WTO media flashback: getting the word out, becoming the media

RTM note: This article originally appeared in the Blind Spot, as part of the Independent Media Center's grassroots coverage of the Seattle WTO on Nov. 29, 1999. We are reprinting it in celebration of 10 years of Indymedia, and to note how yesterday's media problems stop being today's media problems only as a result of community organizing and activism.Getting the word out: Trials & triumphs

The revolution may be televised
Representing the Independent Media Center on Amy Goodman's “Democracy Now,” (which aired Monday December 13, 1999) David Murphy described the IMC as a grassroots media activist's dream. “The idea was to go out in the streets with video cameras and film what was being blocked out by the mainstream press,” he said. He added that the IMC set out to present “unmediated media,” to provide people with direct access to what was happening and to represent a diversity of voices, especially voices that are often underrepresented or marginalized.

The IMC originally formed when local media activists and others from the independent and alternative media communities (among them Jeff Perlstein, Jimmy Mateson of Media Island International, former KCMU news director Sheri Herndon, and Seattle attorney Dan Merkle) decided to address the fact that information about the WTO was not being made available for public debate. They wrote: “The true impact of the WTO policies and rules on our communities was not being reported on. … Meaningful discussions, public knowledge, participation or scrutiny of the summit issues associated with this new governing body were avoided.”

A listserve was created for the independent media producers from across the country and the world who were planning to descend upon Seattle. More than anything this served as a catalyst for the IMC. Dan Merkle found office space for the media center to set up shop, people continued to meet, and the desire to make the vision of the IMC become a reality grew. A need for coverage of the issues surrounding the WTO meetings emerged as a central mission for the IMC. Through media coverage, the IMC also planned to provide protection for the demonstrators involved in the Direct Action Network (DAN).

Birth of Blind Spot
Print coordinator/Blind Spot editor Adam Holdorf described a structure lacking significant staff shortly before the ministerial week began. “We were worried about making it all happen,” said Holdorf. Then, during the week of November 30, “people came crawling out of the woodwork. … I don't know where they all came from.”

The writers and editors who'd originally signed up to publish what would become Blind Spot mostly failed to show at the nightly editorial meetings during the WTO week. Instead, a new staff emerged, a handwritten list of names. This staff rotated nightly but worked together as if a well-tried team, spurred on by the urgency of the task at hand. Many never learned one another's last names. Stories were lost in computer crashes. Film went missing on its way to be developed. Staff members brought in their own computers and equipment because nothing else worked as expected. Standard procedures were proposed, quickly jettisoned and sometimes revived.

All day long people appeared at the IMC print area. Some wanted to know how they could help. Some wanted to know how they could help. Some were there to be interviewed, either as individuals who had experienced police brutality or as members of underrepresented NGOs. Others had photos of what appeared to be a war-torn city – gas masks and armored vehicles. In the end Blind Spot staff were amused at the original overzealous plan to publish two issues daily. Our single daily issue was a miracle – appearing in the midst of lockdown conditions, police tar gassing the office door, and a copier that broke down at least once a day.

Blind Spot's blind spot?
One of Blind Spot's articles, Dina Rudick's “Protest, vandalism, looting then an assault on indie media” (issue no. 3) stirred a negative response. The story accurately portrays the atmosphere in downtown Seattle on November 30: violence was in the air and it seemed almost anything could happen. Rudick tried to identify a racial dynamic she saw in the crowd downtown.

She describes a man as “furious” without reporting his actions or words. “Young black men” and “protesters” appear in the same sentence, implying that these groups could not be synonymous. At the end of the article, Rudick believes she sees a man reaching for a gun. Had it been a white man, would she have interpreted his actions the same way?

We were an overwhelmingly white staff and were unable to escape the racist biases that permeate society. We'd like to blame our errors on the hurriedness of the week, but we know that to move forward, we must acknowledge that racism is real and would have been present even if we'd had all the time in the world.

Looking back & ahead
Now that things are calmer at the IMC, we've begun to assess where we need improvement and what impact we have had.

The IMC web site has gotten over 1.5 million hits. We know that people listened to Studio X (the live audio stream from the web) as far away as Cairo and Kentucky. Blind Spot developed name recognition in the streets of Seattle and was downloaded all over the world. During the ministerial week, the video team produced a daily half hour of WTO footage which was broadcast via satellite. A 60-minute video compilation of these broadcasts has sold over 800 copies so far. Video screenings have sold out.

What does the future hold? Myriad projects are in the works. We are gaining momentum.

La lucha continua … and so does the euphoria. See you next time. – Leslie Howes

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