity was reported today in the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Rush must stay out of any votes that impact AT&T until investigators can get to the bottom of this apparent quid pro quo,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a national media reform organization.

“We need to know if the congressman is selling his vote to AT&T and whether other members of Congress are participating in this kind of chicanery,” Silver said.

Rush is primary sponsor along with two Republicans — House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton of Texas — of the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act, which is scheduled for committee markup and a vote in the House tomorrow.

According to Common Cause, the COPE Act would place control of the Internet in the hands of a few powerful corporations, “transform the information superhighway into a toll road,” end consumer protections against abuses by cable companies, and expand the “digital divide.”

Lauren Coletta of Common Cause termed “baffling” Rush’s subcommittee vote against a Democratic amendment requiring cable companies to serve low-income rural and minority communities. “That’s obviously going to effect neighborhoods like Englewood negatively,” she said. “They’re not going to build out and invest in infrastructure in low-income communities” if they aren’t required to do so.

Michael Maranda, executive director of the Chicago Chapter of the Community Technology Centers Network, has urged Rush to reconsider his position on COPE, which he says will “open new dimensions of the digitial divide” and “give a green light to digital red-lining.”

Rush has not made a strong case for supporting COPE, said Bruce Montgomery, a local technology access activist and public access cable producer. Any benefits from the bill are outweighted by “much more onerous negatives,” he said — including national franchising for video companies that could undermine local control of cable franchises and support for community access TV.

(Last week Bill McCaffrey of the Department of Consumer Services told Newstips of the city’s concerns that the COPE act could vacate Chicago’s cable franchise agreements and remove requirements that all residents of a service area be served.)

Montgomery called for an extended public comment period and local hearings on the bill.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action says he was “just furious” to learn earlier this month that Rush was sponsoring the COPE act. He had participated in a 1st Congressional District assembly on telecommunications reform in October and “we thought we had an ally” in Rush.

The bill “will be tremendously damaging to local media and the internet,” he said. “Unless it undergoes dramatic changes, it deserves to die.” Among his concerns is the loss of “network neutrality,” allowing internet service providers to determine what content will be available to customers.



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