Wielding Weapons of Mass Persuasion
R ecall the excitement on March 19, 2003 when U.S. and British forces launched, during prime-time television hours, their long-awaited sequel, Gulf War, Part II. After months of war promotion, U.S. citizens were perched on the couch, anxious for the catharsis of a neatly crushed Iraqi military. At least, this is the public to whom the major networks were speaking. But within the United States the public was not so united.
Opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq grew rapidly, due in large part to advances in personal computing and electronic communications. Though a great deal has been written about the impact of the Internet on anti-war organizing, little has been written about anti-war TV—a relatively recent development that has informed, expanded, and mobilized the ranks of the anti-war movement, while engaging millions who would otherwise be forced to rely on the depthless drivel of mainstream television.
Though many have yet to tune in, anti-war radio is nothing new. Its history can be traced back to the birth of Pacifica in the years following World War II. What is new and exceptional in the history of the American peace movement is the commitment of anti-war TV and radio organizations to join forces.
Progressives in the United States, after years of concerted effort, have succeeded in building independent networks committed to progressive values, public education, and participatory democracy. What follows is a brief history of the intersection of anti-war and independent media movements, focused largely on the broadcast media.
F or over half a century, critics have contested that corporate control of the broadcast media would inexorably lead to the erosion of the public airwaves. As the number of media corporations continues to shrink, policy makers, legal experts and media activists are still arguing over the control of information and the shaping of public opinion by private interests.
The Communications Act of 1934 stipulates that the airways are public property and requires the licensing of commercial broadcasters. The main condition for use of the broadcast spectrum requires broadcasters to serve the public in
terest, convenience, and necessity, although the FCC has yet to establish guidelines for "public interest, convenience, and necessity."
From 1949 through 1987, public interest advocates succeeded in enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. This doctrine required broadcast licensees to carry reasonably "balanced coverage" of issues of public importance. In order to receive and renew their licenses, broadcast licensees had to comply with the Fairness Doctrine.
In the 1940s, the government also began to regulate the film industry. Shortly after World War II, the Supreme Court ruled that the Hollywood studio system constituted a monopoly in violation of antitrust laws and ordered studios to give up ownership of movie theaters. Meanwhile, McCarthyism was sweeping across the country and Congress began investigations of alleged communist infiltration of the motion-picture industry. Blacklisting of allegedly subversive writers, directors, actors, and scores of other professionals accelerated in the mid-to-late 1940s.
Opposition to McCarthyism and a growing peace movement fueled the struggle to build the Pacifica Foundation, which was founded in 1946 by a group of war resisters and free speech advocates. Lee Hill was the visionary behind the burgeoning community of individuals who, in response to World War II and the deepening Cold War, sought to establish an independent radio station in Berkeley that would serve as a forum for radical views and diverse cultural expression. The launch of KPFA in 1949 marked the beginning of a long struggle by peace activists to build broadcast media structures independent of government and corporate interests.
W orld War II had played a decisive role in galvanizing the civil rights and women’s rights movements and the 1950s saw the formation of organized opposition to segregation and race and gender discrimination. Television also played an important role in the 1950’s civil rights movement by exposing millions of people to the plight of African Americans in the segregated South.
In 1950, the Korean War was launched and, as the Cold War intensified, the U.S. government continued to build its nuclear arsenal and began its rise as a military-industrial state. The Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran-Wood Act, was passed in 1950, requiring members of the Communist Party to register with the U.S. government. Other sections of the act declared it unlawful to conspire to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, to conceal membership in the Communist Party when seeking government employment, or for Communists to use a United States passport. Communists and members of other organizations considered to be dangerous to public safety could also be excluded or deported from the United States. In March 1950, artist Paul Robeson became the first American banned from television when NBC prevented his appearance on "Today with Mrs. Roosevelt" because of his affiliation with the Communist Party.
