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An interview with Charlotte Ryan
Charlotte Ryan is the author of Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grass Roots Organizing. She is also co-director of the Boston College Media Research and Action Project and part of the Department of Sociology.
What is the Media Research and Action Project at Boston College?
The Media Research Action Project works with grassroots organizations that are underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream media. We do a lot of work with labor and a lot of work on domestic violence. My co-director Bill Ganson and I were social movement sociologists and we became fascinated with the question of how American social movements communicate with their bases and how they address the issue of increasing corporate control of media.
So we began in 1985 to look for cases where social movements had reached beyond their usual constituency, to broaden or strengthen their membership in situations where they had a conscious communications strategy, and see how that strategy worked, and how was it tied to an organizing strategy. The book Prime Time Activism is the result of that first investigation, where we found a number of labor organizations and anti-intervention groups working around Central American issues: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua in particular, that had effectively found ways to break through to reach broader audiences within the labor movement or working class communities that were generally worried or suspicious of critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and they effectively found solutions.
How do most Americans get their information?
The vast majority of people used to get their information from newspapers, and then it became television and, increasingly, it has become talk radio, the Internet, and cable. So it's a much more fragmented pattern at this point. It's not an easy pattern to penetrate if you're trying to develop dissemination channels for an independent point of view. It's particularly troubling in terms of local TV news. If we were to pick two important targets, one I would pick is radio, and another would be local TV where the vast majority of working class or lower middle class populations get their news. Newspapers are obviously critical, but the numbers reading them are going down. There are some options with independent radio. If someone is listening in their car as they drive home, independent radio has a wonderful opportunity. It's harder with local TV news, because not everyone gets cable and the cable news programs are so constricted in their budgets.
We began a project five years ago to try to figure out whether or not we could impact local mainstream TV news. We did it because we were working in Grove Hall in Roxbury, which is a largely African American and secondarily Caribbean community, with large numbers of immigrants from the West Indies like Trinidad and Haiti, as well as from places like Cape Verde and Sierra Leone. People's children were routinely being shown on TV as criminals. The the community would be shown when there was an accident. People felt deeply hurt. They felt that their children's spirits were being attacked by the kind of coverage that was going on. There was one precipitating case, which was a little girl who had been sexually assaulted. The TV news, while not showing her face or saying her name, showed her relatives and her house so that everyone in the community knew exactly who the nine-year-old girl was. At that point, the community rose up. We began working with them to document people's resentments of local TV news, to think about what we would vision as real news, to start a media watch project to prove that local TV news was as bad as people said it was. We started working with the Boston Association of Black Journalists to try to negotiate with the mainstream media. Because we involved the African-American journalists and the Boston Association of Black Journalists—many of whom were working in local TV news on the four major networks—we got hearings with the Boston Globe and print media, as well as the major TV networks.
A persistent charge is that the media, particularly NPR and PBS, are liberal. What's the evidence to support that?
Individual journalists may be liberal, but that is different from the media content being liberal and that's an important distinction to make. A few years back Bill Hoynes and David Croteau did a study of Public Broadcasting's “McNeil/Lehrer” and I did a study of National Public Radio. We covered every single speaker on “McNeil/Lehrer”, every single show on PBS during a particular time. I went through 2,000 stories on NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” for a period of four months. When you take a ruler and measure a sort of written transcript, you realize that NPR, as much as it is better than mainstream radio, is completely centrist in its orientation. It is being so careful not to offend anybody and prove that it is objective by a definition of parity.
There was very little alternative independent voice critical of U.S. government that ended up appearing there, and I understand why. If you thought that you were going to be shut down because you questioned Congress, and you were going to lose your support, you'd start to self-censor how you do things. You'd start to prove that you really are the most credible voice, but their definition of it has become increasingly narrow over time.
Talk about the range of pundits and experts who appear on NPR or PBS. What did your findings reveal?
I know that Bill Hoynes and David Croteau and Kevin Carragee found that the pundits definitely ran from center to right of center. You can look at speakers and pundits and ask, “Do these people represent different points of view? Is there a woman or a person of color?” But in terms of organized critical voices who represent a constituency or an organization, there's a flaw in journalists' thinking. They tend to think that when someone represents an organization, they're speaking for a base and they tend to see that person as partisan and biased. Whereas a corporate person or a member of government is seen as not representing a large set of interests or a constituency; that person is seen as an independent voice.
There's been a surge in growth of non-corporate media in recent years. For example, the Independent Media Centers, cable access TV stations, on- and off-line zines, community radio. What accounts for this growth and do you see it as positive?
The growth is directly in proportion to the extent that people feel frustrated that they are not going to see anything worthwhile on the mainstream media so people have basically picked up their marbles, such as they are, and tried to develop their own marble game.
