Mainstream vs. Main Street — A Santa Cruz conference looks to overthrow corporate media in favor of citizen journalism
By P. Joseph Potocki February 13, 2008
Against a backdrop of increasing public alarm over the power and reliability of corporate news sources, more than 300 progressive media activists, professionals and academics gathered in Santa Cruz over the weekend of Jan. 25-27. The task of the Independent Media Strategy Summit: to bust up corporate media domination by envisioning and launching a reliable, grassroots, equally powerful “main street media” alternative. So what happened and just how well did they do?
Great White Way
It’s Friday morning, Jan. 25. I’m bending into a monsoon downpour, slogging toward Stevenson Hall on the Sonoma State University campus. I’m here to snag a ride to Santa Cruz. My backpack’s weight shifts and shimmies, causing me to spaz out on the wet walkway. I nearly land on my ass, twice, before arriving at the office of media summit organizer and Project Censored chief Peter Phillips. Nobody’s home. Down the hall I hear a radio weather guy say that six more inches of rain is heading for the Santa Cruz Mountains by noon, which is exactly when we’re to cross them. Peter Phillips walks up the hallway and asks me if I’m John.
Students start arriving. It’s your typical pre-outing anarchy. Peter tells me to ride with Mark. Mark tells me to ride with Peter. I hop in Peter’s car, along with John. On the way, Peter outlines the upcoming summit and tells me he’s paying $59 a night to stay at a nearby motor lodge. I’m paying twice that at the University Inn.Once in Santa Cruz, we pull up to the University Inn. Scores of prog-folk mill outside the front door. Peter is greeted by many.
Wandering into the main room, I situate myself at one of a couple dozen large round tables filling the main conference room. It’s your typical ultrafluorescent, soulless rectangular space. The room fills up and everyone seems to be rarin’ to go. The place reeks of leftist cool. Me, I’m wearing basic black. It hides the fat.
I meet Michael Masley. He’s a master cymbalom player who has recorded with both Tom Waits and Ry Cooder. This self-described “Artist General” was voted the East Bay’s best street musician in 2007. Masley’s here, he tells me, to mount his case against Bush and Co. regarding war profiteering. A series of short addresses commence. Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Trent steps to the lectern, hoisting the Oscar she received for1992: The Panama Deception. Trent invites us to come up and touch it. Great photo op, but I forgot my camera.
Dennis Bernstein of KPFA radio’s Flashpoints show advocates for “real tough reporting.” He and his team are here to broadcast their show live. Four Flashpoints contributors flank Bernstein like a pride of fierce media lions.
These collaborators are precisely what’s in short supply here. The foursome are all relatively young. They include a Native American/Chicano, a black man and two young women, one of whom is Mexican-American. Each points to what we can’t help noticing: that the 300-plus attending this summit are overwhelmingly middle-aged and elder white folk.
Butterflies and Bumblebees
Summit co-organizer and former 911Truth.org director David Kubiak explains how the next three days are supposed to work. “Rather than have famous people restate their expertise, we’re gonna suck the juice out of you guys, getting stuff from the outside in.”
I’m excited about this grassroots beat-the-bushes approach, but wonder whether a sufficiently wide progressive net has been cast. We’ve noted the dearth of young people and minorities. And famous people can, after all, participate as equals by lending ideas and expertise without being placed atop a pedestal. Moreover, well-established progressive media sources seem an essential component for any broad-based media network to gain traction. Publications like In These Times, Mother Jones and The Progressive lend immediate credibility to any such effort. So where are they? Flashpoints is a welcome presence, but why we don’t have Democracy Now!, and perhaps Air America Radio’s Tom Hartman broadcasting from the summit, too?
Kubiak’s famous people reference notwithstanding, the summit does feature an impressive roster of journalists, publishers and documentary filmmakers, and even notable activists and politicians like Cindy Sheehan, Cynthia McKinney and the disembodied voice of Dennis Kucinich. But where’s MoveOn.org, Daily Kos.com, the ethnic minority and labor movement pubs? Where are the emerging youth techies, podcasters and bloggers? It seems natural that all these folks be here. I’m sure the organizers have done their best with limited promotional resources. Shortcomings noted, there’s still plenty of intellectual firepower here, and should we deliver the network goodies, chances are nonparticipants will hop on board as the network develops.
