Blurring the Lines

Activist journalists confront tough questions in an era of doublespeak and spin control

Let’s look at the power of language. For example, let’s take the word mainstream, when talking about media, and replace it with corporate. It’s time to reclaim mainstream for ourselves — for "we the people" and independent media. That’s central to where we’re going. If we start thinking of ourselves in that way, people will start to look at us and the truth we bring as really the mainstream.

We’re talking about a huge undertaking, building an autonomous, decentralized, globally based multi-media phenomenon with high standards of excellence, journalistic integrity, that raises some interesting questions about objectivity and bias. We’re doing this essentially without a budget, yet we’re talking about something that ends up fostering the movements we’re covering. And it can also change the world.

What we’re doing — how we communicate with each other in IMCs and the activist communities, the way that we make decisions, and our very way of being — is revolutionary. I’m talking about the non-hierarchical, consensus-based decision making models that independent media centers have chosen to embrace. We’re not only saying that we’ll change the world with the way we cover stories, and by putting our bodies in the streets. We’re going to emulate a way of being — something the powers that be ought to look at and maybe embrace. In that regard, I’m sick that the World Trade Organization says they work by consensus, because they don’t. How dare they try to double-speak that word.

This is a huge commitment, especially for a group that is networked globally and also must solve specific local problems. Not many people talk about, or even know how people in the IMCs make decisions. In Prague, I witnessed a commitment to patience about consensus-based decision-making and honoring everyone’s thoughts and ideas in a process. And I saw that in six different languages. This is essential to our success, and needs to remain integral.

Especially after the Seattle protests, which were criticized for being too White, there’s now an opening to recognize our skills and experiences as privilege. When you recognize this, the way you interact and reach out allows you ask how you can share what you have in a way that’s empowering. How can you share so that others end up feeling a part of this community, as opposed to telling them what to do? There’s a strong commitment, especially in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to bridging the color and class gap that people experienced in Seattle. Ultimately, this is why we’ll be successful, why our revolution is going to work, and why people will go to our Website instead of Yahoo. They will feel that inclusiveness.

In all the IMCs I’ve participated in — Seattle, DC, Philadelphia, and LA — a group of us did PR for Mother Earth and the people. Working in a collective, using consensus-based decision-making, without a budget, we went up against giant PR firms hired by the World Bank, IMF, government, and corporations to compartmentalize us and take the steam out of the activism. They were trying to frame who the activists were and what they wanted for the world.

My role was to help people put together press conferences and releases, prep spokespeople, and also do spin control — "flakking" is what they call it in the PR world. We were trying to actually shift the spin as events unfolded. When we first talked about this with the IMC in Seattle, there was some resistance. It’s certainly a question of blurring the lines between activism and journalism. Personally, I saw it as subleasing a space at the IMC, so that our collective would be in the most efficient place.

At the IMC, information came in from communications and tactical teams in the streets. That was how journalists knew where to go at any moment, where video cameras were needed. People were saying, "We need medics at this corner, video cameras, audio people." It was an ideal place to be, since I could make sure that the corporate media at that corner talked to an activist instead of doing a horrible voice over or having the mayor speak. So, it made sense. But it did blur the lines. Where is the line between activism and journalism? Does there need to be one? How would you articulate the question of bias? The corporate media has a bias, and we know it. We have a bias, too. Maybe the fact that we admit it is what distinguishes us from the corporate media.

How the IMCs and activists interface with corporate media is also a live question. Many activists see the media as a tool, one of the things they use. Others recognize that it’s also an institution that represents everything we’re challenging, and don’t want to have anything to do with it. They make that choice. Some work with alternative and independent journalists, some avoid the media all together. We can do that, or go to the other end of the spectrum, and ask, "If I’m out on the street and capture on video something that no one else saw, something incredibly powerful, what will I do with that?" Yes, I can stream it on the web, put it up on satellite through Freespeech TV. But what if I sell it to ABC for $200 per second, like Greenpeace does with their footage? Is that OK? People have different opinions about that.

Being the middle of the debate about IMCs and activism, I’ve also faced questions like, should IMCs host press conferences for activists out of their facilities? Well, does ABC host press conferences for the American Cancer Society? No. But does that matter? Or, should the IMC participate in a press conference, on a panel side by side with activists from these coalitions? My answer is no. The IMC should cover the event — better than the corporate media.

If the IMC wants to promote itself, should it do press conferences and releases and say, "Hey, we’re here, come on in, CNN, take a look and make us a story." Should we or should we not? I’ve faced such questions regularly. And we’ll all face similar questions as we move forward. For now, I believe we have a responsibility both to interact with the corporate media — in short, to play the game — and also to continue fostering alternative journalism. To support indy media and kick the booty out of the corporate media, until such time we don’t have to pay attention to them anymore.

Celia Alario is a media strategist who has worked with the Rainforest Action Network, United Steelworkers, U’wa Defense Working Group, and other groups. She co-hosts an environmental radio show on KPFA in Berkeley, and trains activists for the Ruckus Society. Part of Amazon Watch’s Communications Team, she provides communications support to indigenous communities.