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The Second Media and Democracy Congress was held this past October 1618. It was an auspicious affair, bringing together nearly 1,000 folks from all manner of media operations and projects around the country. The aim was to develop insights and connections to help force mainstream media to do a better job, to better utilize the limited mainstream venues progressives enjoy, and to develop our own alternative media fully in tune with our values and priorities.
The M&D conference ran for two full days with a third day at the outset devoted to ancillary meetings and sessions. Also, one of the main benefits was the micro element: the informal chats, lunches, and small gatherings that help folks get to know one another, network, and sometimes establish new working relations. To try to capture some of what went on and what it tells us about ourselves, here are some snapshots, if you will.
Snapshot One: Money and Institution BuildingAsk the Pros
An opening day panel on Money and Institution Building is sponsored by some of the more grassroots elements present. The audience is naturally mostly folks who work in relatively small, financially highly-stressed, non-profit projects. The panel is two folks, Jay Harris, the Publisher of Mother Jones, and Hamilton Fish, past publisher of The Nation and current President of The Nation Institute. Aside from the incongruity of these flush institutions with connections galore and huge budgets lecturing on how to get moneyrather than, say, setting up meetings with donors for the smaller projects, or not charging them for the use of reader lists for mailings, or providing promotion space in their pages freethere was well, a sharing of their wisdom. And at one point, to give an example of this wisdom, Fish notes that The Nation, for various reasons dating back to earlier years, is not a non-profit company. No matter that it has investors, however, because, Fish tells us, they have no impact on the periodical itself. Not five minutes later he jokingly points out that the current main investor, Victor Navasky, is sitting in the room listening, and also just happens to be both Publisher and Editorial Director of The Nation. Ha. Ha. Everyone chuckles and Fish continues. But Fish might have also notedthough the joking tone might not have sufficed to cover the incongruity of the fact--that were the structure of the Nation (or MJ) as an institution abstracted out of its Masthead and placed alongside a structure abstracted out of the masthead of the New York Times, say, or Time magazine, there would be few consequential differences.
No one, not Harris nor Fish nor anyone else in attendance asked why it was, if funding plays no role in the definition of "our" periodicals, almost all of our periodicals are run from the top-down by either the primary donor/investor or the key fund-raising person in the institution, unless no such individual exists. This seems to be a remarkable oversight for a group of left-leaning individuals at least as sensitive to "watching the money" as Deep Throat, say, of Watergate fame.
Some radicals writers for The Nation say, "come one, stop expecting so much of The Nation already, it isn't an alternative publication." Well, I say back: (1) Why not expect more? That is, why not expect that the radical writers and other radical employees of The Nation identify the actual failings of their institution and work to make it better rather than operating as if they have no possible capacity or responsibility to impact it. And, (2) why is The Nation, despite its limitations, regarded as the exemplar precisely re money and institution building at a the Media and Democracy Congress, and even at one of its more grass-roots sessions?
Snapshot Two: Who are weLet's be Inclusive Now
Periodically, folks on panels tried to describe who we are at the Media and Democracy Congress. Their answer: "We are `Independent Media'," which is to say, we are all media not owned by national or international conglomerates. One analyst explicitly urged that we use this precise term, "independent," rather than such vague concepts as "alternative." Other analysts just implicitly eliminated all but the "independent media" label by refraining to use other adjectives. (And those panelists that did use the label "alternative" were with few exceptions vague enough so it may as well have meant independent anyhow.)
So what, you might ask? Well, the term "independent media" with its given definition encompasses Z and the Village Voice, The Nation and Monthly Review, Micro radio and Pacifica and NPR as wellalso right wing newsletters, small corporate Cable companies, local aspiring small capitalist consumer guides. In fact, anything fits--right or left, large or small, authoritarian or democratic, racist or multi-cultural, patriarchal or feminist, statist or anarchist, and corporate or anti-corporate as long as it isn't owned by Time Warner or some other behemoth like that.
Well, okay, I agree that sometimes it is useful to distinguish independent from subordinate in this manner, but if this is our only adjective, if being owned by a multinational or not is the only differentiation we use, then implicitly the only goal we share for ourselves is to escape multinational domination. This seems to fall far short of what one would hope for from a Media and Democracy Congress. What is the point of exploring what good media ought to be and how to operate better if this is the only standard we possess. And if being "independent" isn't our only value, if we also distinguish, say, between being alternative and mainstream, then what is that fissure based on?
Shapshot Three: PacificaWhat was the issue, again?
