To succeed and thrive, we’ll need to make media and democracy the main issues
Those of us who have been in media for a while have seen the system’s transformation. We’ve seen the emergence of fewer and fewer companies, dominating more and more of the media spectrum. We’ve seen a merger between news biz and show biz. We’ve seen a dramatic cutback in news of the world.
On MediaChannel.org, we published a study that compares the extent of political knowledge in the US to six other countries, and finds that Americans are the least informed of any people in the world. The reason? US television. Americans depend increasingly on TV for their news and information, and US television increasingly doesn’t carry news and information. As a consequence, we’re in a process where politics itself has become politically incorrect.
This presents us with an enormous challenge. We know that, among other things, making media is fun, and doing things that are fun is good. We want a creative outlet that gives us a chance to get our voices heard and seen. But the problem is that, although the means of production have become affordable, the means of distribution are still somewhat remote. We come up against the realities of media power in virtually everything we do and say. That’s why the independent media movement is both so important and yet still so limited.
It’s important because we’re demonstrating that we have a capacity not only to get a message out, but also to do it in ways that are creative, interactive, energizing, and impactful. On the other hand, we’ve also come to see that if we only do independent media and end up talking to each other, our impact on the culture, the politics of our country, and the world will be very limited. So, in a sense, we have no choice but to engage the institutions of media power.
If we want to do our thing, in some respects we have to change the terms of media discourse and control in our country. That means engaging not simply as media makers, but as media organizers, media educators, media activators — as people who care enough about this problem to pull together a movement that makes this issue the issue. Ultimately, every other issue comes back to it.
If people aren’t informed, you can’t have a democracy. Many people know what the issues are, but aren’t informed about them. In fact, they’re systematically under-informed and uninformed. Such people are likely not to be involved, creating a society of consumers rather than citizens.
Our responsibility goes beyond learning the skills of media making. We have to get into the task of media changing, which means we must engage our colleagues who are activists, and explain the inextricable relationship between activism — whether on a global level or the local level — and media change. Alas, as much as you may hate television, if your issue isn’t on television in the US, for many people it doesn’t exist.
Having worked in radio, I identity with what David Barsamian said about radio’s power and the power of the imagination. But unfortunately, if you look at US radio today, you see a pathetic wasteland dominated by the Howard Sterns of the world. Voices such as ours are really on the margins, struggling to survive. Meanwhile, independent media can often become dependent media — dependent on funding, energy, and on access to outlets.
The one thing we can agree on is this: If we can find ways to work together, communicate with each other, educate each other, become active together on a number of fronts, we can have a lot of power. It’s like the finger on a fist. One finger has a certain amount of power, but put together they have much more. I’m talking about what alludes us. At the last Media and Democracy Congress in New York, 1500 people came with a desire to make something happen. But when the conference ended, the media and democracy movement also ended for the moment. There was no plan for follow-up — where do we go from here, how do we build on what we know and the skills we have. We need to move beyond that point.
In addition to working in television and video through GlobalVision for 13 years, I’m now involved in an experiment called MediaChannel.org, a media issues network. We started with 50 groups, now there are over 500 from all over the world. We want to put these groups in touch with each other, to learn what others are doing, to get news and information about the media as an issue. Not just as a means to raise other issues, but as an issue in itself. That’s really the big challenge for indy media — to figure out how to become a movement, how to make this issue we care so deeply about one that others also care about.
According to every opinion poll, 70 percent or more of the people agree with us. When asked, does the media suck? Eighty percent say yes. Can you trust the media? Ninety percent say no. The truth is, this is a majority issue, one that can bring people together across all other issues — if we choose to make it that and not to put it last on our list. For the Right, media is one or two on the list. Yet, it’s not even on the list of a lot of progressive organizations. It’s an after-thought.
How we sustain independent media? What is the way forward? There’s no one good answer. But an interesting theory has been put forth in the Internet setting: bringing dot.org and dot-com together into dot.corg. Basically, this means creating public interest media that can generate revenue; for example, by selling to each other, by supporting and patronizing each other’s sites. For example, Z magazine has found 30,000 people who are willing to put in $5 a month to help keep the Znet commentaries coming.
What are the real costs? We can’t just defend the principle of the free Internet, although we do have to do that. If we want to play, we have to pay, too. We have to be involved in helping to make strategies of sustainability work, finding mixed ways to raise revenue and support each other. This is an important arena because we actually represent many people — with a lot of income — who would be involved if we found ways to make our content more accessible and perhaps more interesting to them as well.
So, I come out of Vermont feeling fired up, inspired, and encouraged, as if we do have the potential to move this whole issue further. The operative image is that we’re not running a race, folks, we’re running a marathon. We’re in this for the long run, and we can make it happen if we so choose.
Danny Schechter is the founder/director of both GlobalVision and the Media Channel. In the past, he has been news director at WBCN, an on-air reporter, a producer at CNN and ABC, and a writer for Newsday, the Boston Globe, Columbia Journalism Review, and Z. His books include The More You Watch, the Less You Know and News Dissector.