Media and Democracy 1997 -- Preview


Readers may remember a Z editorial (April 1996) written after the first Media and Democracy Congress. We proposed some ways the momentum of the event might be harnessed to positive ends. Plans are being made now for the second Media and Democracy Congress to be held this Fall. This time we thought it might be more useful to write a piece in advance, hoping to impact the Congress. As we began to think about what we might say, we received an E-Mail message largely doing our task for us. It came from the Los Angeles Alternative Media Network (LAAMN) which gathers once a month and has done so since the last conference. Indeed the group was in part spurred into existence by the Z Editorial, we are told.

In any event, at the recent LAAMN meeting there was apparently a lively and productive discussion of the upcoming Congress and how it might be most effective. To start, LAAMN proposes panels on the labor movement, environment, racism and multiculturalism, youth, campuses, etc. In each instance these panels would address how alternative media have been covering the areas of concern, and most particularly what failings there have been and how we might do better in the future. A critical thing to assess, we might add, is whether there is anything about alternative media’s structure and process, agendas, and make-up, that causes us to do a better or worse job on these areas of focus.

Next, LAAMN proposes that there should be panels "focusing on the type of alternative media we are creating and how it is being done." They seem to have in mind addressing both existing and potential alternative media to improve what we have. They give as examples focusing on micro radio and its establishment and proliferation, creating a "national progressive radio movement," creating a "national network of print media," creating "on-line alternative wire services," and "creating progressive video and TV options." We agree that these would be very useful focuses. We think also, however, that it wouldn’t hurt to investigate the question of what makes a media institution or project alternative? What do we need to achieve, structurally and in our content, to merit this label and fulfill its promise?

Then, in big bold letters their memorandum says that "We need a panel called ‘building a national federation of alternative media’ with speakers from media coalitions and networks around the U.S. This group would draft a proposal for the formation of a national federation and present it to the closing plenary session of the Media and Democracy Congress for discussion and vote. Representatives from each city would serve on a national steering committee which would further develop the structure, goals, objectives, etc., of this new federation." LAAMN has in mind here, it seems, something quite like what we proposed last year (Federation for Alternative Media Activists and Supporters) and, of course, we too would be very eager to see the Congress move in such a direction.

LAAMN hammers home its central point… "Finally, several members of LAAMN attended the first Media and Democracy Congress in San Francisco in 1996 and urge the Coordinating Committee of the upcoming Congress to place more emphasis on panels and workshops focusing on media activism, what media makers are currently creating and what we can do together in the future, and less emphasis on rehashing how bad the media oligarchy is. We already know that! We need to create an alternative media movement where the public will begin to look to us for their news and information."

We agree with one caveat. Bemoaning how the mainstream media doesn’t cover this or that topic at a conference of alternative media activists conveys nothing new. But there is something to be said for understanding why mainstream media is so limited so that we don’t replicate any of the causes in our own efforts. So the one panel on mainstream media that makes sense to us would be "Why does mainstream media distort reality" addressing such issues as its ownership relations, corporate class-based structure, gender and racial make-up, and funding mechanisms, particularly advertising, with an eye to understanding how all these affect mainstream media’s content and agenda.

Finally, there is a panel possibility that is notably absent from the LAAMN message we received. Right now almost every issue of consequence to alternative media people – funding, relations to audience, relations among alternative media institutions, content/product, internal structure and decision-making, relations to broader mainstream economic and political forces – is in dispute in an alternative media crisis plaguing arguably our largest member institution, Pacifica Radio. Ideally a Media and Democracy Congress would try to intercede, we think, to bring this crisis to a desirable conclusion, perhaps along the outside mediator/investigatory commission lines we proposed some months back. Short of that, however, it would be strange indeed if a Congress dealing with Democracy in the media and alternative media prospects didn’t find some constructive and ample way to address the problems now plaguing Pacifica.