Free the media
Another world is not only possible, she's on her way. Maybe many of us won't be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen carefully, I can hear her breathing.
WE NEED TO FREE the media—and we are.
Media should not be a tool only of the powerful. The media can be a platform for the most important debates of our day: war and peace, freedom and tyranny. The debate must be wide-ranging—not just a narrow discussion between Democrats and Republicans embedded in the establishment. We need to break open the box, tear down the boundaries that currently define acceptable discussion. We need a democratic media.
A democratic media gives us hope. It chronicles the movements and organizations that are making history today. When people hear their neighbors given a voice, see their struggles in what they watch and read, spirits are lifted. People feel like they can make a difference.
Social change does not spring forth from the minds of generals or presidents—in fact, change is often blocked by the powerful. Change starts with ordinary people working in their communities. And that's where media should start as well. The role of the media isn't to agree with any person or group—or with the government or the powerful. But the media does have a responsibility to include all voices in the discourse. Then let the people decide. This is a new kind of power politics. Instead of backroom deals, it's open-air rallies, public, transparent, and full of lively debate. That is what democracy looks like. It's what Seattle looked like in 1999. The occasion was the first ministerial conference in the United States of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Exactly. People had barely heard of this powerful institution. It's an unelected secretive body, established in Geneva in 1995 with strong support from President Bill Clinton, that has the power to overrule local laws in the name of free trade. In closed-door meetings, nameless trade bureaucrats from 146 countries and multinational corporations were now saying, in effect, you can pass your laws in your democratically elected legislatures to protect workers or the environment. We'll just overturn them at
Ordinary people were not supposed to know about this. It was all supposed to fly under the radar. The WTO was barely mentioned in the U.S. press. The corporate media whose parent companies had everything to gain from secret trade deals—decided on our behalf that we just wouldn't understand. It was much too complicated for an eight-second sound bite.
But to the dismay of the powerful, tens of thousands of people from around the world did understand. They descended on Seattle to show this shadow corporate government how people feel
when their democracy—and their jobs, environment, and right to participate is stolen from them. They were religious people, trade unionists, doctors and nurses, environmentalists, students, and steelworkers in a global uprising against corporate power.
As all this was about to unfold, activists confronted a dilemma: What media would cover their actions? Protesters knew that the corporate media would belittle or misrepresent them or completely ignore them.
A new kind of media rose up in response. People came together with pens and pencils, tape recorders and video cameras. An independent media center (IMC) was established in the heart of downtown Seattle, with powerful computers that would feed the world with reports from radio, video, and print reporting teams set up in the streets. Rather than allow this uprising against corporate power to be viewed through a corporate lens, they were determined to get as close to the story as possible. They would become the media.
Tens of thousands of marchers were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets and pepper spray. The mayor of Seattle declared martial law for the first time since World War II. The city established "no-protest zones."
As the onslaught unfolded in the streets—and the networks in New York and Atlanta scrambled to buy plane tickets and book hotel rooms from which to cover it—this new independent media movement swung into action. When one person carrying a video camera would be tear-gassed and arrested, they would hand that video camera on to the next person. My colleagues and I from Democracy Now! spent many long hours in the streets, with journalists from the IMC, being gassed and harassed by police dressed in black futuristic body armor as we attempted to report what was happening to the world.
While the networks were quoting the police saying that they
weren't t using rubber bullets, independent media reporters were uploading minute-by-minute images as we all picked up the bullets off the street by the handful. While the networks caricatured protesters, showing an endless loop of a single smashed store window, the 1MC reporters were interviewing the mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who had come together to protest against the threat that the WTO posed to their communities. In the IMC dispatches, these people had real names, real jobs, and real concerns. Compare that to the edict issued by the news director of Seattle's ABC affiliate, KOMO-TV. The station "will not devote coverage to irresponsible or illegal activities," wrote news director Joe Barnes. "KOMO 4 News is taking a stand on not giving some protest groups the publicity they want."
Some stand. If this policy had been applied in the fifties, we might never have heard the names Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King jr.
People are hungry for unfiltered, real-time coverage from real people's perspectives. So hungry that during the "Battle of Seattle," there were more hits on the brand-new website indymedia.org
than on cnn.com.
Even some in the mainstream media were forced to acknowledge that they had been scooped. "The fact of the matter," wrote The Christian Science Monitor, "is that people who really wanted to learn about the WTO, and why it upsets so many people, were far better served by these small independent sites than they were by the traditional media, particularly television." While independent media provided "edgy, fresh, dramatic video of the events," noted the Monitor, traditional media countered with "repeated footage of a couple of incidents and interviews with establishment talking heads that the network and cable-news operations favored."
The article ended with a bold prediction: "It wouldn't be surprising for one or two of these 'independent' media centers to develop into a major media source, especially if they continue to function on the sort of 'open source' reporting model seen in Seattle.
"After all, the open-source movement is reshaping the business world. Who says it couldn't happen to us in the media as well."
A People's Media
CORPORATIONS HAVE BEEN gaining unprecedented power through globalization. Of the hundred largest economies right now, more than half of them are not countries—they are corporations. The whole concept of the nation-state is being called into serious question. What the corporations fear most is that grassroots activists and independent journalists will utilize the same model that companies have used to grab power: globalization.
It's already happening. Inspired in part by Seattle, a media democracy groundswell has grown up to challenge the concentration of media ownership that freezes out independent voices. IMCs are cropping up all the time, all over the world. Today, there are more than a hundred IMCs across the globe. People are educating one another, learning to use the Internet to fill the vast voids left by the corporate media. This media and democracy movement is a budding revolution. It is a bold, new grassroots media for a new millennium of resistance. It's also a natural outgrowth of the spirit that inspired Lew Hill to start Pacifica in 1949—and inspired us to start Democracy Now! in 1996.
