The Role of Alternative Media in Protecting Democracy

Beverly Bell interviews Leslie Thatcher, content relations editor at Truthout, one of a number of independent, non-commercial news sites that offer an alternative to corporate-controlled media. In a world where corporations are considered persons and a few individuals are funding the lion’s share of the presidential elections, independent media is critical to keeping citizens informed and motivated defenders of democracy.

Beverly Bell: Can you please start by telling us how you define alternative media?

Leslie Thatcher: I would define alternative media as media not controlled by mega-corporations or big business or very wealthy people. It is not necessarily progressive. Probably there are some AstroTurf alternative media out there, outlets that appear to be independent but are funded by the people who fund right-wing think tanks and other ideological ventures.

On the internet, you hardly need anything more than a computer to start a website. So that’s probably the simplest place to do alternative media. But there’ve always been alternative media. I’m old enough to remember when alternative media were mimeographed pamphlets you handed out at colleges and demonstrations and things like that.

BB: And for people who care about constructing alternatives to the world we live in that’s governed by money and corrupt power, how do you view media as a vehicle?

LT: We hope that by reporting what’s really happening, we’ll be able to change things because once people understand what’s happening, they’ll respond to it, rise up and do something about it.

Alternative media is hopefully not controlled by the dominant storyline in America, which I once heard someone describe as, “Everything is really okay. No matter what’s happening, it’s all right; just go out there and buy stuff.” And that’s whether it’s NPR or Time Warner or Fox. Whatever they’re reporting on, it seems to lull people to sleep or alarm them in ways that are not constructive. The things that they want you to respond to are putative threats, instead of what I would define as the real threats to our autonomy, our democracy, our integrity as human beings, real threats to life and love.

So I really strongly feel that I’m doing this because it gives me the opportunity every day to offer an alternative to the prevalent worldview in this country. Though sometimes I wonder whether it’s really the prevalent worldview or whether it’s simply the one that’s dosed out to us. People in communities that are not white, that are not middle class, certainly have a different view of the world, I think, from the one that prevails in mainstream media.

BB: How do you feel that alternative media is doing in moving toward the goal you articulated?

LT: Well, of course, we’d like it to be doing better than it is, always, at any moment in time. But I translated my first Op-Ed from Le Monde for Truthout in December of 2002. At that time it was possible to read French newspapers and find not just opinions, but actual facts about what was going on in the world that were not available anywhere in the English language. Today, that is no longer the case. There is enough alternative media out there that you can find a great deal of information.

There’s also success in terms of how much impact it has. I think part of that also has to do with how much people generally have come to distrust media.

BB: How do you see the battle for freedom of speech and against government surveillance and restrictions?

LT: I think we’re under threat all the time. Corporate interests introduce SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] in Congress, and there’s public outrage and the act doesn’t pass and then there’s something new, and it’s just never-ending. You can’t ever stop being vigilant. I think one of the great political lessons of the last almost 40 years is that you have to continually be vigilant about everything. You just have to be alert to threats to the media, to its independence, all the time. And keep informed about what legislation is relevant to us, and what the ownership and/or control structures are for the media that we rely on for information.

Also, the Israelis have a term for official government propaganda, which is hasbara, disinformation. Well, we are subject to – or subjected to, more accurately – the same thing in this country, even though that’s illegal.

BB: What would you say, from where you sit at Truthout, gives you the most hope today?

LT: The very fact that we at Truthout live and die every month by the support of our readers, and that it’s been forthcoming all this time, is certainly a cause of hope. It speaks to the viability of bringing people the most reliable information we can, information that addresses the questions most relevant to how we all conduct ourselves as citizens in at least a putative democracy. The other thing at Truthout that’s really astounding to me is the quality and the depth of submissions that we receive from people who are not trained journalists but who are concerned citizens, educated citizens. Every day I’m blown away by the quality of citizen journalism and the commitment of people to these stories.

Outside of my job, it’s Occupy – its antecedents and offshoots – that gives me the most hope. Dissent is not dead, nor is the consciousness that we need new forms of consciousness and societal organization.

BB: As one example of alternative media, how would you describe the experience of Truthout in inspiring hope? In inspiring the belief that things don’t have to be the way they are?

LT: Truthout’s mission statement is ‘We work to spark action by revealing systemic injustice and providing a platform for transformative ideas through in-depth investigative reporting and critical analysis.’ I honestly feel we do a better job of that all the time. And I’d say our readers do also.

We are marinating in a society that deliberately blinds us to the real threats to a way of life that I, at least, consider very precious. And I’m not talking about consumer comforts, but the idea that we live in a democracy. Even though it’s always been imperfect and it’s never been for all of our citizens, at least it should be our goal as citizens to enjoy. That very possibility is threatened by the environmental situation and by the control of our society by an ignorant and selfish elite. I don’t understand what planet our elite think they’re going to live on after they’ve extracted everything of value from this one and transformed it into shit.

BB: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

LT: Whoever is reading this, I urge them to think about: What do they care about most in their life? What are their real priorities? And what are they doing to make sure that future generations will be able to enjoy those priorities?

And for people who think that they’re safe: history has proven again and again that unless all of us are comfortable and safe and secure, no one really is. I really saw this when I lived in Eastern Europe briefly in 1990, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. No one who’s read any history should be under any illusions that you’re safe unless your neighbors are.

Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds, and is a member of the advisory board of Truthout. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.