But there are tremendous problems of how you're going to connect this burgeoning set of materials with audiences of any critical size. I've watched our local community radio and newspapers and cable in Boston struggle to produce quality programming with limited resources and time and staff that come and go. People can't sustain it. The learning curve that you get for someone who's been doing work for 10, 20, 30 years constantly gets disrupted when someone comes in and does it for a couple of years and burns out and goes on to another job because they couldn't sustain it. So the resource problems, communication problems, getting access to audiences, being able to share among themselves so everyone isn't reproducing the wheel, those kinds of problems are serious. They don't mean that the work shouldn't happen.
How do you get to people on such issues as health care, social security, education?
It's a long-term effort and it has to be systematic and planned. There is no communications strategy until you have an organizing strategy and for any kind of social movement that requires a clear analysis of the existing opportunities, a sense of the bases you want to mobilize. It requires a careful plan of how you're going to work with them to understand their vision. For example, we really wanted organized labor to have a different image in media. So we started with the labor extension programs at four U/Mass campuses and developed a media and labor training program that would help people both read the newspaper and watch TV more critically and think more carefully about their own media that they were already producing: their union newsletters, or their flyers, or even one-on-one face-to-face communication: how much had they thought through how to involve their own membership.
We worked with the most interested workers who came forward, in one particular location in Lynn, Massachusetts, the home of a big GE plant. We began working with one of the shop stewards of IUE 201. He took over the newsletter for the local—a big local—then he started working with the Greater Lynn Labor Council and people in other unions. They all started improving their newsletters; using music and video capacities they never had before; they had breakfasts for the local reporters to talk to them about labor issues and what they signified; they connected local reporters with international labor activists from Central America and other places who had a whole different vision of labor; they started building a real capacity of union members to serve as spokespeople and developing and practicing messages so that people were comfortable speaking to the media.
They started doing this coinciding with organizing campaigns that were going on—campaigns to defend Latino ambulance drivers who were being fired, campaigns to take on cutbacks at GE Lynn, or to stand in solidarity with a union drive that was being railroaded, so that they were creating and taping their own media and developed better relations with journalists. They started doing that in a couple of other localities and on the state level. Then they formed a statewide AFL-CIO media committee to think about how media treat's labor and what we could do about it.
Meantime Mass AFL-CIO hired a full-time person to help revamp their website and use their newsletter in a different way. So you see how, slowly, you can integrate into ongoing organizing needs a whole sensitivity to communications. It's not just independent or mainstream. If we can reach every one through independent, alternative media, we don't even have to use mainstream media. If we have to use mainstream media to reach constituencies, let's think about how we're going to do it. Let's use independent and alternative media as our home, a place where we practice, we learn how to trust ourselves and feel confident, and then take that work and show it to the mainstream and draw in the best of the mainstream journalists to see how good we are, how beautiful we are, to see the validity of our message. So you start to have some good give- and-take between the independent media and the pressure you're putting on mainstream media.
The Boston Globe is now owned by the New York Times. In late January 2002 there was a featured article in its Sunday magazine called “The Big Chill” by Mark Jurkowitz who covers media issues for the Globe. He writes that one casualty of the war on terrorism is America's “boisterous discourse.” Have I been missing something? Has there been a “boisterous discourse” in America that suddenly disappeared after September 11?
Mark Jurkowitz is listening to a certain segment of America. I've seen it happen to a lot to journalists. When I was working on Prime Time Activism, I read all the interviews and all the published work on journalists and how they decide what's news. There's an enormous body of literature in communications and in media sociology on this. It's quite clear that most journalists decide what's news by talking to their friends and most journalists' friends are upper middle class, male, white, and increasingly products of journalism schools. But they represent a very narrow strata of society. Their cocktail parties are not the parties at which you might necessarily hear dissent. Having decided that they've heard from the important people, they conclude that there is no dissent.
Ben Bagdikian, in The Media Monopoly, which came out in 1983, wrote that 50 corporations controlled most of the media in the U.S. The latest edition has that number down to six. What kind of challenge or danger does that pose for the communication needs of a democratic society?
It poses the same challenge as having two political parties that are just the same. I admire the Bagdikian critique, and I agree with it, but we have to look within that and say, OK, in trying to change this narrowing of democracy in all these dimensions, where are the places where we can slowly carve out some space and make cracks in the institutions? Can we make a crack in communications around issues of structural racism where the media will feel some responsibility.
I'm very troubled when people ask, “Do you support independent media or do you think we should be working with mainstream media?” The answer is obviously both. If you try to work in mainstream media and you don't respect the work of the independents, you lose your voice very fast or you can't even find your voice. However, if you stay in independent media and don't try to reach out to the audiences who are captivated by mainstream media, you don't have a really good sense of what people's questions are and where to begin the conversation.
