Media Institute Sets Sights on Feminist Network



by Helen Grieco, California NOW President and Chair of Feminist Communications Network Task Force

Immediately following the conclusion of the National NOW Conference in Los Angeles, NOW Foundation invited attendees and others to stay for a day-long strategy session on women in the media.  On July 5 activists packed the room at the Beverly Hilton to participate in the Foundation's first Media Institute, a symposium on the media and its impact on women's lives in light of the technological and political changes in this industry.

At the Institute, activists also began planning the launch of a Feminist Communications Network—a TV, cable, radio and web broadcast network.  The Foundation invited organizations and individuals in the media and E-commerce industries to inform and advise participants on this endeavor. The Institute, planned as an intimate event, turned into an unexpected success, drawing over 130 participants who formed 10 discussion groups.

NOW Foundation President Patricia Ireland opened the Institute with facts on the lack of women in the media. For example, a shocking 87 percent of the guests on Sunday public affairs programs are men.  Nearly two-thirds of all guests invited to appear on "Today" and "Good Morning America" in 1996 were male.   In 1996, only 24.1 percent of TV news directors were female. Among the top, most visible correspondents at NBC, CBS and ABC in 1996, only four of the 30 were women.  And, 90 percent of the lead characters on children's programming are male.

Mega-corporations General Electric, Time Warner, Disney/Cap Cities, Westinghouse, Viacom, AT&T (TCI), Sony, Universal (Seagram) and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation control the majority of the media today.  With the bottom-line—rather than quality and diversity—as the driving force behind the business, is it any wonder that women are under-represented and do not receive the information and programming they want?

The day began with two panels of experts who addressed the current state of media and described their own experiences working in the media, providing a wealth of information from varied backgrounds.

The panelists came from everywhere from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to Webgrrls and OnRadio.com.  They included writers, directors, CEOs and women on the cutting edge of new media.

Stephanie Carbone from Mediascope presented facts on the lack of people of color in the media (visit www.mediascope.org  for more info). Sherry Moore from Lesbians in Film and Television, an organization with over 1200 members, disclosed that, contrary to the idea that Hollywood is "lesbian-gay friendly," most of her membership is not out at work.  The FCC Representative, Jamie Dazes, spoke about the 1996 Telecommunications Act and current actions the FCC is taking (see www.fcc.gov).

The good news is that these panelists are out there making a difference.  They are making films, TV, cable and radio shows; owning and operating stations; and working in non-profits, educating the public or teaching in universities.

The bad news is the further sobering statistics that the panelists offered the audience on gender and racial equity in the media.  The following facts were provided by Martha Lauzan, Ph.D., School of Communications, San Diego State University:

After the presentations by the panelists, the afternoon was dedicated to strategy sessions where small groups brainstormed possible answers to three questions.  The questions focused on 1) how activists can attain better content in mainstream media, 2) how political action and grassroots organizing can change the industry, and 3) what would be involved in starting our own communications network.

Answers to the first question included writing stations and advertisers with comments on programming, refusing to support offensive shows or products, pressuring the people who develop new shows and campaigning for stations to hire more diverse people.  Some people suggested that NOW develop lists of positive shows and ratings, give out awards and create a web site to publish this information. Promoting media awareness in schools and colleges was a popular answer.  And many thought that we should develop a coalition to help accomplish these goals.

While brainstorming on political change, participants stressed the need to lobby on deregulation and control of the airwaves.  Strategy groups suggested that NOW distribute an action packet to its chapters on the 1996 Telecommunications Act, media-related bills and a target list so activists can lobby their local representatives.  Other ideas included implementing an e-mail alert system to get the word out on good and bad programming, protesting pornography and violence in the media, making the media an issue in the next presidential election and creating a national campaign to direct these actions.

Discussion on question three had participants declaring, "Think Big—We Can Do It!"  Strategists suggested creating a clear vision for our own communications network, possibly setting up a new media arm of NOW, and guidelines for format and content.  Everyone agreed that funding is the key to this enterprise and that venture capital, grants, women entrepreneurs and in-kind donations must all be considered.  Hiring a professional fundraiser and creating a sample program to pitch to potential contributors were also mentioned.

By the end of the Media Institute, participants seemed energized and committed to working together toward a common vision.  As the meeting broke up, both panelists and attendees exchanged phone numbers, e-mail addresses and cards with promises to build coalitions and spread the word.



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