Grassroots media activism organizes for power

by Jonathan Lawson

“As the founding fathers were documenting their concept of a free press, they were also building a slaveholding capitalist economy and a white nationalist politic that would entrench media policies and practices for centuries to come. Our current media system reproduces and maintains the colonial power relationships of its beginnings. Understanding the role media plays in creating and perpetuating structural racism and class oppression is not a secondary issue – it is essential to building an effective movement for media reform that fundamentally transforms the US system of communications.”

Among the introductory speakers at the 2005 National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis, Youth Media Council director Malkia Cyril took the broadest view of what was needed – a radical reevaluation of the media reform movement’s focus on federal policy victories, and even of the canonical freedomof- the-press principles codified by Jefferson and Hamilton. (Cyril brought the crowd to it’s feet, by the way, in one of the conference’s few standing ovations; (other recipients were hip-hop journalist Davey D and closing speaker Bill Moyers.)

Back at home in Oakland, the Youth Media Council (YMC) spends more energy on smaller-scale local work to improve our damaged media democracy. The group’s primary audience is young people, particularly young people of color, in the richly diverse San Francisco Bay area. While the organization works on media issues with broad national implications, its primary accountability is to the communities in which it organizes. Its media work emerges from the particular concerns of those communities, including youth incarceration, the criminalization of dissent, and immigrants’ rights.

A local radio accountability campaign organized by the YMC, Media Alliance and other Bay-Area organizations showed the strengths of grassroots media activism. The Oakland-based Clear Channel station KMEL, though calling itself “the People’s Station,” was baldly contemptuous toward community needs for local news, culture and political discussions. Identifying KMEL’s corporate ownership and profit demands as the cause for the station’s indifference to community needs, the grassroots groups helped youth activists learn to monitor and assess coverage of a controversial policing bill. The campaign effectively publicized their findings of bias with theatrical demonstrations and through sympathetic newspaper coverage. Under pressure from the community, station management finally agreed to air a program featuring local youth voices.

Many small organizations working for social change through media activism have developed an approach similar to the one described here--harnessing locally-grounded grassroots organizing and community knowledge to challenge oppressive media structures or behaviors. While their targets are often federal policies or major corporations, these groups’ campaigns are animated by universal concerns about social and economic justice. Grassroots media activist groups are often deeply collaborative--with other local or regional activist organizations and community groups, with public access centers and community radio stations, and so forth. These collaborative relationships give grassroots media groups high-quality sources of knowledge that national or DC-based advocacy groups may overlook.

MAG-Net

Several prominent grassroots organizations, hoping to increase the diversity of voices within the overall media democracy movement, recently launched a new coalition. The Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) will seek to strengthen the leadership, strategy and coordination of the grassroots sector of the media reform movement. Planned activities include regional organizing and strategic gatherings, support for various ongoing collaborations among member groups, and other field-building work. The Youth Media Council and Media Alliance are co-coordinators of MAG-Net; other founding groups include the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (San Antonio), Media Tank (Philadelphia), Reclaim the Media (Seattle), and the Texas Media Empowerment Project (San Antonio).

These groups have all become regional and national leaders in creative organizing around a range of media democracy issues, including media ownership, cable regulation, municipal broadband, media literacy training, community media and media monitoring. Over the last several years, each of the groups has organized community testimony for the FCC hearings on media ownership and localism, and several of the groups worked together in 2005 and 2006 as the Grassroots Cable Coalition in 2005 and 2006, helping each other organize community campaigns around public access and other cable franchise issues. The Texas MEP is currently mobilizing communities to protect public access throughout Texas.

The MAG-Net groups have also built deep collaborations with a broad range of other media activist and social change groups. The Center for International Media Action, the Movement Strategy Center, the SPIN Project and Prometheus Radio Project all played roles in helping the new coalition come together; MAG-Net member groups work closely with the Alliance for Community Media, Free Press and other national organizations as well as with groups in their own backyards.

For the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, involvement in current media policy battles is self-defense, as well as work on behalf of communities the group regularly works with, including immigrants, lesbians and gay men, and political artists. The group, which as an arts and culture organization receives some public funding from the City of San Antonio, has repeatedly come under vicious attack from commentators in the city’s conservative mainstream media, including local Clear Channel radio and the local newspapers. Stirring up opposition to a Esperanza-sponsored lesbian and gay film festival, the group’s attackers succeeded in pressuring the city to pull Esperanza’s funding. The Esperanza Center successfully argued in court that the defunding had been unlawfully political, and the whole experience helped awaken the Esperanza and its communities to the problem of concentrated, unaccountable media - and to see that media policy is a primary battleground for social justice activism.

Media Justice

Where the MAG-Net groups come together most strongly is on the level of social justice values--in particular rallying around the idea of media justice, an organizing framework which first emerged from a fall 2002 media activist gathering at Tennessee’s Highlander Research and Education Center. Among the various, often imprecise phrases used to characterize media-critical activism ("media reform," "media democracy," "cultural environment," etc.), "media justice" places media activism in the service of broader social change goals, and specifically in the service of oppressed and marginalized communities.

Media justice is a framework for understanding and responding to media systems whose content and structures help enforce inequality within a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society. A media justice critique asks, where is the media that holds government and corporate power accountable? Where are the voices that fight racism, sexism and homophobia, rather than amplifying them? Where are the diverse voices of our own communities, our elders and young people? Where is the media that promotes community engagement, respect, and generosity, instead of commercialism, consumption and competition?

Having a place to prioritize, discuss, and strategize around these questions has been a key benefit of the MAG-Net collaboration to date, a conversation the founding groups are looking forward to sharing with other organizations. "Media Justice has given us a framework to be more creative in our approach to the programs we do," explains Media Tank executive director Inja Coates. "It’s led us to integrate more of an organizing component into our work, in addition to education and mobilization."

Fan the flames

"We’re raising the visibility of grassroots groups within the overall media reform sector," says Coates, "and that means strategically figuring out how to shift the values." MAG-Net organizers aim both to increase the profile of media justice critiques within media reform conversations, and to expand the capacity for media activism within the broader social justice movement. After introducing itself to the media reform community at January’s National Conference on Media Reform in Memphis, the MAG-Net made a bigger public splash in Atlanta this summer, distributing hundreds of hand fans marked "fan the flames of media justice" to overheated delegates at the first United States Social Forum.

At the Social Forum, MAG-Net also introduced a ten-point platform for media change, calling for community-accountable media content, universal access to communications technology and media production tools, increased public ownership of media resources, and just enforcement of media regulations in the public interest. The platform also calls for the long-term development of a "community-centered" media policy, and an expansive redefinition of free speech rights, starting from a perspective of communication as a universal human right.

Over the next two years, MAG-Net plans to expand its network to include dozens of groups, with the six founding organizations constituting a "leadership team." The expanded network will likely include more media and cultural activist organizations and independent media groups in southern states and other areas where it’s typically difficult to organize and fund grassroots social change activism. The network’s ultimate vision pushes beyond reform: building a social movement behind media that helps distribute power among all people. "For now, it may make sense to think about Media Justice as a segment of the Media Reform movement," reflects Jeff Perlstein of Media Alliance. "From a media justice perspective, it’s really the other way around."

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