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Mass Media: Theirs and Ours

Michael Albert

 

RECENTLY Z participated in a conference on understanding and affecting mainstream and radical alternative media. The conference involved a number of talks, panels, and workshops and a display of over 60 media projects.

Boston Media Action, the organizer of the conference, was created to confront and pressure mainstream media after the blatant Gulf War cheerleading and marginalizing of the peace and justice movement.

The conference inspired this editorial calling for an alternative mass media.

 

THE QUESTION WE face today is what should be the mass media program of people who want to eliminate oppression of all kinds? To answer, we must come to some preliminary conclusions:

  1. Is mass media important in the first place? Do we need to worry about it as a central priority, or is it peripheral to prospects for peace and justice?
  2. What is the impact of existing mass media and what are our prospects for changing it? Can we get fair treatment, or is trying for fair treatment a waste of our time?
  3. What is the impact of our own alternative media and can we who already do alternative media work pool our resources to attain mass outreach, or is some other approach needed?

With agreement on these matters, perhaps we can also agree on a mass media program suitable for the next few years.

 

Does Mass Media Matter?

IT OFTEN SEEMS that there are two predominant views on the impact of mass media among peace and justice activists and radical media producers:

Each of these formulations has an element of truth. You can't develop the commitment, ties, and trust essential to sustained activism solely on the basis of mass anything, no matter its quality. There is a joke about a Bolshevik in Russia in 1919 pointing to a radio speaker on a telephone pole asking a peasant looking on whether he wasn't elated that he could hear Comrade Lenin's wisdom even though Lenin was thousands of miles away. And the peasant replies, "Yes, and how will Lenin hear from me?"

To be valuable, mass media must be part of a process whose core is face-to-face organizing, face-to-face consciousness raising, and face-to-face grass roots decision making and program building.

But mass media is also important. Face-to-face work across a country as large as ours, where lives and activities are so insulated, will not by itself yield nationally shared understanding, goals, and strategy. There must also be national debate and communication for there to be a national movement. It is not only that in a crisis mass media is the only way to get simultaneous awareness across the country. Additionally, face-to-face efforts out of touch with one another will lack sufficient diversity, motivation, and power to cohere into a widely shared project.

Over the past few decades activists have tried to form lasting national movements and organizations many times. There is no way to know whether these attempts had sufficiently capable organizers, sufficiently popular language and aims, and sufficient commitment. But even if they did, their failure is understandable. They had no way to share news and analysis, desires and program, not just among the committed, but throughout all of society, and could therefore never escape marginalizing

The media lesson of the Gulf Slaughter and every other crisis we've faced for the past 30 years is that we need the depth of commitment and trust that comes from face-to-face organizing, but also the confidence and insight that comes from national connection via mass communication. So how do we get mass media for ourselves?

 

Existing Mass Media

EXISTING MAINSTREAM mass media systematically deadens minds and obscures truth. Moreover, it does this not because some announcer is unenlightened or rushed, and not because some programmer is corrupt, but because the mass media is owned and run by the beneficiaries of the oppressive institutions we oppose. Mass media is structured to insure subservience at the bottom and control from the top. Anyone who rises knows their place and role. Moreover, even if the interests of those at the top and the socialization of those who daily administer mass media weren't enough to insure conformity to elite requirements, mass media is a business the must make profits by selling audience to advertisers. Advertisers want audiences that are ready to buy, not audiences ready to lynch them.

Of course there are some dissidents in the mainstream mass media who we can relate to respectfully. And of course pressure will yield some limited attention from media pundits and programmers, if only to avoid embarrassment. But what will have no impact on mainstream mass media's orientation--just as it will have no impact on the employment policies of the CEOs of car companies, or the safety policies of airplane manufacturers, or the decisions of Supreme Court Justices, or the foreign policies of heads of state--is appeals based on reason, logic, evidence, or morality.

We all know that union activists should not be deceived into thinking that by dressing differently, talking differently, or otherwise molding themselves to be acceptable to management they will win better working conditions or higher wages for workers.

We ought to be able to perceive that the same goes for trying to affect mainstream media. Trying to fit ourselves to their definitions, dress codes, linguistic preferences, time slots, and writing styles won't gain coverage in other than marginal cases unless we sell out entirely. But if we do that, we become part of the problem we were trying to solve.

