Whatever it was that opened up the floodgates and got people screaming inside the Chula Vista Public Library May 27, you knew they were open when an elderly woman in the audience bellowed, "It's time to get mad!"
Never mind that it was clear almost all her comrades packed into the library's auditorium that evening were already mad. Not only was it a standing-room-only crowd inside but outside dozens more huddled around an electronic speaker that, while not gesticulating as much, piped out the same message as the one raising blood pressures in the auditorium.
Those who made it to a seat up front had to arrive at least an hour early. At first glance, it didn't seem like the kind of thing for which you'd need to save a seat. The speakers listed on the flier were Vermont's only representative in the House, Bernie Sanders, and Congressman Bob Filner. But well in advance, Democratic activists, Filipino World War II veterans and the occasional conservative were saving for their friends.
It didn't take them long to start hollering.
"We've lost our freedom of speech!" screamed a woman from the fourth row shortly after Filner began speaking. "We can't say anything anymore!"
Filner nodded his head and continued. He'd been listing off liberal grievances of the Bush administration and for a moment, it wasn't clear at whom the people there were most mad. The Republicans? Or was it, as Filner acknowledged, "Democrats, who have not been fighting back the way we should."
That's when Bernie Sanders arrived. With what was left of his shiny white hair standing straight up-the result of long flight-Sanders appeared on stage and was received like a rock star. And what better person, really, to speak for a bunch of disillusioned Democrats than the House of Representatives' only independent and one of the very few who don't consider it an insult to be called a socialist.
But the meeting wasn't supposed to be about how mad Democrats are that their party can't seem to lift itself out of a cowering crouch of fear. Most people there knew Sanders had come as part of a nationwide tour of sorts to talk about the Federal Communications Commission-specifically, a complicated proposal that would make some of the biggest changes ever to the way the agency regulates the broadcasters it licenses. Sanders and many others were afraid of what was going to happen on June 2 when the three Republicans and two Democrats who sit on the FCC's board were set to ease restrictions on companies that want to increase their girth with media calories. Opponents of such a move had resorted to grass-roots activism to halt it.
But on Monday, the FFC board passed the deregulation measure, opening the door for corporate broadcasters to purchase more television or radio stations in a given region. Earlier limits had kept corporations from owning stations that could reach 35 percent of a nationwide audience. The changes will boost that up to 45 percent. A decades-long ban prohibiting newspapers from owning their community's television station will vanish as well.
Leftists, and some conservatives, have long lamented the loss of local ownership of broadcasters and the alleged stifling effect media consolidation has on things like-well, truth. And as media consolidates under fewer and fewer super-rich corporate captains, Sanders sees nothing short of a conspiracy to keep people down.
"In the waning days of the Soviet Union, a totalitarian regime," Sanders said, "there were dozens and dozens of newspapers and magazines controlled by either the government or the Communist Party, and they had a line and people did not divert from that line. When in this country you have a handful of corporations controlling the media, you will be very naive not to understand that they also have a line."
Skepticism of businessmen is nothing new. In his 1911 classic, The Devil's Dictionary , Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as "an ingenious device for obtaining individual wealth without individual responsibility." And it was the FCC's mandate to assuage the fears of the big-business skeptics by licensing corporations to use the airwaves as long as they fulfill a public good with at least some part of their programming.
Sanders said his idea of public good, a healthy democracy, isn't being fostered when, especially on radio, the audience can tune into only conservative voices.
"The other half of us in this country deserves to hear a different point of view," he said.
By then, most everyone in the audience seemed to squirm in their seats as if they had a nugget of enlightenment so uncomfortably lodged in their brain that they had to either blurt it out or suffer helplessly.
Sanders' last point had particularly peeved Ross Tyler, one of the four or five vociferous detractors in attendance. And during the question-and-answer session just after Sanders' speech, Tyler got the chance to get it out. He wondered aloud why "you liberals don't see that you just don't make money" on the air-that it's market driven, not some conspiracy, he said.
After a wave of boos and heckles, Sanders responded, "It's a fair question. In terms of the media, let me say this, and you can respond to me, do you have a concern that the average 19-year-old hasn't a clue about the political process or how to get involved?"
"That doesn't worry me at all," Tyler shouted back. "The ones that do take the time be informed, and they make informed decisions. I would advocate that you have to pass a test before you can vote if I had my way,"
Loud grumblings of "Oh my god!" and "Shut up!" and "Don't let him dominate!" drowned Tyler out.
Sanders finally responded. "I disagree.... There is an argument out there-you touched on it, Ross-that for some perhaps genetic reason, only rightwing people are clever and funny and entertaining and people on the left are boooring."
"That's insulting to make me sound like that."
"I know, I'm sorry. I was making a joke," But Sanders went on. "... I don't buy it. I do not believe that corporate media wants somebody on the radio who will be attacking corporate welfare."
Tyler tried to retort, "I think..." But he was shouted down.
He got his chance to speak, though-if only in front of one person. After the talk concluded, a college-aged man who said he was "very liberal" listened to Tyler continue. "This is one of the greatest things I've seen as a conservative," he said to the young person. "The liberals are losing their grip on the media and it's driving them crazy...."
But Tyler turned his attention away when a tall man in a dark suit brandishing a business card emblazoned with the name "Michael S. Giorgino, Esq." interrupted him.
"I'm in charge of communications for the Republican Party here," said Giorgino, best known for his state Senate campaign last year. "Give me a call if you want to get involved."