Founded in 2002, Free Press and its advocacy arm, the Free Press Action Fund, are tax-exempt “media reform” organizations that seek to counteract the power of big media corporations. Robert McChesney (a radical professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), John Nichols (a Washington correspondent for The Nation), and Josh Silver (who has published extensively on such topics as media policy and campaign finance) co-founded the Free Press groups and currently direct their operations.
In addition to McChesney and Nichols, board members of Free Press include Marcy Carsey, co-founder of the Carsey Werner Company; Olga M. Davidson, a visiting associate professor in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Wellesley College; Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women; Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR); and Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University.
Board members of the Free Press Action Fund include Martin Kaplan (Director of the Norman Lear Center), McChesney, Nichols, Silver, and Tim Wu. Previous members have included Cindy Asner, wife of actor Ed Asner, both of whom are activists with the Progressive Democrats of America; Linda Foley, former President of the Newspaper Guild and Vice-President of the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, from 1995 to 2008; and Norman Solomon, Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA), on whose board McChesney sits.
Free Press founders McChesney and Nichols have co-authored three books: _It’s the Media, Stupid!_, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. The authors and their organization received high praise from the late Marxist professor Howard Zinn, who said: “Free Press is doing the important work of stimulating a national discussion on the role of a free media in this country. It deserves widespread support.”
Free Press receives financial support from the Ford Foundation, the Glaser Progress Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Institute; the Overbrook Foundation, the Philadelphia Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Surdna Foundation, and the Wallace Global Fund.
While Free Press provides research and resources for progressive advocacy, the Free Press Action Fund lobbies in Washington against media corporations. According to Free Press’ website, “the U.S. media landscape is dominated by massive corporations that, through a history of mergers and acquisitions, have concentrated their control over what we see, hear and read.” Free Press’s “Stop Big Media” campaign aims to counter the interests of these corporations, claiming that they “fail local communities,” “ignore diversity,” and “are bad for democracy.”
Free Press offers its so-called Media Minutes podcasts, which are designed to give listeners the “latest news about media and democracy — in 5 minutes.” Media Minutes is also carried by a number of “independent” radio stations and websites, including a number of Pacifica Radio stations, the Independent Media Center (Indymedia), “Enemy Combatant Radio” in San Francisco, and “Radical Radio” in Seattle.
In November 2003, Free Press organized its first National Conference on Media Reform at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was keynoted by Bill Moyers. Amy Goodman — host of the national radio program Democracy Now! — was also a featured speaker. Z Magazine reported that this conference prominently featured “El Salvador and Palestine solidarity activists” who “gave updates on their work.”
In May 2005, the Second National Conference for Media Reform took place in St. Louis, Missouri and featured, among others, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange and Code Pink; David Brock, President/CEO of Media Matters for America; then-author/political commentator Al Franken; Amy Goodman; producer/director Robert Greenwald; Janine Jackson of FAIR; author/columnist Naomi Klein; and Democratic Representative Diane Watson.
In January 2007, Free Press sponsored a third conference in Memphis, Tennessee. Featured speakers and panelists were David Brock, Jeff Cohen, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Representative Maurice Hinchey, Jesse Jackson, Bill Moyers, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Norman Solomon. Exhibitors at the event included Amy Goodman, Mother Jones magazine, Pacifica Radio, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and a number of representatives of the “9/11 truth movement.” The film Reel Bad Arabs, which argues that Arabs and Muslims unfairly receive negative coverage from the American media and Hollywood, was screened for those in attendance; the film is narrated by Jack Shaheen, who has appeared on Al-Jazeera English TV making charges of anti-Arab media bias. At a panel discussion moderated by Paul Waldman of Media Matters for America, participants argued that the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections had been “stolen” on behalf of George W. Bush.
While many of its conferences have featured speakers advocating a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, Free Press has focused its efforts on advocating for Net Neutrality—a concept whose objective, as pro-free-market policy analyst Phil Kerpen puts it, is “to empower the federal government to ration and apportion Internet bandwidth as it sees fit, and to thereby control the Internet’s content.”
The Barack Obama administration was, from its earliest days, highly receptive to McChesney’s ideas on media reform and Net Neutrality. In 2010, Obama’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a workshop series titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” Further, the FTC released Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism, a 47-page discussion draft that reproduced a number of McChesney’s proposals almost verbatim. McChesney himself was invited to deliver a major address at an FTC event on these issues.
Even while its founders and conferences called for revolution, the overthrow of the capitalist system, and the socialization of America, Free Press was regularly granted audiences not only with members of Congress, but with those overseeing media policy at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). For example, when Julius Genachowski, who worked as a prominent leader in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, became chairman of the FCC (on June 29, 2009), he promptly appointed Free Press spokeswoman Jen Howard to be his press secretary. By late September, three months into his new job, Genachowski announced his plan to push for Net Neutrality.
In April 2010, the FCC’s Net Neutrality bid hit a hurdle when a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC did not have the right to regulate Comcast’s network management. Comcast was also a major target of Free Press, which campaigned not only to counter Comcast’s Internet management, but also to stop its merger with NBC Universal.
On May 11, 2010, at a Free Press Summit in Washington DC, Democratic Senator Bryon Dorgan gave the keynote speech and declared that critics of Net Neutrality were simply engaging in the “big lie that permeates public policy today.” He also argued that net neutrality could not be accurately described as a takeover of the Internet, since the Internet was created by the federal government in the first place and already had rules that underpinned net neutrality.
Free Press’s efforts on behalf of Net Neutrality were buttressed by immense financial support from left-wing charitable foundations. Most notably, between 2000 and 2013 George Soros‘s Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation spearheaded an alliance of philanthropies that gave more than $196 million to pro-Net Neutrality groups, of which Free Press and the Center for American Progress were among the most influential. These efforts and expenditures eventually paid dividends in February 2015, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in favor of implementing Net Neutrality.