Mainstream media exists to make a profit for its owners while denying the efficacy of resistance against their privileges. Debates exist in mainstream mass media, but they are virtually always over how best to attain system maintenance without serious attention to truth or change.

So, yes, we can affect mainstream mass media by being friends with dissidents inside as well as by applying pressure. But unless we are seeking personal advance at the cost of our integrity and politics, it wastes precious time to try to package ourselves, sell ourselves, promote ourselves, or rationally argue ourselves into mainstream media visibility.

Mainstream media will be honest only after the basic institutions of society are transformed so the word "mainstream" no longer means capitalist, sexist, racist, anti-democratic, oligarchic, and hypocritical.

 

Alternative Media

SO, IF EXISTING mainstream media offers no hope of significant access, what is the character of existing alternative media and how likely is it to change for the better?

In the realm of print and speech, which we at Z know best, we have a wide array of journals, magazines, and newspapers, ranging from local newspapers like the Texas Observer to national newspapers like ITT and the Guardian, from issue-focused magazines like Dollars and Sense to general-focus ones like the Progressive, from pamphleteers like Open Magazine to book publishers like Monthly Review and South End Press, from local speaking groups like the Black Rose Lecture Series to national speaker bureaus like Speak Out, and from small, poor periodicals to relatively large, wealthy ones like Mother Jones, the Nation, and Ms.

Yet, despite the noble efforts and accomplishments of all these alternative media projects as well as of numerous peace and justice newsletters, the left has no national presence able to affect consciousness, policy, and program on a national scale.

Worse, there is almost no solidarity among left periodicals and publishers. Very few make positive references to any other much less materially help one another. Funding is separate and often competitive. Structures vary from traditional--with owners, donors, and fund raisers or other authority figures in command and a clear hierarchy from the top down--to participatory and collective. There is, however, little communication of the costs and benefits of these different approaches and little critique of the holdover oppressive patterns and their implications.

Efforts to bring these institutions into a coalition of mutual support have been undertaken nationally and locally at various times over the past two decades. To our knowledge, and we've participated in a few such efforts, these attempts have repeatedly failed, at least at the national level. Political differences, structural differences, competition for limited funds, and even competition for readers and a feeling on the part of the haves that they have nothing much to gain from the have-nots, have always interfered.

For the most part, each progressive media institution functions separately. Our print projects have often been satisfied just to stay afloat without significantly assisting others much less branching out in additional directions or even growing themselves. After 125 years, 20 years, 15 years, or 10 years, many of our print institutions have the same structure and the same or even fewer readers than when they started. We must admit that we have a great many holding actions in our print media camp.

One critical reason is that we are all operating in a market context and are, in a very real sense, competitive firms, operationally similar to those in the mainstream but oddly, often lacking their willingness (and financial backing) to take risks to grow. We have individually and as a whole achieved a great deal, against almost Herculean odds, but we seem to be at a kind of plateau, and indeed, many print publications have been at that plateau a long time. Each print operation sees itself as important, but not part of a more encompassing left media project as a whole.

 

REGARDING RADIO, things are somewhat better. We have a few hundred independent community and campus radio stations with progressive sympathies, including some major operations like the Pacifica Radio network. Moreover, there is less competition among these radio stations than among our print institutions, in part because the radio stations all have different audiences and don't compete for funds. There is already significant sharing of ideas, lessons, and even programming among stations, with Pacifica and some other independent stations providing many shows for others to use.

There are problems, of course, such as widespread interest in delivering entertaining material regardless of political importance. But, on balance, it seems that radio offers a still largely untapped and massive potential waiting for its many units to cohere into a national presence while nonetheless retaining their local autonomy.

 

LEFT EFFORTS thus far to gain audience and raise consciousness via television and video have seemed to us effective and full of potential mostly on the local level. Appearing on existing network shows is worthwhile but severely limited since the context is generally too circumscribed for significant communication. Preparing VCR cassettes or other locally-oriented and public access cable projects, on the other hand, has great potential, especially for group viewing followed by discussion. At the more ambitious extreme, however, the jury is still out on trying to produce nationally-aired shows, much less a whole alternative national network. Progressives can do a weekly series for a year for the money mainstreamers spend on a half hour show. But this is still a huge amount that won't come from advertisers and which could instead fund major institution building. The question arises, therefore, whether left national TV shows, if for no other reason than the habits we all have regarding TV, will be able to raise as much consciousness as might be raised by putting the same money to other uses.