The 1950s also marked the emergence of counter-cultural values in U.S. society and a growing polarization between those who believed in the "American" Dream and those who did not. University of Chicago historian Thomas Frank writes in The Conquest of Cool (1997), "By the middle of the 1950s, talk of conformity, of consumerism, and of the banality of mass-produced culture were routine elements of middle-class American life." A 1950’s youth movement known as the Beats began experimenting with non-traditional writing, music, art, and photography. In a documentary titled The Life and Times of Allen Ginsburg , Abbie Hoffman, a well-known anti-Vietnam war activist, links the culture of dissent in the 1960s to the rising counter-cultural movements of the 1950s: "You couldn’t have had the Sixties without the Fifties and the Fifties were the Beats."
T he progressive movements of the 1960s culminated in an explosion of diverse forms of alternative media. By the end of the decade, over 400 alternative newspapers were published by different organizations throughout the U.S., reaching millions of people. Marxist political organizations, like the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, had always published their own newspapers. But by the end of the 1960s, hundreds of new local and national groups, such as the Black Panther Party, began to publish their own newspapers as well.
In addition, college papers and alternative weeklies sprouted up around the country and many groups also began to experiment with film as an organizing tool. People organized film collectives, focusing on a range of social and political issues such as the war in Vietnam, Third World liberation, racial injustice, women’s rights, student strikes, and labor battles. Local and national networks developed to produce and distribute programs on issues ignored or distorted by the mainstream media. Between 1967 and 1968, Newsreels were established in New York and California and, within two years, film collectives were founded in Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Portland, Ann Arbor, and a number of other cities around the United States.
In 1964, a few years after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, just as the Vietnam War was beginning, director Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove , a 20th century masterpiece of political satire. In his portrayal of the horror of nuclear brinkmanship, Stanley Kubrick joined hundreds of other filmmakers in the 1960s who rejected the wars of the U.S. government and the nationalist hysteria seeping into popular culture. Also in response to the artifice and banality of Hollywood, an underground film movement emerged in New York and in other major cities across the U.S. Expressions of anti-war sentiment by avant-garde filmmakers appeared in numerous experimental meditations on the atrocities of war.
Although the Vietnam War was the first war to be televised, Newsreel collectives provided alternative coverage of the fighting and the widespread opposition to war. Because the collectives were composed not only of filmmakers and journalists, but also political activists who used their films as organizing tools, the Newsreels had a significant impact on the society at large. It was common for members of film collectives to bring their films and projectors to churches and community centers in order to provoke discussion and political mobilization. The Newsreels marked the beginning of broad outreach campaigns using documentary film, produced and distributed within the U.S. and internationally. Documentaries from this era include Black Panther , Chicago Convention Challenge, Boston Draft Resistance Group, People ‘ s War, Columbia Revolt , and Ms . America .
I n 1970, Erik Barnouw shook the world with the introduction of what is considered by many to be the most far-reaching anti-war documentary ever made, Hiroshima/Nagasaki , August 1945 . The film was based on Japanese newsreel images of the indescribable human devastation resulting from atomic warfare. The newsreels had been kept under seal by the U.S. government until the 1960s. With the release of Hiroshima / Nagasaki , the public was exposed to footage of Japanese victims of U.S. attacks suffering from catastrophic burns and radiation disease.
Winter Soldier , also produced in 1970, set a precedent for collaborations between independent filmmakers and social change organizations. The Winterfilm Collective worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War to document the personal experiences of veterans bearing witness to war crimes. Many of the veterans had been active participants in the U.S. military’s executions, tortures, and bombings of civilians. The anti-war movement mobilized millions of Americans on the basis of these and other testimonies, setting the stage for future activist/filmmaker collaborations.
Film collectives in the 1970s also began to diversify their pools of filmmakers and broaden their constituencies. Issues of representation were debated and new communities entered the growing movement. In 1973, New York Newsreel recast itself as Third World Newsreel and began, much more extensively, to explore issues of importance to immigrants and people of color.
Other alternative institutions were created in the 1970s to bridge the gap among independent filmmakers, funders, policy makers and the broader society. In 1973, The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers was founded, creating a coalition of organizations that would advocate for, and bring together, independent filmmakers. In the last few decades, the AIVF has grown from a few hundred to a few thousand members, and now houses a library, organizes a festival bureau, and publishes its own magazine, The Independent .
