Memphis: I felt the presence of Dr King this past weekend in Memphis. Of course, this is the city in which he gave his life, and as America marks his birth, it was hard not to be reminded of his death when you visit the scene of the crime, the fully restored Lorraine Motel.
It was there that he was shot down by a cowardly sniper. Was it James Earl Ray? Did he act alone? There are more conspiracy theories on that than eyewitnesses but it almost doesn’t matter because most of the people who studied the matter remain puzzled by so many contradictions and unanswered questions.
That hotel is now part of the national Civil Rights Museum which honors the legacy of the Movement he helped lead. I visited this Mecca to his memory and mission in the company of its founder D’Army Bailey, a local Judge and a former civil rights worker who I remembered fondly and worked with in the “mooovement” 35 years ago. He couldn’t be warmer and told everyone with him, including FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps that I was “the real deal,” a comrade in a struggle from back in the day, a struggle that is far from over.
Jesse Jackson, who was with Dr. King that dark day, did some reminiscing about the internal debate in civil rights circles at that time while speaking at the Media Conference. He was talking about the poor peoples/worker’s campaign that MLK came to Memphis to support. He reminded us that some of his closest aides were skeptical of even going to Memphis. King himself was then even openly musing about retiring as his base began to splinter when he added economic issues and opposition to the Vietnam War to his agenda.
The media was becoming less enamored with him. His future was uncertain. He was depressed, down on himself. That bullet in his head would, ironically, guarantee his future as an icon and martyr, as our “drum major for justice” for all time, but no one would choose that passage to glory.
That’s not an outcome I would want either but I could relate to what Jesse said King was thinking. He was tired, and felt abandoned, His movement-like the media and reform movement I helped start but and now feel increasingly estranged from-was getting factionalized with some preferring a total focus on civil rights while others wanted to march on to transform America in deeper ways.
I was struck some years back by a review of King aide Andy Young’s book by Garry Wills in which he wrote about that movement’s in-fighting, callousness and “dirty laundry,”
“We no longer see the serene picture of Gandhian saints but flawed people up against every effort of a surrounding society to destroy them, people with few supporters (and those under constant FBI sniping, branded as Communists, anarchists or homosexuals, people often angry at each other, always depending on each other, despondent, praying, hoping that good would prevail-as it did over their dead bodies and broken lives.”
Our media reform movement is not coping with these types of extreme pressures-perhaps because we have yet to really threaten power— but there are flaws and fissure that weren’t really addressed at any of the somewhat clicky Conference sessions I attended,
Aside from personal frustrations at being excluded from participating on all panels, and with no acknowledgement or support for Mediachannel anywhere, I felt that Media Reform has a concept has been narrowed in scope and focused on legislative lobbying by lawyers and professionals inside the beltway, narrowed to a series of buzzwords like “net neutrality,” turned into a support group for two good but potentially co-optable FCC Commissioners and “pragmatic” members of Congress, “big names” in show biz and politics but with only a handful of grass roots leaders. Here was Dennis Kucinich, for example, asking activists to tell him what to do about media as if he had no ideas of his own.
Shouldn’t we debate what we are or are not accomplishing? Was the recent net neutrality compromise acceptable—a guarantee on the part of AT&T’s least used platform and, then, only for two years? Was that really the big victory it was hyped as? One activist engaged in that fight says scholars have documented a long history of Telecom companies making promises to win rate hikes and then never fulfilling them. Is this more of the same? Are we being deluded in hopes that a Democratic Congress will somehow save us?
And if we are talking about technologies, why no discussion of the implications of a changing web-the so-called WEB 2.O? Or of social networking? Or the new mobile technologies? Most of the discussion of the internet had a dated quality to it. I would have liked to hear from the folks at Buzzflash, ZNET and Common Dreams et.al. to learn what their experience has been, and of course a panel of all the competing media sites. What about channels like Link, Free Speech and International World Television?
There were many panelists attacking the media coverage of the war. “Press Scolded on Iraq War Coverage” was how the Memphis Commercial Appeal headlined their report. But were we there just to scold-something I have been doing with books and my film WMD for years? Where was the action-a march? a confrontation?-any plan for a activist campaign to try to change the disgraceful media coverage? That was, in military parlance, AWOL-Absent Without Leave.
How do we get other issues more attention in the news-especially Election reform? It was not discussed.
Are we building a movement or an email list? Are we still trying to build bridges between media makers and media activists? Where were the criticisms of funders like the MacArthur Foundation which announced last week it was cutting off support for documentaries, pending one those interminable internal “reviews?” (They used to be the biggest funder for filmmakers.)
Where were the demands on other funders to invest in progressive media the way the rightwing foundations have with generous long-term commitments? Why aren’t we lobbying them and not just to promote one institution? There seems to be no shortage of funding for holding conferences but sustaining Indy media is not really on the agenda. (We at Mediachannel,org are urgently trying to cope with that!)
Where were the U-Tube Kids, or My Space addicts or the leaders of citizen journalism initiatives? Where were the journalist organizations, and media freedom groups or were only radicals allowed? Where were the panels debating what’s really happening in the media-how to assess the appeal of Jon Stewart and Comedy News and the failure of Air America and even concepts like media justice?
And what about the global media movement?
Why no presence from the Al Jazeera English Channel that can’t get on the air in the US? I was glad to see a rep from Britain’s Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom but there were so few activists from abroad.
What about publishing-I was told that Publisher’s Group West, a major distributor of independent books closed just this past week. Any response? Public Access may be on its last leg. Where was the announcement of a national campaign on that front?
How can we have 3000 people assemble in one place and leave with no clear focused plan of what we do next, how we work together, what’s the next step? I felt the same way when I left earlier conferences in Madison and St. Louis. They were cool events-and heady networking opportunities, but now what?
Enough shmooze-its time to make some news!
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He showed a new film, “AWORK IN PROGRESS” about his own media career at the Memphis conference. See: http://www.newsdissector.org/workinprogress/ Comments to [email protected]