Kenoli Oleari and Mark Tognotti are our paid summit facilitators. They explain that we’ll be breaking into randomly selected “Affinity Groups” to generate ideas and write them down on a board. Oleari addresses self-selected misfits. Butterflies get to flit around. Bumblebees take pollen from one group to another. “The Law of Two Feet applies in any case if your group isn’t working for you,” he says.
I’m assigned to Affinity Group No. 12. We are: two film documentarians, Masley, an AM radio host, media advocates, concerned citizens and me. Six women, five men. Salome Chasnoff, a documentary producer from Chicago, is our moderator. We’re talking up personal summit goals. It’s all pretty vague. I offer, “We are witness-participating in a birthing or a socioevolutionary step forward addressing all nature of old and emerging media, and replacing those rusty old media pipes with a new media conduit so our juices freely flow.” They all stare at me like I’m nuts.
The Reptilian Arts
Saturday morning breakfast time, and I’m famished. Bagel and cream cheese, a banana, an apple, cottage cheese, fruit salad, OJ, milk, coffee and one big-ass blueberry muffin. I meet Lenny Charles, whose INN World Reportgoes head to head with Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! in New York City. Charles is doing good television work and doing it not on a shoestring but on a shoestring thread. He’s anxiously hunting down investors. I let him know I’m broke.
Charles wonders how it’s possible to coalesce disparate progressive media sources into timely, trustworthy, mutually cooperative and still fiercely independent pieces of a cross-media network puzzle. Take, for example, Amy Goodman’sDemocracy Now!Charles says his INN World Report competes for the same audience, though his operation’s budget is a fraction of Goodman’s. So does the progressive universe have room for the INNs of this world? Compared to network news, or even cable network news,Democracy Now!itself works on a shoestring budget. So, beyond mere coexistence, can the two competitors mutually assist one another in the name of progressive diversity? Perhaps by the end of the summit we’ll find out.
During the morning’s session, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan relates a vignette illustrating corporate media sensibilities. Sheehan was camped out in Texas, hoping for an audience with George Bush. “People in Crawford kept talking about the media circus. One day [the media] followed me to the bathroom and I asked, ‘Is this the media circus yet?’ And they said, ‘Yes, this is it.'”
Comments ensue. Investigative reporter Kristina Borjesson suggests we create a think tank charged with monitoring, deciphering and countering masters of “the Reptilian Arts,” by which she means the machinations of mainstream media. She claims, “I’m the reporter with the prize for ‘most likely to have her piece killed.'” Borjesson also points out the obvious: “Our problem is what makes corporations successful. They’re organized.” Meaning, of course, that we’re not.
Danny Schector calls himself “The News Dissector.” He’s a journalist and founder of the Media Channel. Schector’s new film is In Debt We Trust. Schector points out that we here at the summit risk the “danger of only talking to people who agree with us.” I particularly like his trog-prog comparison. “The right wing is like the Marine Corps. The left is like the Salvation Army.”
During breaks an comment periods, conversations swirl, indicating that references to 9/11 may not be mixing so well with fundamental media restructuring. My read is that while 9/11’s a legitimate investigative issue anchoring the involvement of a significant number of people here, media restructuring is a step-by-step envisioning process. Many feel this process has little to do with investigative inquiry per se, and don’t want to collate the two. I wonder if this rub has kept any potential participants away.
A Reptile on Main Street
We’re back in Affinity Group 12 for a working bag lunch. Musician Masley bows out. Our focus, says he, isn’t his. He should know, but I’m wondering just what our focus actually is. All bid Mike a fond adieu. Billy Sunshine from KRXA-AM (Monterey 540), too, has left. Later Billy comically contends he’s neither flitting butterfly nor pollen-spreading bumblebee but rather big pigeon flying around dropping shit everywhere. We who remain in Group 12 discuss citizen journalists, consensus vetting, organizing into news/opinion forums and like vagaries, but we’re still struggling to bring things into focus.
We break from our Affinity Groups and head for one of three themed breakout sessions. I opt to cover “Network/Technology.” Russ Baker has taught journalism at Columbia, writes for The Nation and is the author of The Bush Dynasty. His take on news gathering differs from the proponents of “citizen journalism,” or what some call “community journalism.” Baker says if everyone is a journalist and everyone is equal, then journalism itself becomes suspect, leading to a shortage of trustworthy information, and that “we need to get back to funding real investigative reporting.”
Baker’s lefty credentials aren’t enough for this crowd. He may as well have suggested a return to child slavery.David Rubinson, former producer of Moby Grape and the Pointer Sisters, asserts that we need more “peer-to-peer communication, not through the gatekeepers, like you”he points to Baker”and the mainstream media, but through Napster, through servers. That old gatekeeper model, give me a break. Let’s take the knowledge from the young people.”
