Media Reform and Media Revolution




T

he
dominant evaluation of this year’s National Conference on Media
Reform is that it was an overwhelming success. On the contrary—relative
to where the movement could and should be—the conference’s
achievements seem underwhelming as political divisions, a dearth
of democracy, and a short-sighted agenda threaten the future effectiveness
of the movement. 


Free
Press, a national, non- profit media reform organization, which
convened the conference, advocates a reform agenda. Their goal is
to facilitate democratic control over the policies that govern the
press and broadcast media. In their own words, they seek to “generate
policies that will produce a more competitive and public interest-oriented
media system with a strong nonprofit and non-commercial sector.” 


Free
Press’s agenda is dominated by policy reform. As Free Press
directors Ben Scott and Russell Newman put it in their contribution
to

The Future of Media

: “To win just media, we must
deliver just media policy.” As representatives of Free Press
articulate again and again, this is the order in which change occurs:
first just policy, then just media. 


Judging
by the loud cheers when Naomi Klein said, “It’s not a
question of reform, it’s a question of revolutionizing the
media,” media revolution (at least in the abstract) is not
an unpopular idea with conference-goers. (This might be contrasted
with the collective grumbling with which an otherwise extremely
enthusiastic audience received Bill Moyers’s citation of NPR’s
“courageous coverage” of the Iraq war.) 


Indymedia
activists made a prominent show of their discontent by setting up
an ad-hoc Open Publishing center outside of the conference’s
Saturday night keynote, inviting the audience to participate in
an open online discussion about the conference. 


Instead
of regulating the corporate press, Indymedia activists seek to render
it irrelevant by empowering people to “be the media” by
doing their own reporting, creating their own radio stations, and
publishing their own newspapers. Indymedia projects are democratically-run
and decisions are made by consensus by those who participate in
media-making. The overall goal of Indymedia is to empower people
to represent themselves when they are misrepresented in the media. 


The
end result that Indymedia activists are working towards is quite
different from (though not incompatible with) those of Free Press:
a world where historical and current injustices are addressed, where
local democratic self-governance and autonomy have primacy, where
control of resources and production falls under democratic community
control. 


In
five years, with no foundation or corporate funding, Indymedia has
grown to a global media network with almost 200 local collectives
spanning 36 countries and 20 languages. Their websites receive an
estimated 30 million page views per month. Indymedia has many problems
(lack of age, class, gender, and racial diversity are frequently
cited, and some see its chaotic nature as a weakness), but its successes
are undeniable. 


The
point I’m making is not that Indymedia is superior to less
radical media reform efforts; it is that being uncompromising and
being wildly successful are not mutually exclusive. Success at the
grassroots level sprouts from other criteria, of which solidarity,
democracy, and local relevance are examples. 


Looking
at the mandates of the reform-minded Free Press and the revolution-oriented
Indymedia, there is a lot of room for agreement. In principle, Free
Press seeks to open space for the grassroots—and so do Indymedia,
Prometheus Radio, Community Wireless, and hundreds of other initiatives—to
reach an audience without being shut down or marginalized by the
government and corporations. So why is there a problem? 



Structure
of the NCMR 



I

t
has been said that, “Whatever your first issue of concern,
media had better be your second, because without change in the media,
the chances of progress in your primary area are far less likely.”
This seems to have become a sort of mantra for Free Press organizers,
but they have carried it one step further. Media reform, they have
said repeatedly, is the issue of concern here and we shouldn’t
get distracted by other political fights. 


Their
concern is understandable and no doubt well intended. If the movement
is dominated by infighting, it could lose momentum. As Free Press
would have it, we need to stay focused on policy reform and then
we can have independent media. Unfortunately, this concern betrays
a lack of understanding of this movement in particular and politics
in general and could ultimately stifle the emerging resistance instead
of accelerating and empowering it. 


