This is chapter Fourteen of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. In its fourteenth chapter Leslie Zinn discusses media makeovers.
Leslie Zinn, born in 1978, you were an accomplished media personality on both TV and radio, famous for resisting incursions on free speech. You have advanced RPS policy and analysis not only about media, but in all matters, ably using your show for the purpose. Do you remember what got you into media and journalism, and into being radical?
In school, I was adrift and took a journalism course and had an inspiring professor, so I took another. At the same time, I enjoyed technology and got into video. I wasn’t bad on camera, so I did some video commentaries, mostly for fun, and it took over my life. It wasn’t like being born to sing. Had I taken a different course and met a different compelling professor, I would have likely led a different life.
My home life had been progressive, so when I started writing for the campus paper in my junior and senior years in college, I was already covering overwhelmingly progressive affairs. I was radical, even revolutionary by age 24. At 30 I was on radio with my own show, covering the economic meltdown and its aftermath.
I have been asking folks to recount a particularly moving early personal episode. Could you do that too?
Within RPS I would say the formation of Journalists for Social Responsibility, but if I have to choose one that was more personal, I’d say the massive women’s demonstrations all around the U.S. and the world. It wasn’t attending them that so moved me. It wasn’t seeing the numbers, the slogans, the energy. It wasn’t even hearing about events across the country.
Two other things had more impact. First, I got in a conversation with a couple of Trump supporters who weren’t what I expected. They were caring, thinking folks, blasted by their circumstances. Taking for granted the plight of many others and seeing no end to it, they were hopeful that Trump would upend things and something good would emerge. They were wrong, but far from dumb or ignorant. They understood much about how crass and venal society was that many on the left didn’t get. They listened to my words and I doubted, at that time, how many on the left would have listened to theirs. Before long Trump’s racism lost them.
I knew that our gigantic resistance wouldn’t immediately overthrow Trump much less transform into a movement beyond the liberalism that was preponderant at the early events. I knew achieving all that would require tremendous effort. I began to feel the need to win over citizens of our world, which meant hearing and respecting their concerns. I knew that sometimes gargantuan outpourings won gains, but other times not. I felt a pressure, responsibility, and mandate for all children. I felt intent to help the emerging resistance to Trump become a movement for positive change beyond getting liberals back in office, beyond reestablishing business as usual.
An obvious factor in social change is having our own media as well as impacting the mainstream. How did these aspects develop in RPS?
Even pre-RPS, we knew mainstream media was a cabal supporting corporate continuity. We knew it sold its audience to advertisers and constrained its content to keep its audience amenable to being commercially exploited. We knew alternative media, by contrast, existed to provide audiences information to sustain change. But then RPS solidified critical awareness and legitimated skeptical attitudes toward mainstream media and also challenged alternative media. RPS didn’t say, no, don’t pursue your alternative agenda. It said, wait a minute, your alternative agenda is good, but your vehicle needs a major tune-up.
RPS said that for alternative media to deliver alternative information it needed alternative structure. It wouldn’t optimally provide activist information if its daily operations implicitly ratified society’s guiding norms. We had long understood that that meant our roles and methods should not mimic society’s racist and sexist hierarchies and that we shouldn’t be owned by some person pulling strings tethering everyone. But we didn’t understand the full implications of mimicking the corporate division of labor common to all mainstream institutions, or of blindly accepting market allocation. RPS pushed these two additional advisories about how alternative media ought to become better, and alternative media, though initially resistant, steadily changed.
What did the changes look like? How were they implemented? Did they affect alternative media’s output?
Basically, alternative media added to our internal guidelines that we should not only reject men and women or blacks and whites doing systematically different types of work and having systematically different benefits and influence, we should also eliminate old corporate divisions of labor and in its place institute balanced job complexes. Indeed, alternative media may have been the first workplaces which systematically undertook classlessness.
It wasn’t easy. In a society that has a coordinator class above a working class, people enter the workforce expecting to be in one or the other. Upbringing, schooling, living conditions, and general culture acclimate everyone to fit available roles without resisting.
Consider an alternative media institution of twenty, or two hundred, people. Odds are that before the transformations, the institution’s workforce was class divided: Some employees made decisions, others carried out instructions. RPS said we should reapportion tasks so every job was comparably empowering. Only that could maintain collective self management, and only collective self management could remove class division.
