Speaking for Ourselves

Speaking for Ourselves

Seeking media justice–not just reform.


Nearly forty years ago, a few determined civil rights activists at the United Church of Christ and the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi, decided to take on the treatment of blacks by the television news. They drew a straight line from the racism they faced on the streets to the racism they faced in their living rooms when they turned on the TV. So they monitored newscasts at two local stations in Jackson. After determining that the stations were utterly failing to serve their African-American audiences, the activists filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission. And when they didn’t like what the FCC had to say, they took the commission to court, where they won. Big time.

The courts ultimately ruled that the broadcast license of station WLBT-TV ought to be taken away altogether. They said that while African-Americans were 45 percent of the audience, their concerns were totally ignored by the local television stations. It was a stunning decision, one that not only established the principle that news content must reflect in some fashion the actual diversity of local audiences but, just as important, that the public–not just corporate entities–had standing and could go directly to the FCC.

Today the landscape is radically different. With the Congressional deregulatory frenzy that started in the early 1990s, many media restrictions were loosened, and after passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the floodgates were completelythrown open. The rapid acceleration of consolidation in media and telecommunications industries that quickly followed–and is still under way–has occurred with the eager complicity of the FCC. Media reform advocates were placed on the defensive, but they did their best to mount a holding action and not be flattened by the commercial steamroller.

Meanwhile, the Jackson decision, which was once called the “Magna Carta for active public participation in broadcast regulation,” has all but disappeared from the annals of media policy advocacy. The lobbyists and scholars leading the current efforts at media reform are focusing on a whole different set of concerns–resistance to corporate media consolidation, the battle to preserve localism and against content that is commercial and sensationalistic–which are a far cry from the issues of racism and unfair treatment that launched the earlier movement.

There is an increasingly rebellious response to this Jeffersonian approach to media reform–and to the continued marginalization of people of color in the ever-more-consolidated world of mainstream media. In small towns and in church basements, in virtual communities and villages, a growing group of activists are going back to the movement’s roots using a framework they call media justice. Drawing inspiration from the environmental justice movement, media justice proponents are developing race-, class- and gender-conscious visions for changing media content and structure. A first-ever Media Justice Summit is planned for late spring 2004. Says co-convener and technology expert Art McGee, “We’re modeling the Media Justice Summit on the historic Environmental Justice Summit over a decade ago, in which people of color and the poor came together and made explicit their environmental issues and concerns, which had not been a part of the mainstream agendas of mostly white groups like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. We’re about to do something very similar.”

Using media as an organizing tool is certainly not new. For more than fifty years, America has nurtured a vibrant, alternative, overtly political media voice. But in the past few years, in response to glaring news failures like the 2000 presidential election and the “homeland security” journalism in the wake of 9/11, a broad convergence of activists launched a coordinated drive to reform media and use it to advance their broader agendas. They held a flurry of confabs, from the big-tent Media and Democracy Congresses of 1996 and 1997 to the more reflective Kopkind Colony series, where a small group of progressive organizers and journalists spend a week in conversation and retreat.

But if the media justice movement had a coming-out party, it was at the venerable Highlander Research and Education Center in August 2002. Highlander convened a group of grassroots activists to discuss media organizing strategies, and by the time the group had worked out plans to create education materials, build constituencies and work in partnership with social justice campaigns, it had become the Highlander Media Justice Gathering. Because media’s role in spreading capitalist values and neoliberal ideology was having a mortal impact on so many social and economic justice movements, the conclusion was that media could no longer be a sidebar–it had become one of the main issues.

Today’s media organizers employ a few basic strategies: building and controlling our own production and distribution outlets; using, confronting and transforming corporate media; and changing the underlying regulatory structures, policies and framework. Activists are energetically pursuing all these directions, engaging dozens of groups across the country. The media justice perspective cuts across them all.

A growing network of organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area is working under the media justice banner. Third World Majority encourages women and people of color to engage in media work. “People say, ‘We’ll never be on the radio. We’ll never be on TV.’ They feel really disempowered and shut off that part of themselves,” says executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Through efforts like its Community Digital Storytelling Movement, TWM helps marginalized communities produce their own stories, including both personal narratives and community histories.

Also part of the network is Media Alliance–founded twenty-seven years ago by progressive Bay Area journalists–and the Youth Media Council, both of which serve with TWM as co-conveners of next year’s Media Justice Summit. Serious about demanding that media be held accountable for their images of youth, YMC has produced several reports on the behavior of local media. “Speaking for Ourselves: A Youth Assessment of Local News Coverage” broke down the biased and acontextual press coverage of young people, and included a nine-point set of “recommendations to journalists for improved coverage of youth.” Their most recent effort, “The Bay Area Media Map,” is a step-by-step guide to youth for mapping local media ownership, working with news reporters and building strong relationships to get their own voices heard. “YMC’s approach is straightforward,” says director Malkia Cyril. “Youth are often negatively portrayed. Our voices are often absent in the public debate on the issues that affect us. We want access. We want power. We want to produce. We want to see changes in how we are portrayed–not because we just want to be on TV but because what’s on TV or in the media is fundamentally setting the public agenda. People are choosing to send us to prison, execute us, cut funding to our schools–the list goes on–based on what they see on the news. How can we ignore that?”

On the East Coast, Philadelphia has become a hotbed for a cluster of young media justice activists. According to Inja Coates, co-founder and director of Media Tank, a spinoff of the Independent Media Center (IMC) that does education and movement-building on media issues, the local movement was kicked off in 1997 when pirate radio station Radio Mutiny went on the air and, simultaneously, a new coalition was launched to get public-access channels (which still don’t exist there) onto the city cable system. “These two efforts got off the ground at the same time, and then when the Republican convention came to town, we all worked together in the trenches to make the Indy Media Center happen. Things have just grown from there,” she says.