Let’s
look at the format of the conference. Friday: speakers address the
conference, followed by pre-planned panels, workshops, and films,
punctuated by breaks. Panels were followed by a short question period
during which audience members were asked to keep things short and
told to “please ask your question.” Saturday: pre- planned
panels, workshops, and films until 4:30, at which point there were
caucuses, the one official time that people could speak directly
to each other. This was followed by a two-hour “Media Democracy
Showcase” where various organizations set up tables. Soon after,
there was a star-studded keynote session featuring Al Franken, Jim
Hightower, FCC Commissioners, and others. The final day made time
for “action clinics,” followed by a plenary session where
there was a packed five minute summary of concerns with the conference—a
rare moment of questioning. 


I
attended the Independent Media Producers’ Caucus and was surprised
to find that instead of participating in a discussion among peers,
I was subjected to an agenda, set ahead of time, of discussing ways
in which the full room of independent media producers could advance
the agenda of media reform. It felt insulting. 


In
hindsight, I should have been more careful in reading the conference
program, which states: “The objective for these caucuses is
to allow participants from specific stakeholder constituencies to
meet other conference participants from their constituency, allow
participants to articulate this group’s stake and role in media
reform, and to discuss ways this constituency can engage more deeply
in media reform.” 


This
language, and my experience of the “caucus,”  in
which attendees’ protests were repeatedly glossed over, reflects
a fundamental confusion on the part of Free Press organizers about
how popular movements function and what feeds them. 



Whence
the Movement? 



I

t’s
important to note where popular movements do not come from. They
do not come from a concern with policy or with a desire to democratize
federal bureaucracies and regulations; 99.9 percent of Americans
do not dedicate a significant part of their day to thinking about
policy qua policy. However, a clear majority do think there is too
much advertising, do want better news coverage, do want their communities
accurately represented in the media. A significant number have tried
to make their own media only to be shut down—by corporations,
the government, or both. 


It
is likely that the majority of these people have not heard of either
Indymedia or Free Press. The media reform policy agenda is important,
and thousands of people have recognized it as such. But to sustain
its growth, the movement (and its self-appointed leaders) must recognize
where it comes from. It comes from being misquoted. It comes from
an attempt to start a radio station or community wireless network
that is shut down by Clear Channel or Verizon. It comes from Fox
News. It comes from a lack of community reporting. It comes from
a lack of critical coverage of Social Security “reform.”
It comes from propaganda for war. It comes from the stereotypes
of Muslims or women (for example) that are cultivated by the media. 


If
one accepts that this is the case, then the way to cultivate a movement
many times the size of the current one is clear. Rather than enlisting
the (relatively small) existing pool of people into policy wars,
the goal should be to make sure as many people as possible have
the experiences that lead them to become active in the fight against
corporate media and then help them fight their own fight. And win. 


The
National Conference on Media Reform facilitates this in a limited
way, but it seems to do so despite itself. The U.S. part of the
global justice movement that marched in Seattle, Washington DC,
New York, and San Francisco has been learning that asking people
to sign on to your agenda because you know best isn’t the way
to build a movement; it’s the way to limit it. Free Press can
learn this too. It needs to. 



How
Does Reform Happen? 



N

ow
that hundreds of thousands of people are concerned enough to act,
how do we channel that concern into concrete change on the ground?
The question should be asked before an answer is provided. 


The
MoveOn.org/Howard Dean/Free Press model of turning concern into
action, whereby widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo is
channeled into focused campaigns to change specific policies, has
become popular—though concerns about the lack of accountability
or democracy in this model (e.g., who decides what campaigns to
take on) have been voiced. While no one can deny the power of uniting
millions of people in favor of one cause, we must ask: is that enough?
Not nearly. The model is simply a way of harvesting the existing
discontent, not building, connecting, and expanding it. For reforms
to be substantial, the threat of revolution must be real. 


If
we want to reform the media, we must undermine their credibility
and their very existence from one end, while providing a “reasonable”
way out on the other. If they do not heed the call of reform and
we replace them, so much the better. 


In
the U.S., the right understands very well how to use its more militant
factions to move the debate in their direction. I remember hearing
Republican leaders on NPR calling attention to some “challenging”
proposals—by more far right House Republicans—to legislate
the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. They may have
little hope of passing such legislation, but calling attention to
it as an imminent threat helps to move the debate in their direction
and further their anti-abortion agenda. In the case of the right,
cultivating a base of uncompromising militants has only helped them
accomplish their political objectives. 