But what about the complaint that if those used to making the decisions did more rote tasks the operation would collapse?
Some said we should adopt balanced jobs because it is right and once we are done, we will be better able to fulfill our media responsibilities. Others said, wait a minute, the shift will be disastrous. It may seek a worthy goal, but it will drastically reduce our current output and quality. Yes, those in the latter camp had a view that would preserve their advantages, but they said that wasn’t driving them. They sought the greater good.
It wasn’t easy, but change came. Training and support went a long way. The transition from most employees being ill prepared, to most becoming sufficiently competent, to most becoming powerfully excellent, didn’t take long. What more highly educated folks had been doing was for the most part quite attainable by less highly educated folks. The biggest obstacle was confidence.
Some organizations transitioned by having prior empowered workers do a better mix of tasks while also training others. The temporary addition to their workload was considered fair since, for so long, they had been advantaged. Other organizations initiated a period of internal oversight of work, sort of like when you bring a new person aboard and you watch to make sure they are competent before giving them similar freedom of action as long term employees.
In any case, it wasn’t long before alternative media institutions had workers who were highly knowledgable about the policies, methods, and agendas of their whole operation. Self management began to involve all workers. The switch, once we understood it’s many dimensions, didn’t require someone who was uninterested in, unsuited for, or who hated drawing, to draw book covers. It didn’t require someone who hated doing calculations to keep financial records. Rather, people would choose a job composed of tasks that they could do well that was also comparably empowering to the jobs other people did.
One person didn’t do only finances, thereby enjoying a monopoly on knowledge critical to all decisions. One person didn’t do only editorial, thereby only determining substance. For each type of activity in the operation, for every area of work, various people participated. No one did overwhelmingly rote and obedient tasks. No one had insufficient connection to determining outcomes.
The impact on alternative media was to unleash the creativity of previously subordinate participants. Just as women and blacks earlier fighting against being subordinate led to improvements in alternative media coverage of gender and race, so did worker’s battling for change lead to improved coverage of class.
Rejecting markets was more subtle but once alternative media began to regard market allocation with passionate hostility, we began exploring ways alternative media could collectively work together rather than each project competitively seeking donor support and audience for self, but not for all.
What about challenging mainstream media?
Before RPS, we understood mainstream media’s corporate agendas but we did little more than write condemnations. RPS said, if it is right to fight against wars and global warming and to combat racist policing, shouldn’t we also pressure mainstream media?
And so emerged a sustained opposition to mainstream media that went beyond analyzing it to challenging its mainstream payment procedures, salaries, and decision making methods, as well as demanding new sections of coverage that would elevate community and dissident voices. We sought accountability and we even fought for financial transfers from mainstream media to grassroots efforts.
What were some key events seeking new media?
In the first few years four steps stood out. First, we created Journalists for Social Responsibility. This took on mainstream norms and institutions with diverse campaigns noted above. It caught on in journalism schools, as well.
Second, we created Press the Press, a broad popular movement to demand changes in mainstream media. This coordinated with, supported, and sometimes pushed Journalists for Social Responsibility.
Third, we pursued workplace organizing inside alternative and mainstream media and built linkages between the two, which greatly aided each.
Fourth, we urged alternative media projects to be mutually supportive rather than destructively competitive with one another regarding everything from fundraising to coordinating news and opinion coverage.
Leslie, RPS shied away from direct ties with alternative media, but actively sought support from it and submitted content to it. RPS also helped with mainstream media battles. What guided these choices?
The thinking was, if RPS made direct connections with specific alternative media, including bringing those media under RPS auspices, ultimately, that media would lose its independence. Whatever we might prefer, the pressure to praise RPS and to repress criticism of RPS would affect choices.
Now you might think, sure, but so what? If RPS has some media that it is staffing and financially supporting, but other alternative media exist as well, won’t the latter provide a counter pressure?