In the Public Broadcasting Act, the words “non- commercial” were used unambiguously. Under-writing spots on PBS and NPR are ubiquitous. Is that a problem?
Yes. When you accept money from somebody and you know that your financial stability depends on your maintaining that sponsor, whether you're aware of it or not, you start to self-censor. It isn't even that you say no to anything; it's what you begin to say yes to.
I had a friend who's a labor organizer who wanted to write labor journalism. He went to journalism school after working many years in a factory. He got a job as a stringer on the New York Times business section and was very excited. Finally, he was going to be able to write about labor. But he was getting invitations to lunch with representatives from Johns Mansville and all sorts of other people. They would say to him, “Look, Jeff, you don't have to write what I'm talking about, but let me pitch a few stories to you. You could write about how Johns Mansville's agreements with these communities have really made a difference in these people's lives.” The person would pitch an enormous number of stories to Jeff about how this or that would work. If the stories weren't bad ideas, Jeff would end up doing one. It wouldn't be a pro-business story per se, but it would not have a critical edge. It would say, “Johns Mansville is doing good things for the community.” But people had to fight Johns Mansville for 30 years in a vicious tug-of-war that hurt many communities and families.
The history of the labor and community struggle to make Johns Mansville accountable got lost. Meantime, labor unions weren't calling. When Jeff called them, they were scared. They didn't want to talk to reporters from the New York Times. They didn't trust them. So over time, even with a stringer who agreed with labor, you had pro-corporate coverage, because of the way it was structured.
It's a problem with foundations as well. Even independent media, if it's foundation-dependent, you end up softening just to survive. Some of that is necessary compromise, but the question is what is necessary compromise and what is losing one's edge?
What advice would you give to people so they can develop independent, critical skills on their own, to move from being passive consumers to being more active?
Don't try to do it on your own. Start watching the news in a group. Enjoy laughing at it, critiquing it, and make yourself an active consumer. There are ways to do this: spread the newspaper out and looking at the structure. Start to inform yourself about how news gets constructed, so it stops being a mysterious black box. You put a press release in one side and out the other side comes “news.” You have to unpack the black box and see how it works and start to be critical about that.
Your media activism was sparked by Noam Chomsky.
He was not the only influence, but he was a critical one. I was a working class kid from Lowell, Massachusetts who had been scholarshipped to Radcliffe in the middle of the Vietnam War in 1967. The student protesters would come rushing up and down the corridors with their flyers, knocking at your door and inviting me to come to the demonstrations. I had a brother who was in the Navy who would come visit me in uniform. People would turn up their noses and they couldn't understand. I was working 30 hours a week as a work/study student. This was my chance to get out of four generations of factory work. I had been the first person from Lowell in 25 years to make it into Harvard on a national merit scholarship. I was loyal to my brother, and I didn't understand. I had never been exposed to anything except the Lowell Sun newspaper. I didn't know how the world looked.
I got the New York Times and I tried to read it so I could understand what was going on and I was getting nowhere. I was becoming more and more depressed because I was worried about my brother but I didn't like the idea of being a warmonger. Just about that time, a notice was put up that this guy from MIT was going to be giving a talk at Radcliffe about the war and he was going to criticize the New York Times. I walked in and there was this very frail man sitting on a piano bench. Next to him he had a stack of New York Times, about four feet high. He sat there very matter-of-factly until everyone came in and then he began calmly to read the Times to us, and then read the subtext over a period of days, showing how the Times, while using facts, systematically misrepresented and neglected facts, context, and voices such that the result was very different from a possible reading of the same facts.
Then he used the same facts from the Times and did another reading of it. I was just delighted. I sat there smiling as if I'd just figured out how babies were made. I'd been asking people how it all fit together, and nobody had showed me, and this person did it. It was so clear—the New York Times could be read in such a way that you could understand how the world worked. It resonated with my family's history of being working class in the mills of Lowell, where for three generations we had seen the mills come and work comes, and then there's an economic crisis and people's lives get crushed and shattered.
Our whole neighborhood was out of work. We had a neighbor named Walter. His two boys got sick. He took a gun and put it to the back of their heads and killed his boys. As a little kid, I would sit there trying to figure out: if I were very, very good, would I survive?
The Lowell Sun had a headline, “Father Kills Children.” At that point, the people in Lowell who were out of work because of the brewery closing down took all the Suns and burned them. They came around and told the children that the Harvard Brewery had killed those children, it wasn't Walter. This was a very confusing thing to a little kid, because I knew Walter had pulled the trigger. But it started me thinking that something about my life had to do with big, powerful people, and big powerful interests. When Noam Chomsky brought it around to show how those corporate interests fit together, I could feel my energy and passion, my whole life coming together in a way that liberal education at Harvard was not providing for me. Z
David Barsamian is with Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternativeradio.org) and the author, most recently, of The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting (South End Press).