The
liberal left in the U.S. has yet to figure this out. Democrats wouldn’t
be caught dead saying, “Well, some people are calling for the
breakup of the media monopolies and local democratic control over
the electromagnetic spectrum, but we’re making the much more
reasonable request for more spectrum for LPFM stations in cities.”
But there’s a good reason: broadcasters fund the Democrats
and control the news coverage about them, too. Thankfully, Free
Press is non-partisan. 



In
Front of the Parade 



O

n
many levels, Free Press recognizes these facts remarkably well.
(I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think they do
good work.) However, the organization’s tendency (by no means
monolithic) to try to constrain the movement and keep its own agenda
at the fore will be damaging in the long term. Having placed itself
at the front of the Media Reform parade, it is in danger of confusing
being in front with being the reason the parade is happening—just
as liberals confuse the fact that they were forced to implement
a social safety net by the threat of social movements taking power
with the idea that it was their leadership and benevolence that
made it happen. 


While
it is an extremely important component of a strategy against corporate
control of the media, policy is a secondary consideration in the
building of a movement. Free Press’s Ben Scott and Russell
Newman make the opposite case in

The Future of Media: Resistance
and Reform in the 21st Century

, invoking the potential of consolidation
of control over Internet networks and the end of common carrier
rules: “The Indymedia battle cry of ‘Hate the Media? Be
the media’ will ring hollow if ‘being the media’
requires signing a contract with Comcast or Verizon to have a mass-media
mouthpiece in tomorrow’s media system.” 


But
while the case for media activists of all stripes to lend some kind
of support to Free Press’s policy reform agenda is a compelling
one, the political fact remains: Free Press won’t build the
grassroots movement it needs by asking for the existing movement
to submit to its agenda and stifle their tendencies to build alliances
and to self-organize. 


What
is the goal of the National Conference on Media Reform? Does the
NCMR exist to further the immediate agenda of Free Press, raising
its profile and lending support to its campaigns? If so, this should
be made clear so that the other parts of the anti-corporate media
movement can regroup and create their own venues for networking
and growing the movement as soon as possible. 


Or
is it to further the political goal of creating a media that serves
the public and works for a more just and democratic society? If
so, Free Press needs to water and fertilize the grassroots and sow
seeds of resistance. You get our back, we get yours. That’s
solidarity and that’s how you build a movement. The role of
the conference organizer should be twofold: to address the needs
of the movement, and to facilitate alliances between individual
initiatives. It’s that simple. 



Some
Suggestions




  • Empower,
    don’t hijack:


    It is crucial that people be treated
    as human beings with the ability to make political decisions for
    themselves. It’s our job to give them the tools to do it
    and make the case for doing it. It’s up to them to do the
    rest. People will appreciate this.




  • Cultivate
    the conditions for action instead of giving orders:






    Free Press decided not to set up a media center where people
    could update their blogs, publications, upload audio, etc. But
    it is exactly this kind of resource that will achieve the desired
    effect of amplifying the message of media reform. Hijacking the
    independent media producers’ one chance to talk to each other
    seems to have the opposite effect (a quick glance at Indymedia
    coverage of the conference confirms this).




  • Globalize
    (solidarity is mutual):




    At
    the excellent “Globalizing the Media Reform Movement”
    session, speakers from Korea, Brazil, and Africa spoke of the
    need to support media reform movements inside the U.S. Our ability
    to hold media accountable to the truth will make the difference
    between life and death, poverty and prosperity for millions of
    people. The support of those millions is there, waiting for a
    connection. For some reason, the connection isn’t being made.
    Why not invite delegations from social movements in Argentina,
    Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon, Ukraine, France, Haiti,
    South Africa, India, Nepal, and dozens of indigenous communities
    to speak about how disinformation in the U.S media harms them?
    The potential in those names alone shifts the focus from why the
    movement is so large to why the movement isn’t much, much
    larger.




  • Get horizontal:




    For anyone wanting to organize a serious caucus outside of
    what the conference had already planned, the responsibility for
    promoting it rested firmly on their shoulders. Why not announce
    all independent caucuses at the close of each panel, workshop,
    and film that takes place right before the caucus? Better yet,
    devote one of the concurrent sessions in each time slot to open,
    facilitated discussions on specific areas of strategy and organizing.
    (Those who want to see big names get what they want, and so will
    those who want to build and discuss. Everyone will be happy.)
    Brainstorm ways to get people who are working on the same things
    talking to each other. The result will be a stronger and better
    connected movement.




  • Recognize
    and encourage the contribution of all participants:




    It


    can’t be said often enough that media reform doesn’t
    come from policymakers, it comes from a broad range of movements
    for social justice, independent media, and community organizations.
    It’s not enough to recognize their past contributions; they
    should be an integral part of any successful movement to reform
    the media. 







  • Encourage
    Debate

    :



    There
    are political tensions in the movement, which remained invisible
    to most conference-goers. The majority of attendees are not invested
    in one side or the other of any conflicting set of visions, but
    depriving everyone of a clear delineation of the possible futures
    of the movement only impoverishes our collective imagination while
    maintaining the illusion of unity. 




  • Transparency



    :

    Make public the minutes of your organizing meetings and the archives
    of your mailing list, and consult widely before making major decisions.
    It’s difficult, but you will earn trust, hear a lot of valuable
    suggestions, and your organizing (and its political outcomes)
    will be much more rooted and solid as a result. I know from experience
    that this is a difficult step to take, but, nonetheless, a worthwhile
    one. 




  • Democracy



    :

    At the very least, send out emails asking what people want from
    the next conference and open up an online discussion about how
    best to run the conference. And then listen. Open up the organizing
    to involve other groups and distribute responsibility for different
    parts of the conference. (For example, let the Indymedia set up
    the space for people to make their own media and learn about open
    publishing that didn’t happen this time around.) The result
    will be a richer and more dynamic convention. 



  • React
    to politics with creativity:




    When
    the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression asked Free
    Press for workshop space so that police brutality could be investigated
    independently, Free Press responded that they were “here
    to discuss media reform.” If Free Press can’t see how
    police brutality and the lack of a civilian oversight board is
    a media issue, then there’s a fundamental disconnect.

     




  • Shed the
    bizarre fear of politics:


    Most people realize that they
    live in a world with a lot of different points of view, cultural
    values, and political agendas. There’s no need to protect
    them from anything. The question that should be asked is not how
    conflicting agendas can be kept from clashing, but how dialogue
    can be made as productive and open as possible. The margins and
    the intersections: that’s where the breakthroughs and innovations
    happen.

     




  • Make it
    more accessible:






    Nice work with the scholarships. Now expand them, make the
    price sliding scale, lower it overall.

     




  • Ask not
    what the movement can do for you:






    Where are the strongest social movements in the world? In
    the U.S.? Hire organizers to go and ask them what they need to
    fight the bad media coverage that they are inevitably getting.
    It’s going to be different in every case. Some people need
    legal protection or to be bailed out of jail, some need sophisticated
    web sites, and some need the media reform toolkit. 



The
Response? 



W

hether
Free Press embraces these (and similar) suggestions or not, their
decision will help organizers and activists decide how to respond.
Do we put our energy into other gatherings to fight corporate media?
There is considerable momentum in this direction already, but Free
Press will decide to what extent its National Conference on Media
Reform will stay relevant to the movement as a whole. If it exists
primarily to further one agenda, rather than to build a movement,
it’s better for everyone that we know sooner rather than later. 


If
Free Press decides not to broaden the conference to achieve political
goals and remains focused on a narrow reform agenda, their resources
and formidable organizing power will be missed, but the movement
will ultimately be better served by cultivating gatherings (the
Allied Media Conference is one example) that focus on formulating
a mass-based political challenge to corporate media. 


That
said, if there’s anyone who claims that defeating corporate
media is possible without a broad based movement that takes social
justice into account, that’s a dialogue I’m keen to participate
in, as are many others. Now all we need is a venue.





Dru Oja Jay works
with Indymedia, the Indigenous Peoples’ Solidarity Movement,
Haiti Action Montréal, and is coordinating editor of the



Dominion.