The answer is, yes, but as RPS grew, its media would become steadily more robust and secure, and other alternative media might fade in comparison. The former would grow. The latter would shrink. By the time RPS won, we might have a single organization dominant in the world of communications and information. So our thinking was, if we don’t want that, why take a path that could potentially lead toward it? So we sent content, sought support, and joined battles against mainstream media, and we even provided funds for all alternative media to share, but we didn’t become institutionally entwined with specific alternative media.
How did alternative media fiscal security come about?
Mainstream media sells audience to advertisers. For alternative media to do that would obstruct our editorial aims. We couldn’t serve fiscally poor audiences if our aim was to attract viewers with disposable income. We couldn’t provide comprehensively honest information and vision if our aim required that the audience we dangled before advertisers should be ready to buy products rather than being made disgruntled, depressed, or actively hostile to commercialism by our content. We couldn’t optimally insightfully criticize market driven commercialism when we were constantly commercially market driven.
But if we refused ads, how could we pay our bills? While that difficulty had existed for decades, the internet worsened the situation. The prior solution had been to seek listener, viewer, and reader donations, or sometimes foundation donations, as well as informed purchases of books, magazines, and the like. To reject ad revenue, you had to get revenue from your audience. The internet made this harder by establishing a view among users that information should be free.
People would visit sites that had ads all over and think, great, I don’t have to buy the information and therefore there is no cost. They ignored that the price of what they bought throughout society included the cost of ads, and that their attention was being sold to advertisers, which should have been understood to be a major personal and social violation of worthy media motives.
Then the same people would visit alternative media sites. Before the idea that all information should be free took off, appeals for donations seemed reasonable. After free media became preferred, such appeals seemed annoying.
Why should I pay when I can get whatever information I want free from other sites? Why should I get a print subscription, or buy a book? Why should I send a donation? The change was a steady meme-like diffusion of resistance to paying. Alternative media progressively became even more perpetually fund-seeking than in its past, or ad-driven. We felt we had no other way to survive.
Alternative media at first seemed to grow with the internet, but it undeniably also suffered major losses. And the losses weren’t only having to become fixated, sort of like political candidates, on fund raising. Another set of problems had to do with content and scope. The internet, and in particular Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging, acclimated people to short content. This, in turn, wreaked havoc with people’s attention spans and content expectations. When you get used to short, you seek short. Long starts to feel onerous and even oppressive. You start to assert that short is intrinsically good and long is intrinsically bad. You move from in depth, to less deep, to downright shallow. You drift toward a short is beautiful orientation, partly desperately trying to preserve audience, but in time literally extolling and advancing the ethos of short, shorter, shortest as if this trend owed to some positive logic rather than to the dictates of ad driven commercialism. We became what we did, and then we made believe we did it for reasons casting a quite false patina on ourselves.
But returning to fiscal security, the answer was RPS argued to all who would hear – both in its membership and beyond – that alternative media was a public good and should be financed by collective support from the whole community. Each item should be free to the person using it with the project as a whole funded by the community’s largesse. Separate alternative media institutions shouldn’t compete with each other for donor support. We should have a kind of fledgling participatory planning inside left media.
The whole progressive community should put up funds to disperse among alternative media projects in accord with sustaining their delivery of socially desirable output. Since the broader society should also contribute, RPS initiated a campaign for government support of dissident media, and for the spoils of public support to be collectively shared.
RPS brokered meetings of alternative media operations to form an alternative media industry council and urged the community of users to interactively and cooperatively negotiate the output of alternative media. The idea was that various projects would propose what they wanted to do, and what it would cost, and the sum of all that from each of its participants for each new year was what the whole alternative media industry wanted to do. This would be made known to those who use alternative media and the involved community would make known their reaction, and how much they would provide. And it would go back and forth a bit. And there would be an agreement, and thereafter, for the year, each operation would have a budget to pursue its own efforts.
All alternative media operations who subscribed to this had to forego individual fundraising, or, if they had contacts they wanted to pursue, had to report doing so and allot the donations to the collective bounty. Different projects had different budgets solely because of having different agendas that required more or less staff and resources.
It was a small instance of cooperative planning…
Yes, and while it revealed much about such planning, it wasn’t a full test because it was so partial. Nonetheless, it eliminated valuable time going to endless fund raising, and it caused alternative media groups to see one another as partners rather than competitors, which led to more synergistic relations.