commentary
May 7, 2004

 

Quit complaining and start agitating
by Patrick Dobson

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 change.

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 paper—sensational and more and more reactionary.

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 free democracy?

While activists have been busy complaining to themselves, media corporations have been busy lobbying legislators in Washington to ease corporate access of the public airwaves—the 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 don’t communicate very well with the folks getting their TVs at the Wally World—the people media corps, advertisers, food and consumer manufacturers want to pour their goods into.

Compete: This online publication competes in a media market dominated by a few powerful, top-down newspaper corporations. It’s a tough go, all the time. But if one can survive, it’s 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 protections.

Get into action: So, faced with large, corporate structures, supported by law, government and wealth—including a growing slice of many workers’ 401K, IRA, pension fund and other retirement savings—the 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 quite different.

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 aren’t satisfied with the major media or its alternatives, they have the right under the First Amendment to agitate—publish 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 I’ve 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 stations—“where the people are”—would 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 Gazette—anything 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 can’t 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 won’t be enough. With something over 15 billion Web sites on the Web, it’s 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. It’s not buried in the junk mail, the television ads, the radio blather and the email crap.

Immediately, some objected. “Wal-Mart won’t let us pass things out” and “We can’t go to the K-Mart.” My argument was that Wal-Mart lets organizations sell weenies and lemonade, so sell weenies and lemonade—and hand out the newsletter. Stand out in the median at 47th and Main and in the public right-of-way in front of the McDonald’s. 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 readers—and 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 don’t like your views and sometimes who don’t like you. You may be sued. You will have to know libel law.

A publication is tough work. It’s 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 people’s 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 nothing.

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 that’s 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
www.kcindymedia.org/index.php

Kansas City Iraq Task Force
www.kciraqtaskforce.org/

KC Labor
www.kclabor.org/

Kansas City Direct Action Network
www.kcdirectaction.net/

Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity
www.crossbordernetwork.org/

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at poetrysheet@earthlink.net. 


              
              
                 

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