Dispatches from the Boston Social Forum
In the history of social change movements in the United States, media have always played a key role. The populists who organized in the 1880s and 1890s published scores of important daily and weekly newspapers. The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, which ran strong presidential campaigns in 1912, 1916 and 1920, had its own paper, The Appeal to Reason, with a circulation 760,000-strong in its heyday.
And while every upsurge of activism from civil rights to gay liberation has spawned new organs, whether bundled or byte-size, the delicate balance of media and movement seems to have entered a new, less predictable phase. The battle of Seattle, the same event that would ultimately spawn the World Social Forums, also introduced us to Independent Media Centers, and the idea that anyone--in fact, everyone--can be a journalist.
While the Boston Social Forum has largely escaped the glare of the mainstream media, save for mentions in the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe, the alternative press is here in abundance. Correspondents from Free Speech Radio, area IndyMedia outlets and alternative newsweeklies are working the crowd, while no fewer than five independent filmmakers are recording the proceedings.
The prospect of a movement caught on film fills organizer Catherine Benedict with excitement. "We're living in a moment when technology has really democratized the media," says Benedict, who helped to coordinate the Boston Social Forum Film Series. "People are able to get their message out much more easily today, especially young people because they understand the technology," she says. Case in point: The film series is showcasing not just the work of established filmmakers, such as John Sayles, but that of 'kids with cameras,' like Lev Grossman-Spivack, a teenager who made the trek to Mumbai, India, in January for the World Social Forum, digital camera in hand. "This was the first video project he'd ever done," says Benedict.
But the fact that the alternative media movement seems to be expanding so much more rapidly than the social movements its partisans chronicle raises an interesting question: What happens when there is more media than movement? And is there such a thing as too much media, even of the alternative variety?
It is not a question upon which the progressive community agrees, even at the Boston Social Forum. At a gathering titled the "New Media Summit" on Saturday afternoon, filmmaker Richard Hoefer made the case that the alternative media movement should devote its resources to establishing a new, noncorporate television network designed to appeal to both moderates and progressives. "There's not going to be any taking back of the mainstream media," said Hoefer. As for alternative outlets, he doesn't see much hope there either: "If I don't know you exist, I have no way to access your information." Others were skeptical of the idea, feeling it more worthwhile to devote themselves to less costly projects like low-power radio, Internet webcasting and documentary film-making.
The distance between Hoefer's vision of a branded TV network that will appeal to millions and the specter of a single activist armed with a hand-held camera seems impossibly huge. "Isn't there something in between?" I wondered aloud to James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers' Center, who made the trip down from Montpelier for the BSF. A frequent guest on a Vermont radio program known as Equal Time, Haslam turned out to be a good person with whom to share my musing.
"What you have to understand about the show is that it is and it isn't alternative media. It's alternative media in that social movements have access to it, but it also very much relates to the lives of ordinary Vermonters," says Haslam. "We go on to talk about an issue confronting Vermont workers and we get calls from people all over the state," says Haslam. "This is really new." It also differs from much alternative programming in that it has a sizeable audience, at least by Vermont standards. WDEV, the station on which it airs, also broadcasts a right-wing opinion show called True North, and live auto-racing, proving that di\ \versity in programming isn't always bad for business.
Back at the New Media Summit, as a presentation of excerpts from new films had the crowd roaring with approval, organizers hoped to have a blueprint for a new progressive TV network in place by the close of the BSF.