When the Republicans take Manhattan later this summer, among the billboards they'll see in Times Square will be two with an antiwar message. That's the upshot of a deal this week between the activist group Project Billboard and Clear Channel Communications, who owns the billboards. Clear Channel had originally rejected the group's business on the grounds that its message was "inappropriate" for terror-rattled New Yorkers. Bob reflects on the growing power of the Davids who stand up to the Goliaths of media consolidation.
BOB GARFIELD: For decades, Ben Bagdikian was a lonesome David facing down a menacing Goliath. We learned last week, however, that sometimes --as in the Bible tale -- the advantage can revert to David. The latest confrontation of big media and the plucky little guy has come to a negotiated settlement and huge PR victory for the advocacy group Project Billboard. That organization had contracted for a billboard in New York's Times Square for an anti-war message, only to have the message rejected by the billboard's owner on the stated grounds that the accompanying image of a bomb was potentially unnerving for New Yorkers. Never mind that the bomb was not a terrorist one but a military one wrapped in red, white and blue -- accompanied by the message "Democracy is taught by example; not by war." The owner was nervous about the political content, and so was the management of the hotel on which the board rests whose own contract gives it veto power and said "Not on our roof." Oh, did I mention that the board's owner is the media colossus Clear Channel, whose nervousness about political content, historically has hinged on whether the content was for or against the Bush administration? Oh, and that the board was scheduled for the week of the Republican National Convention? When Clear Channel produced a previously undisclosed rider referring to the hotel's veto option, Project Billboard rushed into court, screaming of censorship. "They seem to think they can suppress free speech," said the group's director, Deborah Rappaport. Well, of course they can suppress free speech. The First Amendment applies to governments -- not private parties. Hence, the central argument against media consolidation: When the freedom to suppress speech is enjoyed by a handful of corporations instead of many outlets with diverse viewpoints, democracy is threatened. Hard to know if it was prompted by naivete or cunning, but the protest group's court case and associated publicity brouhaha suggests a power shift in the fight against media consolidation. Project Billboard's Deborah Rappoport on the courthouse steps:
DEBORAH RAPPAPORT: You know, I won't lie and say that, you know, the publicity isn't here, 'cause obviously you folks are all here.
BOB GARFIELD: The case wasn't litigation so much as it was judo -- employing leverage to turn the size and strength of the opponent against him. Clear Channel flexed its market muscle. Little Project Billboard thrust out its hip, and the rushing brute wound up prostrate, agreeing -- "Okay, okay. You can have two billboards elsewhere in Times Square, instead of one. Just switch out the bomb for a dove." Done. What we learned last year when grassroots outrage eventually stymied the FCC's attempt to further deregulate media ownership has been proven again. The public interest can truly be served when the public gets interested. The mere fear of backlash has shamed Goliath out of exercising his explicit legal rights. Works for me. Now it's time for Congress to be shamed into restoring the safeguards against media concentration. Renewed regulation can neutralize Clear Channel and News Corp. and Viacom and the 900-pound broadband gorilla Comcast. Doesn't take muscle. Just a little leverage.