Baker responds that he’s no gatekeeper and that “anecdotal reporting can lead to a lynch mob mentality. …We need to distinguish between different forms of journalism.”
David Mathison is a former VP at Reuters and an advocate of community-access television. He backs Rubinson. “We could see the print industry was going to be destroyed by the Internet. Their business model is obsolete,” Mathison insists. “Let’s not wait for some future date for this to take place. It’s happening now.”
The question of who is and who is not a legitimate journalist prompts recurring debate throughout the summit. Can or should a citizen (read “amateur”) journalist be expected to meet accepted standards of the profession? Various components come into play. There’s the training, edit/vetting and experience pieces. Also, the fundamental reliability of the information and the relative quality of its presentation need be addressed.
Then there’s the money issue. Some contend that the journalist not paid for his work, has, necessarily, a personal agenda. Others claim that no journalist, paid or not, writes without bias. Concerns are raised that accepting citizen journalists into a network risks inaccurate reporting. Countering this, it’s suggested that if on-site breaking news “amateurs” aren’t given a platform to report what they witness, important events may never get reported. This seems particularly true in this age of ever-shrinking local media newsroom budgets.
INN’s Charles chimes in, “We’ve created our own parallel media on the cheap. It’s growing, and point people to it!”
It all has me wondering: will main street America support in-depth, well researched and hard-hitting investigative news reporting? Will it read and tune into fact-based analysis and opinion? Or do we, as a mass culture, really prefer infotainment? Our Group 12 meets again. Activist Jeri Bodemar has just returned from the Narrative Breakout Group. She summarizes what she experienced there. Bodemar cites fear promoted by media playing on our insecurities, the emergence of main street media and the wholesome triad of Connection, Compassion and Community as issues the Narrative Group tackled. They espouse the creation of a fact resource center and stress the need for theater, art and humor. This all comes down to placing “the Democracy Frame” around the rapacity of corporate power. I’m scribbling, and so is filmmaker Penny Little.Saturday’s session ends. I’m squeezed dry, hopeful and fitfully confused. But I’m down for that theater, art and humor.
On Sunday morning, academic and journalist Bill Densmore makes his case for professional journalists, echoing previously expressed concerns. “If they’re not being paid to cover something, they’re doing it for free, and probably have an agenda.” He favors the patronage model. Densmore presents his five ways of grading the news, including rendering all stories traceable and sourced. He asks why blogs don’t include attribution. “Until you establish credibility with your audience you should always over-attribute.”Richard Greene, host ofClout!on Air America Radio, insists, “We are the mainstream. The other is the corporate media, and they have the corporate agenda.”
Peter Phillips feels we must “build our own network, but keep relations with established media.” The questions Phillips poses are, “Can we build an independent, noncorporate news source in the United States that is open to everybody? Do we have adequate, truthful resources? and Do we have the will?”
In the afternoon, Affinity Group 12 meet for our final session. Filmmaker Penny Little proposes a progressive newswire concept, a sort of Google-News-gets-vetted-via-Wiki, “using available online technology.”
The entire summit reconvenes. We listen to a series of final reports. Toward the end, Peter Phillips gives the Building A Grassroots Media Networks report. Phillips prominently cites Penny Little’s Progressive Newswire concept as a key attainable goal. It makes sense. It’s cheap and doable. It works with existing technology and seems to me a fine baby step forward. Our work in Affinity Group 12 is affirmed.
At 5pm that afternoon, I’m riding home with my newest good buddy, Gary Evans. He’s a pediatrician, but we don’t talk kids. I offer to buy him dinner at some exceptionally cheap dive, but Gary’s wife has a hot meal waiting at home. Our excited conversation covers lots of ground. We turn back at a wreck on Highway 1, and then get lost twice, because we’re not paying attention to road signs. We’re both high on a weekend of mind-expanding plotting and scheming. It’s still pouring like hell when he drops me off at home. I wonder if this is what Dylan meant when he said, “A hard rain’s gonna fall.”
So, did our weekend media powwow achieve its stated aim to “transform the way Americans perceive and defend their world”? Doubtless, no. But, sometimes, with everything raining down at once, it takes waiting out the deluge of grand planning before the entirety of our path forward is clearly seen. Seems to me the Independent Media Strategy Summit was like that. One can only hope for what Johnny Nash sang:
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.
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