When cable television was introduced in the early 1970s, the FCC mandated that new cable systems, beginning in 1972, would be required to provide channels for government, educational purposes, and public access. Cable companies were also required to provide equipment and training for local communities wishing to produce public access programming. Community television stations were established around the country as a result of this legislation. However, in 1979 the Supreme Court struck down the FCC cable requirements, stating that the FCC did not have the authority to rule on this issue.
In spite of this ruling, many municipalities around the country were able to negotiate for public access channels, and a public access TV movement began to grow. George Stoney, now professor of film at New York University, was one of the leaders of the public access movement advocating for people’s inclusion in the realm of television production and programming, so that alternatives to commercial TV could be created. Merging his training as a documentary filmmaker and his background in community activism and struggles for racial justice and free speech, Stoney co-founded the Alternative Media Center, one of many organizations created in the 1970s and 1980s to provide opportunities for people to participate in social change media and, for progressives in particular, to contribute to the public debate.
In 1976, the Alliance for Community Media was established to represent public access organizations and the millions of others who advocate for community media. The ACM also provides training and technical assistance, supports grassroots organizing, and advocates for progressive media legislation.
In 1978, Doug Kellner and Frank Morrow founded an Austin-based cable access program titled, "Alternative Views." This program was one of the first television series in the U.S. to present progressive views on social and political issues. The series included original productions and acquired films and documentaries on a broad range of issues: U.S. militarism, the peace movement, civil liberties, military interventions in South and Central America, Middle East politics, labor struggles, racial justice, and news not covered in the mainstream media. The series also featured hour-long interviews with leading anti-war activists like Helen Caldicott, George Wald, Ramsey Clark, Daniel Ellsberg, and Michael Klare. In 1984, Kellner and Morrow began distributing "Alternative Views" to over 20 cities throughout the United States.
A s a result of the declining cost of video equipment, independent media organizations proliferated in the 1980s, and continued to advance progressive values in what was an increasingly conservative period of U.S. history. When the Republicans took the presidency and Senate in 1981, the FCC reexamined the Fairness Doctrine, eventually issuing the 1985 Fairness Report, which found that the Fairness Doctrine reduced the quality and quantity of public affairs programming, did not serve the public interest, and defied the First Amendment. Nevertheless, the FCC refused to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, the commission suggested that Congress review the legislation. Almost immediately a pair of decisions from the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals forced the Commission’s hand. In response, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine on both public interest and constitutional grounds. Although the DC Circuit Court upheld the Commission’s decision, the court did so in a way that left room for Congress to come back and pass the doctrine again.
There was at least one noteworthy attempt to pass the doctrine into law in the late 1980s. On June 3, 1987, before the FCC had repealed the Fairness Doctrine, the House passed a bill codifying the doctrine by 302-102. President Reagan then vetoed the bill, calling the Fairness Doctrine inconsistent with freedom of speech and the press. Congress did not challenge the veto.
On the activist front, Paper Tiger TV, a radical video collective founded in 1981 by DeeDee Halleck and several others, launched a public access project that critiqued the mainstream media—most famously, perhaps, in Herb Schiller’s critical readings of the New York Times . The collective sought to empower individuals marginalized in society through videography featuring self-representation. Roar! The Paper Tiger Guide to Media Activism reads: "TV is being held captive. It is our mission to liberate it." Within a span of 20-odd years, Paper Tiger TV has created over 400 programs, workshops, and trainings designed to encourage participation in community/ media activism.
In the mid-1980s, the launch of the home satellite industry once again transformed the media landscape; by 1986 more than 1.5 million Americans owned satellite dishes and were able to receive over 100 channels. Because of the increasing popularity of satellite TV, in 1986 Paper Tiger TV founder DeeDee Halleck, along with numerous supporters like Steve Pierce and filmmaker Robin Lloyd, founded Deep Dish Television—a collective of progressive activists and videographers determined to utilize the emerging satellite technology in order to reach millions around the country with access to satellite programming.
Deep Dish TV began to rent time on satellites to distribute original programming to public access stations around the country. Halleck describes her experience with satellite activism in Hand-Held Visions , a book on community media that was published in 2002: "Deep Dish has proved that distribution on satellite is a powerful organizing tool. Uplinking programs can strengthen a sense of community across wide geographical regions."
