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It starts small

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Sometimes fighting for change feels like fighting over scraps. The victories are so hard-won, and so small when they do come, and the fight itself lasts longer than any of our lifetimes. But this week there are many small victories to celebrate and exciting proof that they can add up to unexpected coups.

A year ago, no one thought there was much chance of turning back the tide toward media consolidation. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell made it clear he stood on the side of loosening restrictions on how many television and radio stations a single company can own. He was in favor of allowing a monopoly of all broadcast and newspaper outlets in a given city, and of loosening the national ownership cap on how much of the audience a single company could reach, from 35 percent to 45 percent. In spite of the two million official complaints the commission received from Americans on all points of the political spectrum, that's exactly what the FCC voted in June to do.

But people didn't stop complaining. They called and wrote to their elected representatives in Congress. They wrote letters to the editors of corporate-owned daily newspapers. One by one, they spoke up, and Congress listened.

Last week, the Senate decided to include a 35 percent media ownership cap in the $280 million end-of-year spending bill, which would override one crucial aspect of the FCC's decision. Bush backed off his veto threats this week, agreeing to a compromise that sets the cap at 39 percent. This means ABC and NBC will be able to buy more stations, but Fox and CBS won't.

Meanwhile, Sen. Trent Lott is pushing for a "congressional veto," a resolution that would overturn the new FCC rules entirely. It's already passed the Senate, and is collecting dust on House leaders' desks only because Bush is using his political clout to prevent an almost assuredly yes vote. Sen. John McCain is pushing for the "Preservation of Localism, Program Diversity, and Competition in Television Broadcast Service Act of 2003," which would go further by banning cross-ownership and requiring the FCC to overhaul its process of public input.

It's a cliche, sure, but this is really how it works: Little things add up to change, and change amounts to something big if you keep on doing what you're doing. This week, our Citizens Awards honor people who have shown that kind of stick-to-it-iveness in the face of daunting challenges, people who know that the small actions of individuals are the only things that really can make a difference.

That's what happens when Delores Bailey rolls down the window of her car to talk to the teenagers gathered on the corner in her Northside neighborhood. When Earl Matlock takes the time to drive a kid in his gardening program to and from work every day. When Marcia Owen ventures into notoriously bullet-rattled Northeast-Central Durham to give neighborhood kids something safe to do after school. When Janet Colm reads the messages left by clients who have just had safe abortions at her Planned Parenthood office. When Lewis Pitts spends his vacation defending a guy who got arrested for bringing a "No Blood for Oil" sign to a Bush rally. When the staff of SeeSaw Studio is able to pay a teenager for original creative work.

Every time you refuse to sit back and feel defeated, you make change. Taking action, no matter what the scope of that action, is an act of citizenship.

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