At the first Media and Democracy Congress Pacifica's Pat Scott got a merit award and made an acceptance speech, and there was no other formal attention for the on-going conflicts racking Pacifica. This year, to its credit, The Media and Democracy Congress scheduled an extra long panel, "the politics of public radio," with a variety of participants including Pat Scott and Norman Solomon, and with much time for audience questions and debate. There is only so much that can be accomplished by such an exchange, of course. Solomon gave a simultaneously reasoned and also movingly concerned presentation raising many critical questions about Pacifica. Scott defended her administration's actions. My main problem wasn't with these panelists roles, who did what they were there to do, but with the audience. With one or two exceptions the questions and comments from the floor were aggressively critical of Scott and current policies, and also, I have to say, largely incoherent to anyone listening. Impassioned to the point of being uncivil, the questions/comments were barely constructive and managed to surface little sensible exchange. Most disturbing, I think, was the number of people currently associated with Pacifica, who had real and in depth first hand knowledge of goings on within Pacifica's stations, sitting in the audience outraged at the current policies and what they felt were misrepresentations, yet unwilling to take any public stand. They fear for their jobs, they say. Okay, so, now what? Why is the dissident side of this dispute: (a) so muddled, and (b) for those who I believe wouldn't be muddled, so quiet? What is the isolating and disempowering dynamic, not just inside Pacifica but in the progressive community more broadly, that yields these outcomes, and how can it be overcome?
Snapshot Four: Communication or Commodification
On Saturday night there was a Nation sponsored big-event thematic panel titled State of the Media. This had promise, I thought, as I sat waiting for it to get started. Walter Isaacson, the Editor of Time Magazine, sat on stage with a bunch of our people and Bill Moyers as moderator. Well, in my opinion Moyers did his job, trying to provoke interesting exchange, and Isaacson did his job, defending and posturing about his institution as best he could. Again, however, what was disturbing to me was our side of the affair. Isaacson was castigated by Marc Crispin Miller for Time running covers that promote its parent company's movies. Unenlightening exchange about the ills of cross promotion went on for some time (the only interesting aspect was the extent to which Isaacson's reaction to every point was to first note Newsweek's similar policies, indicating how could Time do otherwise, the power of market homogenization/competition on display but unaddressed.) At one point, Katha Pollitt made the seemingly obvious point that talk about Time being owned by a parent conglomerate was really beside the point. Time was no better on the axes that matter 50, 10, or 5, years ago, before being bought up and before recent intense centralization of media. But no one then asked, okay, what is it then, about Time that makes it despicable, and, more to the point, what lessons do we take? In fact, no one challenged Isaacson with serious documentation and evidence regarding Time's contents, regarding the relative weight given to different types of story, regarding the absence of certain types of content, and so on. There wasn't a single word spoken about the class structure within Time itself, about Isaacson's power within the institution, for example. There was almost nothing about the role of advertising; no questions re the make-up of the budget, exactly how important ads are, and what advertisers want. The exchanges felt mostly kind of folksy. They appeared largely off the cuff. There was no analysis of ten years of Time covers, say, or of a year's worth of its columns, broken down regarding content and bias. An opportunity to use Time, and its Editor, to make points more broadly about mainstream media and its role in society, seemed squandered. More, where people yelled and felt intense passion with Pacifica's Scott, just a few hours before, this guy from Time was treated with kid gloves. I sat wondering this person is near the top of the media apparatus that sustains, justifies, obscures, and partakes of crimes against humanity every day of every week. Why is he treated so congenially, beyond civility to the point of avoiding disagreement and contestation? Why is his organization not subject to serious, sober, but aggressive analysis, to make the points that need to be made about mainstream media, both for the audience at hand, and for those who hear the exchanges on tape, see it on cable and video, hear it on radio, and so on? What is it about the creation of a panel like this, or the pressures on its participants, or their circumstances more generally, or whatever else, that yields such a lame outcome? Is it a party atmosphere, is it too much cocktail circuit interactions for the participants, as many in the audience said, so that debate and engagement becomes just a game or a job for people. Or is it something more subtle about our self definitions and awareness? Also profoundly disturbing, was that the same people who sat in the audience disparaging members of the panel unmercifully for example, feeling that Christopher Hitchens was "performing" and was an "elite, obnoxious, show-off who didn't prepare at all," and so on would then, afterward, sidle up to Hitchens, praising him to the roof, laughing and joking with him, leaving him, of course, feeling that, hey, everyone had a grand time, my script was just fine. The ultimate issue isn't Hitchens or any other panelist, one way or the other. The issue is us, again, our priorities and agendas, our inability to express what we feel so that it might be seriously and soberly addressed.