Democracy Now! has now become the largest public media collaboration in the United States. We use all means of getting to people: broadcasting on hundreds of radio and television stations, audio and video streaming on the Internet, satellite TV, and broadcasting internationally on shortwave radio.
A key outlet for us is a much underutilized resource: public access TV. Many people don't even know they have public access channels; the cable companies, which are required to provide the channels in exchange for local monopolies on cable services, certainly don't publicize it. So Democracy Now! goes to communities and informs people that they have these channels to use, much as Pacifica did with the FM dial fifty years ago.
By doing this, Democracy Now! does what the IMC in Seattle did: show the mainstream media there's a market for real people's news. Every community can model their own human rights, grassroots news shows to bring together the local and the global. It's all part of a continuum. Pacifica, NPR, and PBS aren't the only media outlets that use the public airwaves; CBS, ABC, NEC, and FOX use the public airwaves, too. They have just as much responsibility to represent the full diversity of views in this country and not just beat the drums of war or provide cover for the powerful and their governments and corporations.
Hope and Victories
"NEVER DOUBT FOR a moment that a small group of committed, thoughtful people can make a difference. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead said this more than half a century ago. In the troubled times in which we now live—when corporate power sometimes seems invincible, the silence in mainstream media seems deafening, and true democracy seems like a far-off dream—where do we look for hope?
Try death row in Illinois. In January 2003, Governor George Ryan, a conservative Republican who co-chaired the 2000 Bush presidential campaign in Illinois, commuted the sentences of 163 death row inmates and pardoned 4 more. "Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious—and therefore immoral—I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," declared this rock-ribbed conservative.
Ryan did not take this brave and controversial action on a whim. It grew out of years of lonely and thankless grassroots activism against the death penalty. It happened because mothers of men on death row never gave up the struggle to exonerate their sons. It happened because Northwestern University students, led by an impassioned professor named Dave Protess, began investigating the cases of men on death row, sometimes tracking down the actual murderers. And it happened because a pair of crusading investigative reporters, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong, at an influential mainstream paper, the Chicago Tribune, painstakingly exposed the racist and fraudulent bases of one case after another.
Together, the mothers, the activists, the students, and the reporters completely changed the way the death penalty was viewed in Illinois—even by the governor. It was a powerful confirmation of what Jane Bohman of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty had been saying all along: "The only way that the death penalty can survive," she said, "is if no one tells the truth about it."5 The same could be said of Henry Kissinger. While many in the United States still see Nixon and Ford's former secretary of state as an elder statesman, the rest of the world sees him as a war criminal, responsible for the deaths and suffering of millions in Chile, Vietnam, Laos, Argentina, East Timor, and Cambodia, to name a few. When he wants to travel internationally, Kissinger now checks with the State Department to see if he'll be safe. He fears he could meet the same fate as his old crony, Chilean dictator General Au-gusto Pinochet, who was arrested on war crimes charges during a
medical visit to England.
Even in the United States, Kissinger has begun to feel the heat—thanks in large part to reporters such as Seymour Hersh,
who has doggedly chronicled the abuses of the old war criminal for thirty years. When President George W. Bush named the former secretary of state to head a commission investigating the 9/11 attacks, there was a public outcry. At long last, Kissinger's sordid human rights record came back to haunt him, and he was forced to resign from the commission in disgrace. Kissinger's lifelong contempt for human rights was finally coming back to dog him.
We can also find hope in Tulia, Texas. Democracy Now! and WBAI covered this incredible story from early on: Forty-six innocent people, thirty-nine of them black, had been arrested for drug dealing, solely on the word of a corrupt, racist undercover agent named Tom Coleman. Many of these innocent citizens spent four -years in jail on bogus charges. One person was sentenced to over three hundred years. Their only real offense, as Elaine Jones of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said, was "being black and living in Tulia."
Thanks to media publicity, and galvanized by the unrelenting grassroots activism of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, Tulia's wrongly convicted African-American citizens were freed and pardoned in late 2003. Coleman, the officer who fingered them, was indicted for perjury.
There's also hope in East Timor. On May 20, 2002, Allan Nairn and I went back, eleven years after we survived the Santa Cruz massacre. We returned to witness the founding of a new nation. Standing with some 100,000 Timorese at the stroke of midnight, we watched Xanana Gusmao, the rebel leader turned founding president, raise the new flag of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.
We watched the light of the fireworks glint off the tear-streaked faces of the Timorese. We did not know, on that terrible day when we lay on the ground helpless to stop the slaughter of innocent people, that we would return to celebrate their independence. Yet thanks to the resistance, determination, and persistence of the Timorese and the activists around the world who refused to look the other way, a nation of survivors was celebrating its freedom.
I thought back to when Allan and I made it to the hospital in Dili after the massacre. The doctors and nurses started to cry when they saw us. It wasn't because we were in worse shape than the Timorese. It was because of what Americans represent—not just in East Timor, but in so many places. People around the world see the United States in two ways:
The sword . . . The United States provides so many of the weapons that repressive regimes use to kill their own people. In East Timor, as in Guatemala, Nigeria, El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, and Chile—to name a few—immoral policies of successive U.S. administrations have tragically placed this nation on the wrong side of justice.
. . . And the shield. They know we have the power to stop attacks instead of mounting them, and to fight injustice, brutality, and tyranny. On that day of the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, they saw that shield bloodied.
Today, millions of people around the world tremble at the might of the greatest superpower on earth. But the true power of this country does not lie in its military, government, or corporations. It lies with individual people struggling every day to better their communities. We must build a trickle-up media that reflects the true character of this country and its people. A democratic media serving a democratic society. We have to make a decision every day: whether to represent the sword or the shield.
The exception to the rulers Amy Goodman with David Goodman
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