Fixing our media system: reform is not enough

Fixing Our Media System: Reform is Not Enough

By Joshua Breitbart, WireTap Magazine

The National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) was an amazing event that brought more than 3,500 people together in Memphis, TN, from January 12 to 14. I want to offer my humble thanks to the organizers from Free Press. They work very hard and get a lot of grief, but they've done a lot to improve the conference and strengthen the media movement from Madison in 2003 to St. Louis in 2005 to Memphis in 2007.

I was going through some old papers this weekend and came across the conference packet from the first NCMR, held on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus in 2003. (I registered as press from Clamor.) The conference has come a long way since then. However, the divisions that we saw in Madison and that we left unresolved in St. Louis were still with us in Memphis, although there was clearly less bitterness arising from those divisions.

Still, if we want our social movement for a new, global communication system -- this "media movement" -- to grow in spirit and sophistication and not just in size, we have to address those fundamental divisions. I say "we" because it is not solely up to Free Press, the organizers of the NCMR, to do this. It is the task of all of us who are the movement.


I was visiting Madison a month before the first 2003 NCMR in the middle of a Rooftop Films/Clamor Magazine tour. I asked our hosts from the Madison Infoshop, Madison Indymedia, and WORT community radio what they thought of the approaching conference. They were angry about it; Not only Free Press had not invited local media-makers to participate in the conference, they were not returning their phone calls either.

Since it was their town and they had access to other campus facilities, I suggested they just go ahead and organize the sessions they wanted rather than asking Free Press to do it for them. (We call this approach to problems "direct action.") So they organized "Be The Media at The National Conference for Media Reform" to showcase local projects, share important skills, and offer a hands-on experience to conference-goers.

A lot of what these media activists wanted to incorporate was available right there in Madison: local heads could facilitate a discussion on hip hop and media, since a local student group, the Hip Hop Generation, already organized annual, national hip hop conferences; local radio pirate Wankstor X. Muzzlebutt of System P could show people how to start broadcasting from their own homes; and Madison IMC wanted to host a discussion on the future of Indymedia.

As an organizer of the Allied Media Conference (AMC), I was able to supplement that by inviting media activists from Chicago, Ann Arbor, Urbana, and Bowling Green, most of whom had not been planning to attend the NCMR but were eager to share their knowledge of making bilingual media (�Hasta cuando?), starting an IMC (Michigan IMC), sustaining a community media center (Urbana-Champaign IMC), and independent publishing (Clamor, along with a local newspaper, The Madison Insurgent).

In the end, the Be The Media shadow conference was a success. Free Press included the flyer for it in their information packets and a number of people crossed between the official sessions and the unofficial ones.

I was pretty busy on the Be The Media side of things, but looking now at the program of the official Free Press conference, it seems like the organizers attempted to include independent media makers and community organizers, reaching out beyond the world of policy and reform: Naomi Klein and Janine Jackson talked about social justice movements and media reform; Sheri Herndon and Abby Scher discussed independent media; Center for International Media Action (CIMA) facilitated a "How do we win?" discussion; and Malkia Cyril, Jeff Perlstein, and Makani Themba-Nixon held a "Media Justice" session. But the treatment of local media activists and the white male domination of the plenary stage made many feel that this attempt was superficial.

The description of the Media Justice session said it was "coordinated by the Media Justice Network" and stated that "The form, content and ownership of media are tied to all struggles for social justice, power, and self-determination. Today, media justice organizers are working to build meaningful participation from communities of color and indigenous communities to claim the undeniable right to communicate. We aim to fundamentally change the ownership structure, language usage, and policy discourse around media within the United States and internationally, so that those communities most directly affected by media inequities can own the movement and bring into reality the vision behind media justice."

That session and the Be The Media supplement notwithstanding, the experience of many attendees was that the conference was too didactic and not interactive enough, and that it fell far short in addressing issues of race, class, and gender.

Trying to address this last, key shortcoming, Free Press conference organizers asked the Media Justice Network to provide a speaker for the closing plenary - but only with 10-minutes notice, making it clear that the media justice issues were an afterthought.

These conflicts at the 2003 NCMR -- between Free Press and the local independent media and media justice activists -- revealed the existence of three distinct groups with three distinct strategies for addressing the current, failed media system. One report on the conference labeled them "be the media," "reform the media," and "radically transform the media." Since then, I have learned new terms for these three wings of the movement: "media democracy" (the "be the media" group), "media reform" (the "official" conference, specifically Free Press), and "media justice."


For the 2005 NCMR in St. Louis, Free Press took steps to address these divisions and bring the media democracy and media justice activists more firmly into the conference. They made contact early with local radio station KDHX and even the St. Louis IMC. Malkia and I were invited to be part of an "outreach committee" to solicit participation from our various networks and dole out scholarships to about 250 people. There were about 40 Indymedia activists from more than 15 different IMCs across the country, making it one of the largest non-protest gatherings for the network inside the U.S.

Despite the increase in attendance from young people, people of color, grassroots organizers, media democracy activists, and people who are combinations of these, the dynamics of the conference did not change. It was still a pretty didactic affair with little space for networking. And while "media justice" and "media democracy" activists, youth and people of color all attended in greater numbers, there was no corresponding increase in speakers from these constituencies or sessions addressing the issues of primary concern to them. Malkia had more than 10 minutes to prepare her speech on the opening plenary, but the issues she raised were still marginal to the conference. We did not do enough to support the youth of color who found themselves a very small minority in a conference that was still dominated by white people over 40.