In addition to producing, Deep Dish TV built a solid network of community media organizations across the country and, at a time when there were roughly 1,200 access channels in the U.S., DDTV began to work with over 200 of these stations in key cities throughout the country. Deep Dish TV became a place where videographers and producers from all over the country could send their programming. Relative to the amount of access alternative media had to the public in the past, this access was greatly expanded by DDTV. Deep Dish programs covered issues relating to U.S. military interventions, the prison industry, LGBT communities, AIDS, the conservative backlash, and a host of other topics.
Launched on satellite and cable TV in 1987, "America’s Defense Monitor," produced by the Center for Defense Information, is another progressive television series that presents critical documentaries on U.S. foreign policy, the expansion of the U.S. military, nuclear and conventional weapons, and interna- tional affairs.
The birth of "America’s Defense Monitor," Paper Tiger TV, Deep Dish TV, and other organizations established in the tradition of the newsreel collectives, marked the beginnings of an institutional structure for alternative video media. This was a structure that appropriated television time in a way that Newsreel never did, but still maintained community-based production and distribution.
O ne of the 1990s most active contributors to the independent media movement was public interest pioneer John Schwartz. He co-founded "The 90’s," a PBS-syndicated television program, and the 90’s Channel, a full-time progressive network airing independent productions on cable systems in major cities around the country. From 1990 to 1991, The 90’s Channel aired segments from The Gulf War Crisis TV Project, which constituted the first anti-war TV project intended to mobilize Americans against U.S. imperialism in Iraq and the Middle East. The Gulf War Crisis TV Project was produced and distributed over public access TV by the Deep Dish collective, and represented a large-scale collaboration of filmmakers, peace activists, and war resisters.
Forced off the air in 1995 by TCI, then the world’s largest cable system, John Schwartz launched a new initiative in July 1995 called Free Speech TV. Unable to acquire a full-time cable channel, FSTV turned to the distribution model developed years earlier by Deep Dish TV and Paper Tiger Television. FSTV distributed free progressive programming to a network of 50 community access cable stations across the country.
FSTV’s content during this formative period consisted entirely of programs acquired from independent film and videomakers. These programs dealt with a broad range of social, political, cultural, and environmental issues. Another strand of FSTV programming consisted of serial programs such as "Paper Tiger TV," "Deep Dish TV," "Dyke TV," "Termite TV," "America’s Defense Monitor," and "Rights & Wrongs." In 1998, Free Speech TV partnered with Human Rights Watch and 20 other social justice organizations to present "Just Solutions: Campaigning for Human Rights."
In 1999, an unprecedented convergence of anti-globalization activists, video collectives, print journalists, and photographers at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle launched the first Independent Media Center. The IMC became the center for journalists and videographers, who in collaboration with Paper Tiger TV, Deep Dish TV, Whispered Media, and Free Speech TV, produced daily reports on the street protests and police repression surrounding the WTO meeting. Free Speech TV’s website hosted video streams that were webcast around the world.
The tremendous impact of the IMC and Internet efforts inspired the formation of Independent Media Centers around the world. Today there are over 100 of these collectives on every continent with thousands of journalists and activists working to break through the corporate media blockade. FSTV continues to broadcast "Indymedia Newsreel," which reports on progressive grassroots organizing around the world.
In 1998, after years of political and legal struggle by independent media advocates, the FCC began enforcing a requirement of the 1992 Cable Act stipulating that Direct Broadcast Satellite companies must set aside 4 to 7 percent of their spectrum for non-commercial educational uses. In December 1999, another progressive television network was born when WorldLink TV acquired a channel on DirecTV and DISH Network, as part of this new federally mandated public interest obligation. WorldLink presents alternative perspectives, news from around the world, and international cultural programming. One of its most provocative programs is "Mosaic," a compilation of daily reports from dozens of TV stations throughout the Middle East. WorldLink also airs a regular program of media criticism hosted by Globalvision’s Danny Schecter.
In January 2000, Free Speech TV was awarded a full-time satellite channel on DISH Network and has since continued to provide free programming to its community cable affiliates.
21st Century TV
T he events of September 11 and the U.S. government’s war against Afghanistan compelled the independent media community to further solidify and expand its international network of activists, journalists, and filmmakers. Within nine days of September 11, Free Speech TV began producing and broadcasting "World in Crisis," a top-of-the-hour news update that evolved into a half-hour weekly current affairs program, providing a national outlet for voices speaking out for peace, tolerance, and civil liberties.
Also immediately following September 11, journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of the nationally syndicated radio program "Democracy Now!" launched telecasts on Free Speech TV. Presenting news and critical analysis, "Democracy Now!" served as a forum for voices excluded from the mainstream media.
Today, in the face of yet another U.S.-led war against Iraq, "Democracy Now!" continues to serve as a lifeline for people around the country who abhor the U.S. government’s wars abroad and its wars at home.
In July 2002, World in Crisis evolved into FSTV’s partner-driven Mobile-Eyes campaigns. For these national "teach-ins," FSTV focuses on a single issue and partners with social justice organizations seeking national press coverage. Action alerts created in cooperation with partner groups, along with public service announcements listing contact information, are broadcast as part of each Mobile-Eyes campaign.
FSTV’s November campaign, Mobile-Eyes Against Military Interventions, focused on the history of U.S. military interventions, its current role as sole superpower, and the movement to stop the war in Iraq. Among other programs, the series featured a roundtable discussion on the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, footage from a CUNY teach-in, several recently released documentaries on U.S. policy in the Middle East, and coverage of 15 anti-war demonstrations from around the world. Partners included the American Friends Service Committee, International ANSWER, National Network to End the War in Iraq, and the Not In Our Name Project.
FSTV’s current campaign, Mobile-Eyes: Resisting War & Repression, has included live broadcasts (often with national radio simulcasts via Pacifica Radio) from the major anti-war demonstrations in Washington DC, New York City, and San Francisco. Current partners include the Institute for Policy Studies, United for Peace & Justice, Global Exchange, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, along with partners from the Mobile-Eyes Against Military Interventions campaign.
Shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq, WorldLink TV launched "The Active Opposition," a series hosted by actor and activist Peter Coyote, featuring analysis and commentary on the Bush administration’s war on Iraq, critiques of the mainstream media’s war coverage, and recent footage from Middle East TV networks.
At the onset of the war, both WorldLink and FSTV pre-empted their regular programming to provide round-the-clock coverage of the U.S.-led attacks on Iraq, and war opposition and resistance. FSTV collaborated with WorldLink TV and Pacifica Radio to produce two days of live coverage from the streets and studios of San Francisco, including interviews with leaders of the anti-war movement, and footage from Middle East television networks recording responses abroad.
Since September 2002, "Democracy Now!," Pacifica Radio, WorldLink TV, FSTV, Multimedia Group, and the INN Report , an alternative news magazine produced in collaboration with New York Indymedia activists, have mounted an historic initiative to provide the international community with a front- row seat to some of the largest anti-war demonstrations since the Vietnam War. Live satellite uplink collaborations are showing millions of people in the U.S. and around the world that America is not unified around Bush’s war.
Toting camcorders, computers, and satellite uplink equipment, people from independent media organizations are collaborating in ways that, just a few years ago, were unimaginable. Not only are networks like Free Speech TV and World-Link airing footage of peace rallies around the world, but they are also offering free distribution of coverage of U.S. anti-war mobilizations to the international community. In March, the European Broadcast Union, a network of about 80 community radio and public television stations, and the Arab Radio and Television Network, which operates a dozen channels throughout the Middle East, downlinked the coverage produced by Pacifica, FSTV, and WorldLink. Expressing his hope that the anti-war TV movement will combat the distortions of the mainstream media, FSTV producer Brian Drolet says: "Most people around the world recognize that this war on Iraq, and the 12 years of bombings and sanctions that preceded it, has been orchestrated by a small number of ruling elites. But to the extent that it seems that all Americans are united behind this war, which is the image the U.S. government tries to portray, Americans themselves—innocent civilians—become targets for people who are filled with anger for what the U.S. government and corporations are doing…. The hope is that the cycle of violence can finally be stopped."
Linda Mamoun is communications director of FSTV.