In any event, in light of all this and as a basis for proposing a media program for the peace and justice movement, we see that:

 

Program

THE GOAL regarding mass national media that we would like to see attained over the next five years, is roughly this:

Not NPR, not even occasional speeches or interviews with Chomsky, Zinn, et. al., but a steady dose of uncompromising analysis and vision on nationally-aired shows so that local audiences know that as they become involved, so will people throughout the country. Ideally, in addition to a number of weekly series shows, there would also be a daily three-hour call-in show with people all over the country expressing themselves openly and emotively to the hosts and guests and vice versa, with no compromise of truth or outrage.

The Radio Network would potentially reach many millions of listeners. The start-up cost for the production company would be $50,000 to $75,000, with additional expansion funds to later incorporate a talk radio component. The initial staff for the new production company, beyond folks already at work at the hundreds of existing stations across the country, would be three or four people.

These weekly papers would out-compete the Village Voice, the<BI> LA Weekly, the Boston Phoenix, etc. Their outreach would be millions of readers. Their start-up cost, using economical technology and avoiding unnecessary redundancy, would be "only" $2 to $3 million. The initial staff requirements would be ten to twelve people in a national office and two to four in each local office.

The outreach of these magazines would be potentially hundreds of thousands. And there would be minimal start-up costs, as the infrastructure already exists. Additionally, of course, all sorts of local and more specific, narrow audience projects--print, TV, radio, newsletters, etc.--would be promoted and presumably promote the national apparatus.

@ZBULLET = <MS>DIRECT OUTREACH including a Speakers Bureau and national<R> outlet/distributor for pamphlets, books, and other print materials, sending hundreds of speakers out on engagements geared not only to raise issues and provide information, but to spread skills and help with local organization building.

The goal wouldn't be quick one-night engagements, but dozens and eventually hundreds of gatherings a week where speakers with special skills and knowledge would not only give talks and bring useful resources, but stick around for a couple of days and meet with organizers to create links, help with local problems, and learn from local experiences. The infrastructure for this too, largely exists.

 

REGARDING ALL the above, the idea wouldn't be for each of these national outreach components to exist as separate entities, funding themselves separately, promoting themselves separately, producing their products separately, replicating existing corporate structures and relations. The newspapers, for example, would have pages devoted to what's on their local radical radio station and the radical radio stations would boost the papers. Each would promote speakers and both would promote the more detailed magazine offerings and vice versa, all as a part of an overarching vision of radical media.

Moreover, these institutions would understand the importance of a culture of resistance incorporating humor, love, solidarity, mutual respect, democratic work relations, and means of celebration and collaboration. They would provide and promote ways for people to be radical and also happy and productive.

This level of radical mass media, spreading knowledge, promoting debate, fostering communication, and building a culture of resistance, could be created and functioning at a mass scale in just a few years and could fulfill at least one essential prerequisite for building national political organization, for having national electoral impact, and for arousing national movement activism in crises. To see this, we need only think about what such a network would have meant, for example, during the Gulf Crisis, the Thomas hearings, or Jackson's presidential campaigns.

 

Getting There

IT WOULD BE nice if the energy, intelligence, and resources of those already working in progressive media would come together and create the above program. Just the deficits of a few of the larger existing institutions-- easily eliminated by sounder operations and redefinition--could fund the start-up of the mass media program outlined above.

However, in light of past failures to attain unity, the odds of this happening seem slim. Instead, it is more likely that some single collective, group, or existing media project, or perhaps two or three in collaboration, will develop the necessary organizational and production skills, retain the political commitment, and somehow raise a couple of million dollars to bring the above or some similar vision into being.

T<HE USUAL FACE-OFF regarding alternative media goals is should we stick to our own media, more or less as it is, or should we try to get the mainstream to give us a fair share of time and space? This polarization is misconceived. Our current radical media are powerful and effective for small communities of already committed folks and for local consciousness raising. But they have little or no national mass appeal. Mainstream media, on the other hand, excludes us by virtue of its intrinsic properties.

Therefore, developing our own powerful, truthful, exciting, and national mass media capability is something we can and must do, one way or another.