Some Indymedia folks had requested a media lab where people could make media and teach others how to create your own media, but Free Press demurred. I was told that they were worried someone might use the space to initiate an unlicensed radio broadcast. Instead, Free Press created a "Media Democracy Showcase," but it was in a cold, basement-like corner of the facility.

So there was renewed frustration with Free Press in 2005. And the conference threw the differences among those three sections of the media movement - justice, democracy, reform - into sharp relief. The Free Press folks got so much grief, I'm sure they were tempted to give up and not organize another conference.

Lucky for us, they stuck with it.


This year's outreach committee did an incredible job and offered more support to the people they brought in. There was no discussion however of queer issues; disability rights activists had to stage a demonstration to raise awareness of their presence and of the media issues affecting them. But there was still substantially more justice-oriented content at this year's NCMR than at either of the previous two. And there was a consistent "media reform is civil rights" theme articulated by plenary speakers like Jesse Jackson and Van Jones and emphasized by the holding of the conference on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in Memphis. For all of this work, it still felt like I was attending two separate conferences. Not quite like 2003, but it was practically black and white.

There was an unspoken and, I assume, unintentional but nevertheless dangerous and counterproductive message at the conference that research and policy work is for older white men, women's issues are for women, and local, grassroots organizing is for young people of color. The politicians on the various plenary sessions and the keynoters at the policy research pre-conference were all white men. That left it up to Geena Davis and Jane Fonda to raise gender issues; Lenox Yearwood, Van Jones, and Jesse Jackson to address race; and Erubiel Valladares Carranza and Deepa Fernandes to talk about the connection between independent media and social justice. (These last two speakers were the only ones that I saw engaging in other areas of the conference. Maybe the others were elsewhere - it was a big conference - but that dynamic also limits the ability for the speakers to serve as a unifying force.) I also saw this division among the panelists, their analysis, and the audience of the two sessions I attended Friday afternoon.

The divide between the two conferences was not simply between policy and organizing; it could be seen elsewhere, even in separate discussions about making your own media. The "Bubbling Up" session on "MySpace, YouTube, Social Networking and Political Change," in which Dina Kaplan of was hailing the work of Indymedia alumnus Brian Conley, was a very white space. Meanwhile, next door in "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Kid: Hip-Hop Activism for Media Accountability," Brotha Los was performing and Rosa Clemente was railing against Free Press for canceling the Katrina panel and only having one woman of color in all of the plenary sessions.

I'd guess the average age of the paid registrants was over 50. The presenters were younger on average, around 35. And scholarship recipients were probably under 25. There was a similar segmentation along racial lines.

For my part, I tried to encourage people to get out of their comfort zones, especially on Saturday, but of course that's easy for me to say. My gender, skin color, and education allow me to pass comfortably into even the wonkiest of spaces while my politics make me feel at home in the more radical discussions, which usually feature people of color. My approach in a situation like the NMCR is to try to use that access to present radical messages in ways that can be heard by people with privilege, whether in the "Owning Our Own Media Infrastructure" panel or with the The Ethos Group handout, "Thoughtful Infrastructure as a Platform for Media Reform."

I don't mean to disparage the organizers of either the individual sessions or of the conference or the presenters. Linda Jue through her work with recently closed Independent Press Association has probably done as much as anyone at the NCMR to address racial and ethnic divides in the media, Roberto Lovato from New America Media made some of the most radical statements at the conference, and Ms. Magazine is obviously a groundbreaker in women's media. So it could just be the timing of the "Envisioning the Future of Independent Media" (Sunday morning, when many people were still recovering from their Saturday night adventures, ahem) or perhaps the age of the presenters that caused the audience to come almost entirely from the older, white segment of the conference attendees.

"Independent Media as an Organizing Tool," on the other hand, had a fairly mixed audience, if a bit on the younger side. It's possible that there were more like that - I'm only drawing conclusions based on what I saw - but that was a fairly unique session in that all of the presenters were young women who use popular education and media to educate youth and build local social justice campaigns. They might describe their work as "media justice," but their approach lies somewhere in between "media justice" and "media democracy," synthesizing an anti-white supremacy analysis and the emphasis on grassroots organizing with the transformative power of media-making. "Participatory media" is the most accurate term I've yet heard to describe both approaches.

The Challenge

Conferences can provide an overview of a community, a chance to assess and celebrate how far we've come and how much further there is to go. The 2007 NCMR showed that we have grown bigger and stronger overall, but that fundamental divisions remain. Putting everyone in a room together is helpful, but it is not enough.

The Allied Media Conference (AMC) - a national gathering of independent media makers and media justice activists scheduled this year for June 22-24 in Detroit - prioritizes the participatory media approach and emphasizes popular education. In that way, it tries to serve and join together the two non-reform segments of the movement, challenging both communities to build on their shared strengths without erasing meaningful differences.

Saying this about the AMC is one thing; actually doing it is another. The AMC's origin is in the "media democracy" wing of the movement: zines and microcinemas and Indymedia and such. As it transitions to a new approach with broader participation - a process that has taken nearly three years and is culminating in this year's move of the conference to Detroit - it could easily wind up trading un-critical acceptance of one community for un-critical acceptance of a different one.

As organizers of ongoing projects and of large gatherings, it's our job to make people feel accepted and supported, but not simply so they can be comfortable -- no revolution was ever inspired by comfort -- so they can challenge each other constructively and engage people with different analyses and strategies.

This is a daunting enough challenge with the 500-person AMC. Perhaps it's impossible with a conference like the NCMR, which now tops 3500 people. It might not even desirable if what you seek is basic reform. But if we are to succeed in doing more than that, it is the challenge we have to face.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey