From Conrad Black to Izzy Asper in Canada, and from Michael Powell to Clear Channel in the U.S., the increasing concentration of media ownership in corporate hands has elicited much controversy lately. This corporatization of media has not gone unnoticed however, as a diversity of organizations have signed up for a battle that is not only vital to the future of media, but could be crucial to democracy itself.
On Monday, it was my pleasure to attend the International Media Democracy Day, hosted at Concordia. Held in Montreal for the first time, the day boasted a healthy dose of discussion about media ownership and democracy, including what strategies people can pursue to get the message out there and democratize the media in a meaningful way.
“Corporate dominance of the mass media system is like old wallpaper — we know it’s there, but it has been there so long that many people don’t really think about it anymore” noted Darin Barney, Professor of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill and a panelist at IMDD. “Events like IMDD keep issues of media democracy on the public agenda.”
What is IMDD?
While media democracy events have been going on around the world for decades, the first official IMDD was held four years ago at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Since then, every October 18 sees more IMDDs springing up around the world, encouraging critical thought and engagement with media issues in places as diverse as Canada, the U.S., Latin America, Australia and Europe.
According to www.mediawrench.ca, the official site for Concordia’s IMDD, the three purposes of the day are; education, in that it is important for citizens to understand how the media works; protest against media concentration and undemocratic media; and change, in that it is important to call for media reform.
“[IMDD] is extremely important because it provides a forum by which ‘citizens’, and not consumers, can understand the impact of the media monopoly,” emphasized Associate Professor Yasmin Jiwani of Concordia’s Communication Studies program and a panelist at IMDD. [Media monopoly] curtails citizen participation and indirectly influences the possibility of democratic communication and a democratic society,” she continued.
The event was comprised of a number of events, including panels, workshops, an interactive cinematic discussion and more. The keynote address, entitled ‘Dissecting Discourse,’ was given by Danny Schechter, a documentary filmmaker, television producer and a speaker and writer on a number of media issues. Later on in the event, Schechter hosted a screening of his newest documentary, WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, followed by a Q & A.
One of the more interesting aspects of IMDD, however, was the Media Fair, featuring over 25 progressive alternative media groups and organizations. Here, students and other observers could browse the tables, talk with members from the different groups and look at the photojournalism exhibit.
The National Film Board of Canada (NFB), a sponsor of the event, also launched a new website, Citizenshift (www.citizen.nfb.ca), a web magazine that utilizes written, audio and visual media to stimulate discussion and debate about social issues, as well as showcase the talents of emerging filmmakers in Canada.
Ezra Winton, a member of Concordia’s uberCulture Collective and organizer of the event, discussed the importance of showcasing the diversity of progressive alternative media through the Media Fair. “The concept of media diversity is reified in the Media Fairâ€¦it is important to celebrate this diversity and to educate each other on media issues, to learn how to use the tools of media in order to make our own media and to better understand the media that is there,” he said.
For Winton, the event is a way of demonstrating to people that there are individual and collective avenues through which we can help democratize the media and get other, progressive and alternative voices out there. “It seems to be a big problem in that when you ask around campus every student seems very savvy to the fact that media isn’t democratic,” says Winton. “But I think that’s coupled with an attitude that there’s not a lot we can do about it, and IMDD is part of a global effort to do something about it.”
There was a general consensus among all the participants that, however important and educational IMDD was, it should serve as a springboard for media activism and engagement throughout the year. The struggle for the democratization of media is an ongoing one, and participants emphasized that IMDD is just one aspect of that struggle.
“Such struggles are never finished,” Barney added. “Hopefully, events like this contribute to the effort to educate, organize and mobilize a critical constituency eager to move political authorities in the direction of reform and, in parallel, to establish independent media spaces and practices by whatever means they can muster.”
Where Does Progressive Alternative Media Fit In?
These independent media spaces and practices are perhaps best exemplified by groups such as the Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org), a network of collectively run media outlets that aim to provide alternatives to corporate media. The network, decentralized and autonomous, now boasts independent media centers on every continent.
However, everything is not all rosy for progressive forms of alternative media like IndyMedia, as witnessed by the FBI seizure of a pair of UK servers used by the organization earlier this month. Another attack, facilitated by the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S, involved last month’s confiscation of the broadcasting equipment of Knoxville First Amendment Radio (KFAR), a broadcaster of alternative commentary, news and music for the last three years.
These events hint at the somewhat precipitous existence of these types of media as, like any struggle against hegemonic structures (especially ones with vested interests), proposing alternatives and opposing these vested interests can be fraught with danger.
However, regardless of the risks, Winton emphasizes that the role that progressive alternative media plays is integral, as it gives people alternative viewpoints and perspectives that the mainstream media frequently refuses to give, especially if these points of view are not supportive of the status quo.
“The role of [progressive alternative media] is to offer choice in perspective and to demonstrate to people that our population is diverse, and our media doesn’t represent that diversity,” said Winton. “This is something that [we are trying] to do.”
One of the primary benefits of events like IMDD, and one that was clearly seen on Monday, is that it brings together people who are concerned with media democracy and other media activists in an environment that encourages people to work collectively in opening up media spaces.
Strategy-sharing is also an important aspect of such events, something that can go a long way in providing bonds between different progressive alternative media organizations. “IMDD creates an opportunity for sharing, mobilizing and reinforcing bonds of solidarity,” noted Jiwani. “[It] fosters links of solidarity making the project of democratic communication one that is shared by a collective rather than simply being an individualistic initiative.”
The Corporatization of Media – Why Should We Care?
As noted before, there has been a consistent trend in the convergence in ownership of Canadian media, with the majority of Canada’s news media in the hands of CanWest and Bell Globemedia, a division of Bell Canada. The problems with this have been especially evident in daily newspapers, as exemplified by the controversy over CanWest’s national editorial policy.
Recently, CanWest newspapers have run into controversy again, this time in relations to their explicitly pro-Israel stance and charges of anti-Muslim and Arab bias in their publications. Specifically, the Reuters news agency was angered when it was discovered that some newswire copy stories by their reporters concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq had been edited by inserting the word ‘terrorist’ into stories that didn’t include the term originally.
Leslie Regan Shade, another panelist and an Associate Professor in Concordia’s Communication Studies program, seconded the concerns about the relation between journalistic integrity and the vested interests of the media companies, who rely on corporate advertisements. “When the media is concerned with the bottom line and in placating advertisers, are controversial topics discussed?” she asked. “Do journalists end up self-censoring to please their owners and protect their jobs?”
All of this, as emphasized by a number of participants at IMDD, is intrinsically related to the lack of media democratization today. “The core problem in media today is really just an extension of the political economy that the media is connected with,” says Winton. “[This problem] is the issue of power, and who has itâ€¦we can’t keep up this fantasy of democratic values if we don’t even have a system of communication that retains any of these values,” he added.
Furthermore, as evidenced by some of CanWest’s practices in the past, such as it’s national editorial policy and the aforementioned support for Israel and accusations of anti-Muslim and Arab bias, the corporate ownership of the media frequently colors how stories are covered and, perhaps more importantly, what stories are covered.
The struggle for media democracy, then, is inextricably linked to other progressive movements, as it is essential for issues relating to the disadvantaged to be brought up in a fair manner in the media. When the media is owned by massive, profit-driven corporations, it seems only natural that the journalism would be influenced by the vested interests of the owners. Rather than simply being a mouthpiece for the powerful, events like IMDD emphasize that the media must be a voice for the voiceless, and encourage citizens to critically engage these issues.
For Jiwani, this is one of the most visible benefits of IMDD. “I think [IMDD is] central to highlighting the ways in which these various structures of domination are sustained by a hegemonic view of society that privileges particular interests, interests that exclude those of minority groups and of the disadvantaged.”
Where do we go from here?
Much of the discussion at IMDD revolved around the question of where to go from now, and what the future holds for progressive alternative media and media democratization in general. One interesting aspect of this discussion is the growing role that technology plays in media, and specifically the internet, where there has been an explosion of alternative media websites in recent years.
The internet represents a vital tool for media activists looking to both get and distribute information, as it is, in the majority of cases, less costly and has more broad distribution than the traditional print press. In addition to this, the global reach of the internet also provides for important linkages between media activists, emphasizing the global struggle for media democratization.
“The future looks bright [for progressive alternative media] because as technology allows us privileged Westerners the means of production at lower costs and lower learning curves, it also allows us more access points into the media system that permeates every part of our lives,” says Winton.
However, it is important to not lose focus of the broader struggle of social justice, as media democratization only provides a means to engaging in this struggle. Through the greater distribution and democratization of media, it will be easier and more feasible to address issues that the corporate-owned mainstream media refuses to look at.
“Media democracy is not an end in itself,” adds Barney. “We need a more open, inclusive and politicized public media sphere so that, as citizens, we can engage each other over issues like poverty, racism, sexual violence, militarism and our relationship with the planet, in a manner that is unafraid of diversity and radical alternatives.”
The question could very well be asked, when will we know if we’ve reached a democratic media? Winton, by way of Danny Schechter, had an answer that cut right to the heart of the matter.
“I think Danny Schechter said it best when he said ‘it’s important to remember that there’s still an and in between media and democracyâ€¦it’s not media democracy yet because the two haven’t fused, and there’s still a lot of work to do to be able to say we have a democratic media,’” Winton concluded.
It seems that there’s still a long road ahead to a truly democratic media, and it will truly take more than just any IMDD to do this. It would be foolish to be pessimistic about the whole thing, however. The optimism and excitement pervading IMDD was contagious, and it’s a case of the glass being half empty to say we that a democratic media won’t become a reality in the future – but for now, we just need to take it one day at a time.