There was much at the Media and Democracy Congress besides these few panels, to be sure. Some was troubling, some quite productive. For example, there were highly instructive gatherings about radio production and creation, and about telecommunications politics and options. On the matter of technical innovation and information generally, in fact, there was much that was useful. There were informative gatherings about media concentration, about campaigns regarding public media, about building community, about diversifying media staffs, and so on. Z did a panel on what makes Alternative Media Alternative, of mixed success, I would say. Michael Moore gave a side-splitting but very provocative talk arguing that the latent class biases of much of the leftvisible in its attitudes to normal working people and their daily life preferenceswere a horrible obstacle to the growth of progressive activism. (This has been a frequent theme for me as well. Moore was infinitely more adroit than I at being heardhe had the place rolling in the aisles laughing, largely at ourselves, and admiring even fawning over his presentation and self. But the trouble, was, it seemed to me, that after the laughing, there wasn't much attention to the actual meaning and implications of Moore's claims. Again, this was too bad, but to the extent it was the case, it wasn't so much Moore's fault, or the Congress's fault, but our fault.) There were also planned and spontaneous gatherings of folks involved in local, grassroots, media organizing and projects trying to find ways to link to one another and to develop mutual support and shared agendas. This was very constructive, indeed and one wondered, at each such gathering, why it wasn't a much more focal aspect of the event as a whole.
Well, can we take some positive lessons from it all?
I think a Media and Democracy Congress that means to represent the broad range of independent and alternative progressive media work in the U.S. has to be put together by a larger sector of people than the Institute for Alternative Journalism.
As long as The Institute for Alternative Journalism are the sole hub through which all energy flows and by which all decisions are made, their imprint will be all over the Congress understandably and rightfully given their effort. This time they did much better than last on issues of balance of panel participants, for example, and focus of panels as well. But one organization's imprint is not enough, however hard it tries and whatever organization it may be, to yield the diversity of conception and design an encompassing Congress needs. Next time, let's broaden the sponsorship and spread more of the responsibility.
A Media and Democracy Congress needs to be clear that not being owned by a multinational is an insufficient foundation on which to rest our identity and provides almost no guidance for improving our work. We therefore need to settle on a meaningful list of values we believe in and aspire to fulfill, that we can judge ourselves against, and improve ourselves in terms of.
In October's issue of Z, handed out at the conference, I had a piece describing what I thought makes alternative media alternative which was also the topic of Z's panel at the conference. In both places I said that to be alternative media means to the extent possible "to forego maximizing profits," "to avoid selling audience to commercial advertisers," "to seek broad and non-elite audience," "to reduce and ultimately remove typical oppressive hierarchies," and "to actively support other like-motivated projects." It seems to me, indeed, that for media institutions to be labeled alternative they ought to agree that reducing income differentials; disentangling authority from money; developing jobs balanced for quality of life and empowerment effects so that all can partake of decision-making intelligently; incorporating truly democratic and participatory decision making structures; steadily diminishing gender and race biases in employment and in on the job culture and product; and developing non-elite outreach and mutually supportive relations among our projects are worthy goals to inspire alternative media policy-making. But if this list is bad or incomplete, fine, we need to fix it. The point is, if we are going to make collective progress we have to have a shared a workable, respected, notion of who we are and what progress means.
A third Media and Democracy Congress needs to focus on constructive mechanisms for people and institutions doing valuable media work to enhance one another's efforts and learn from differences and criticisms others may have. And if we are going to spend any time critiquing the mainstream, then, please, let's do a definitive job so we can get on to our own agendas henceforth.
Again in the October issue, I proposed, for the second time, a Federation of Alternative Media Activists and Supporters, with preliminary suggestions about structure, decision making, and program. Is FAMAS a good idea? I don't know. No doubt at a minimum it needs refinement. But I do know that FAMAS or not, something is needed and that if it can't emerge from the process of the Media and Democracy Congress, for whatever reasons, then folks who do alternative media and who have shared values and aims that transcend not being owned by multinationals need another path to get to some working unity and coherence.
So how about this as a capstone to Media and Democracy Congress 2? How about if our periodicals, radio stations and networks, cable outfits, video operations, book publishers, and speakers bureaus, and our writers, journalists, announcers, speakers, film-makers and all other workers in our media institutions, and our "audiences" as well, together, over the next 18 months, debate and develop a clear conception of what we are trying to accomplish with alternative media, and of what it means to do a better or worse job as an alternative media worker or institution, so that we can take that agreement, whatever it turns out to be, to Media and Democracy Congress 3 or some other suitable venue, as needed, and come out of its deliberations with an organizational apparatus and program for collectively moving forward. If we do less, I suspect we will do Congress 1 and 2 all over again, and, if for no other reason than staleness, that that won't even be worth attending.