I occasionally grouse that no one in mass movements ever remembers the lawyers, or why else does my employer Media Access Project keep needing to check behind the couch cushions for loose change, given our track record? But I live in the bloody spotlight compared to some of the others that have made the modern media reform movement possible. Which is why I want to take a moment to give Becky Lentz, formerly of the Ford Foundation, a big shout out.
For the last 6 years, Becky worked at the Ford Foundation as program officer for their media policy and technology portfolio. In her own way, Becky had as much to do with the victories of the last few years in resisting – and in some cases rolling back – media concentration and promoting positive change. Last month, Becky’s term ended and she returned to Academia.
What makes Becky Lentz an exceptional figure when they write the history of the media reform movement? See below . . . .
First, give credit where credit is due. Like so many critical things in my neck of the public advocacy woods, this goes back to Gigi Sohn. Gigi left Media Access Project in 1999 to work at the Ford Foundation (thus creating a spot for me to leave private practice and embark on my career in public advocacy and private penury). She spent two years there convincing them that Ford need to have an actual portfolio dedicated to advocating for rules and policies that promote diversity of views and principles of Free Speech and democracy, rather than occasionally funding such projects out of money from the general media fund. Because while funding minority programming, documentaries, and all other manner of diverse content is important, it really doesn’t mean squat if it sits in people’s basements or gets seen once and then forgotten. By funding diverse content you can give voice to the voiceless, but without a way to get that content onto the mass media or out on the internet, they’re still gagged — or at best whispering to a handful of sympathetic ears.
Gigi succeeded in persuading Ford to create a separate portfolio for media and democracy, funded at a fraction of what they put into content generation (everything Ford ever spent to fund media advocacy does not equal what it gives in a single year to NPR, Public Television, and other content projects – not that I’m bitter). Gigi – her work there done – came back to Washington to found Public Knowledge (and thank God for that!). So Ford needed to bring in someone to take over the portfolio. They settled on Becky Lentz: An academic with no experience in public advocacy.
Becky had two qualities that would distinguish her, however, and make her critical to building the modern media reform movement. First, she truly believed in the cause and was determined to build a successful movement capable of changing the world. Second, she did not have the least concern about ignoring the history of the movement and the unwritten rules that had accumulated in the thirty or so years since Everett Parker effectively invented media reform as a movement by forcing the FCC to listen to license challenges brought by African Americans against pro-segregation broadcasters. I don’t mean she was ignorant of it. I just mean that, where it conflicted with her vision and sense of determined purpose, she felt free to ignore it.
This last certainly ruffled a few feathers. To the extent a media reform “movement” existed in 2001 when Becky came on the scene, it consisted of a relatively small number of groups (including MAP) maintaining a rearguard action against further concentration, focused primarily on inside-the-beltway lobbying. The civil rights, civil liberties, and environmental activists that had once embraced media reform as a valuable tool for their own ends had drifted away. “Liberals” concerned with the “public interest” or who doubted the power of the internet to blow away the cable and telco “dinosaurs” were viewed by the public with scorn. Not since the Cable Act of 1992 had messages about “corporate gatekeepers” or “media diversity” or even “rate gouging and unfair competition” resonated with anyone outside of the few remaining Keepers of the Flame.
Worse, everyone still around from the the 30 years of history among the various groups – now fallen on hard times – could tell you that pretty much every Iidea had already been tried and hadn’t worked, or wouldn’t work, because there was no way you were going to get a mass movement around media reform. In fact, the very idea that you could get folks outside of DC to care about any of this stuff — even children’s programming — was laughably naive. And finally, everyone could remember the time X refused to Back Y and now they don’t work with each other, so don’t even try to get them in the same room. Which meant building a consolidated “movement” was out of the question.
So when Becky Lentz, the new kid on the block, showed up and started looking at how to change all this and create a real movement, you can imagine the general reaction. Get folks outside the Beltway to understand this stuff? Ridiculous! Get academics involved in doing needed research? We’ve tried it. It never works, because academics don’t want to do advocacy work. Spend time on training and “institution building” when we have a series of non-stop crises to address and not enough resources to do the real work that needs to get done ? Please!
But in addition to a very clear vision and a willingness to ignore the accumulated wisdom and blunt advice of older and wiser heads, Becky had two other things on her side. The first was money. Because while Ford’s spending in this area barely amounted to the gleanings of the field left over from their “real” media work, it was a positive river of money compared to the trickle that had kept the field alive. Not nearly enough, of course. It never is. But starving folks used to fighting for crumbs will pay attention when someone walks in with an entire piece of bread. Becky also remained on the look out for new organizations to fund that moved the media reform movement in the direction she wanted to see: an actual movement that had both a mass movement/people power component and an effective inside-the-beltway advocacy component. That included funding projects to get advocates and academics to talk to each other and keep talking to each other, until they could actually understand each other and figure out how to help each other. It meant bringing together funders from other foundations or newly rich progressives looking to find ways to challenge the utter dominance of conservative social philosophy and neo-conservative economics. And it included, frankly, being the biggest pain-in-the-rear as a program officer I ever dealt with. Because getting this heard of extremely stubborn, passionate individual cats to actually play together as a pride – especially when everyone of us would rather have spent the money on what we saw as the obvious needs rather than what Becky thought was important to building a movement – meant being an intrusive and demanding pain in the rear.
The second thing that helped her, frankly, was beyond her control. The events of 2002-03 combined to galvanize the public in a way no one could have predicted. Suddenly, people had an object lesson in why ownership of media mattered. The build up to the Iraq War heightened awareness among progressives, who saw their massive protests simply vanish into oblivion when broadcasters and cable news networks chose to turn a blind eye and cooperated with the Administration in framing the war as a question of national security. At the same time, the proliferation of indecent content and the “race to the bottom” in programming from media giants chasing the 18-35 yr old male demographic and “synergies” with broadcast and raunchy cable properties galvanized the right. And into this mix came Michael Powell and Ken Ferree, blithely ignoring public opinion, dismissing public hearings as “foot stomping,” and pressing ahead to eliminate any remaining restraints on ownership on the grounds that the existing system worked so well.
Without this heady combination, I don’t know that Becky Lentz could have managed to create a movement based on her own vision and the petty cash (relatively speaking, her grants totaled $20 Million by the end of her term) Ford grudgingly threw at it. But at the same time, when the moment came, Becky was there to help push it along, and I don’t know that things would have gelled into something sustainable if she hadn’t been. To a very real extent, the work Becky did over the last six years made it possible for that initial explosion of anger and energy to settle into a sustainable movement capable of giving the public real input into media policy.
I did not agree with all the decisions Becky made or all the policies she pushed. And there were certainly times when I muttered to myself that this or that was a waste of money I could have spent far more profitably elsewhere. But I never doubted for a minute that Becky, as much as any activist, was a true believer in the cause and a true comrade in arms. And for every grant I could argue was a mistake that I could have spent better, I can think of ten things that really made a difference. And believe me, you don’t get to the things that make a difference without making decisions other people disagree with, or that include a few mistakes along the way. Although God knows I’m always right in the end.
I don’t doubt, now that she is back on the academic side of the shop, that I will continue to see Becky about in the movement. And I hope that someday, in some history of the media reform movement, when they discuss the critical activists, academics, and — maybe! — even the lawyers, I hope they will also mention how, without Becky’s passion and vision, the whole movement might have starved in its cradle for lack of funding and lack of coherence.
Stay tuned . . . .