The people who gathered at
the Media Reform Workshop May 1 at the Westport Library were are an
earnest and well-meaning crew. They were angry liberals, ready for
Frustrated with the trend of media toward fewer owners of more outlets
that look more and more the same, many of the twenty-two attendees
also recognized that a lot of them had been sitting around talking
to each other about this issue for a long time.
For most of that Saturday morning, they agreed that the major, corporate
news media had become too large, too mediocre, too complacent and
too often, a tool of money and power. Television had become a series
of often self-promotional soundbites. Radio was the realm of powerful
network cliques whose draw is conservative commentators who distort,
dissemble and demagogue. On the local level, both television and radio
were little more than fear-mongering outlets of sensationalist drama.
And weather. Which happens. All the time.
And when it comes to local print, they acclaimed, The Kansas City
Star found itself in awe of consistent civic players, powerful
politicians and lazy in its reportage. The Pitch was a mirror
image of every other New Times papersensational and more and
So, what choices does a regular Joe have?
Complain: Activists and armchair
discontents have been complaining for generations now. Where, the
attendees asked, was the integrity and accountability as giant corporate
entities increasingly reporting on issues that affected their own
operations? How can Americans trust media who do not hold government
and corporations to the fire? What about the instances of Stephen
Glass, Bob Greene and Jayson Blair? What about Americans own
lack of faith in the basic need of a free press to an informed and
While activists have been busy complaining to themselves, media corporations
have been busy lobbying legislators in Washington to ease corporate
access of the public airwavesthe modern-day equivalent of a
few wealthy and powerful land speculators lobbying the feds for access
to the Oregon Territory.
Liberal activists have known this for ages. They just dont communicate
very well with the folks getting their TVs at the Wally Worldthe
people media corps, advertisers, food and consumer manufacturers want
to pour their goods into.
This online publication competes in a media market dominated by a
few powerful, top-down newspaper corporations. Its a tough go,
all the time. But if one can survive, its worth it.
Most of grumbling at the Media Reform Workshop, however, had to do
with the lack of the true picture of national, foreign policy and
international issues in the major, corporate media: worker protections,
nuclear power, environmental protections, health care and health insurance,
the Iraq War, international trade and labor, and tariffs and industrial
Get into action: So, faced with
large, corporate structures, supported by law, government and wealthincluding
a growing slice of many workers 401K, IRA, pension fund and
other retirement savingsthe answers seem to be several.
Activists and disgruntled people need to talk to people who are not
in their circles. It is one thing to sit in a room and agree that
things are rotten. It is another to put those opinions to people who
may not know any better or who have opinions of their own but are
Media corporations create opportunities for individual expression.
Issues not covered in the major media give rise to the alternatives,
which, in the case of The Pitch, become so successful they
may become subject to corporate control themselves.
When individuals and groups arent satisfied with the major media
or its alternatives, they have the right under the First Amendment
to agitatepublish their own opinions, write their own news articles
and direct people to their favorite sources of news.
I made my get-active presentation at the Media Reform
Workshop. After listening to complaints Ive heard for years,
I stood to say I wanted to plant an idea that goes back to before
the establishment of the Republic. The way to reform the media, I
said, was to agitate in the way that Thomas Paine, William Livingston,
Benjamin Franklin and evangelist George Whitfield answered the onslaught
of British colonial propaganda. These brave pamphleteers put their
views and wrote articles in broadsheets, pamphlets and newspapers,
often printed in front rooms or jobbed out at individual printers
and distributed by hand on city and village streets.
Modern equivalents of these publications, I said, written in a style
that could be read by Walkin Around Joes and distributed
at the Wal-Mart, the K-Mart and gas stationswhere the
people arewould get the word out. A two-sided sheet, or
a four-page newsletter containing three or four articles and a few
selected Web sites for further information, and handed out weekly,
would be a start.
Such a publication would have to have a decent name, The Intelligencer,
The Inside, The Weekly Gazetteanything but liberal,
left, leftwing, indy, diverse,
feminine or anything touchy-feely because people glaze
right over when they see that sort of thing. People will often agree
with populist or progressive views, but because of the politicization
of the media, labels like these will turn them right off and prevent
them reading the content.
Moreover, anyone taking up the pamphleteering approach cant
just start a Web site and expect people to come. Although a Web site
is necessary to back up this hypothetical new publication, a Web site
alone wont be enough. With something over 15 billion Web sites
on the Web, its difficult to find even a couple of viewers a
day. Email is not a good way to get the word out to strangers, since
most people are already sifting through the penis enlargement and
red-hot live teen Web cam spam ads.
The advantage of actually handing someone a piece of paper is that
folks have time and incentive to look at a newsletter, particularly
when presented to them by a friendly, clean, well-meaning person.
Its not buried in the junk mail, the television ads, the radio
blather and the email crap.
Immediately, some objected. Wal-Mart wont let us pass
things out and We cant go to the K-Mart. My
argument was that Wal-Mart lets organizations sell weenies and lemonade,
so sell weenies and lemonadeand hand out the newsletter. Stand
out in the median at 47th and Main and in the public right-of-way
in front of the McDonalds. Street corners. Public parks. The
entrances to Bartle Hall. The public right-of-ways on sidewalks in
front of parking garages. Even 500 copies of such a publication, handed
out with consistency, will gain regular readersand converts.
But be committed. You will have to live up to your own standards of
truth seeking and reporting, accountability and independence. You
will have to have discussions with people who dont like your
views and sometimes who dont like you. You may be sued. You
will have to know libel law.
A publication is tough work. Its often heartbreaking. Ask anyone
who writes, broadcasts, edits or works behind the scenes for a traditional
media outlet. Falling down, even one time, can mean disaster. People
will sneer. They will complain about your lack of balance. They will
say you have no integrity, that you are biased, that you are sucking
up to advertisers and special interests.
But you will get your views out, I said. If you are persistent, you
stand the chance of changing peoples minds. They will see that
faces stand behind the newsletter. And they will be loyal and interested.
Moreover, one small group of people putting together a publication
that works will inspire others, some liberal, some conservative. It
will spark debate and get citizens interested. Ultimately, a publication
is about more than the people who put it together. It is about the
good of the community that reads it and the nation they live in.
And, I said, you have to stop asking what people are doing for you,
what you can get for cheap and for free, and start asking what you
are doing for people and what you can give. Demand attention but expect
The Media Reform Workshop was just the beginning, I hope, of something
greater. From some indications, further workshops may result in a
publication that will get the activists out of meeting rooms and into
the streets. And thats a good thing.
In the meantime, here are some of these Web sites where modern, local
pamphleteers try to get their word out:
Kansas City Independent Media
Kansas City Iraq Task Force
Kansas City Direct Action Network
Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.