With the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), also based in Philadelphia, Media Tank co-sponsored a gathering called “Break the Media Blackout: A Conference on Media Democracy and the Struggle to End Poverty.” Part of the national Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, the event was aimed at building “a critical alliance between the growing media democracy movement and the movement to end poverty led by the poor.” To highlight the concept that media are making poverty invisible in America, the conference offered workshops to analyze the behavior of mainstream media and to teach hands-on technical skills to empower grassroots antipoverty organizations.

“We have to break the media isolation of the poor, which has virtually disappeared large segments of the population,” says Shivani Selveraj, one of the conference organizers. “KWRU took a busload of folks from North Philly across the country to see what urban and rural poverty looks like, since the media doesn’t show us–only ‘black welfare queens’ or ‘backward hillbilly white trash.’ All along the way we put stories and pictures daily on our website, and you could see how people were moving through their own misconceptions. So we learned we have to do it ourselves.”

At the Break the Media Blackout Conference, the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project (the creation of Dylan Wrynn, also know as Pete TriDish, who helped transform radio pirates into policy activists who lobbied the FCC and Congress to create LPFM, the legal low-power radio service) solidified its relationship with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers/Coalicion de Trabajadores de Immokalee. A community-based farmworker movement in the heart of the Florida agricultural industry, the coalition is made up of members from Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala and elsewhere who pick tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers and peppers for what they describe as “slave wages,” which haven’t increased in more than two decades.

Prometheus helped them apply for a low-power radio license, and the coalition will be putting its station on the air by the end of the year. Coalition staff member Max Perez says, “Meeting with Prometheus gave us the idea that we could have our own radio station.” The coalition is currently running a campus campaign against Taco Bell in order to win what Perez says will be the first company wage increase for picking tomatoes in more than twenty years. “The boycott really got off the ground when we started to tell our own stories on a website,” he says. “It’s been really effective. But it’s nothing without the grassroots action. We hope the radio station will bring us together, when we can hear our own voices and really reach the local community.”

Finding independent ways to tell our stories was also the idea that sparked the first Independent Media Center four years ago. The first IMC was set up just to cover the protests set to occur in Seattle during the 1999 WTO meetings. But it quickly mushroomed into an international phenomenon, with local operations in more than 125 locations around the world. Soon after IMC’s success at the WTO, Seattle attorney and co-founder Dan Merkle was traveling around the country helping to set up new IMCs. “It was a brilliant template, which saw tremendous exponential growth in a short time frame, with minimal resources and no top-down hierarchical governance,” he says. “It was an organic evolution of media activists and technology that has played an extremely valuable role within the global justice movement. This is a major success story.” However, Merkle sees room for improvement. “The IMC plays a really valuable role, but the movement now is too white–once again, it won’t get us where we want to go unless more effort is put into addressing the needs in communities of color as well as in rural communities.”

Sheri Herndon, also a Seattle IMC co-founder, agrees and, as a participant in the Highlander Media Justice Working Group, is attempting to build bridges between the IMC and media justice movements. “Indymedia is truly one of the most interesting international decentralized networks in existence,” she says. “[But] if we are going to take this model to another level, we have to see beyond the narrow confines of our own experience and recognize how much this dynamic network needs racial diversity. At this point, it is crucial.”

The issues that started it all back in Jackson, Mississippi, more than forty years ago are still plaguing Jackson’s communities of color–most with a modern twist. Instead of fighting to get coverage, groups now fight to change how they are covered. But there has been some improvement, says Southern Echo’s Leroy Johnson. The Jackson-based Southern Echo, a leadership development organization, got its first invitation to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger editorial board meeting this year, an invitation considered long overdue by many community members, given the organization’s pivotal work in Mississippi over the past decade. Says Johnson, “It’s been difficult to get them to recognize black organizations or Latino or any organizations of color for that matter. They can cover the Red Cross as an institution, but in our communities, if the story is positive, they will focus on an individual. If it’s negative, they will focus on the organization. It’s a clear media bias that it’s OK for an individual to have power but not OK for our communities to have organizations with power. It’s inherently wrong, malicious and purposeful.”

In some ways, the hostile climate of forty years ago is still there. The Jackson Advocate, the city’s feisty, black-owned newspaper, has been the target of two firebombings and several attacks for its investigative reporting on racism and local government. One bombing in 1998 left the paper with barely a shell for an office. Thanks to fierce support locally and nationally, the paper is now up and running and still a standard-bearer for the values that made Jackson the place where media justice all began.

For media scholar and longtime advocate Mark Lloyd, the movement that calls itself media justice today is just getting back to these civil rights roots. “I think what is considered the media justice movement is less rooted in the consumer or public interest movement than it is properly rooted in a movement that began with the traditional issues and concerns of civil rights–a movement that is concerned with equality, with political representation, the impact of culture on institutions like media and schools.” Lloyd observes that this historical context is key to understanding the need for groups to create a media justice “space” outside the media “consumer” or democracy movement. “The fact that we have institutions like the New York Times or foundations that are dominated by people who tend not to be people of color…[and] they see this ‘public interest stuff’ as separate or important and maybe see this ‘civil rights stuff’ as passé is, frankly, connected.”

According to Media Justice Summit convener McGee, understanding the history also enables us to draw inspiration from the leadership role that people of color have played in media work. “Black journalists, publishers and activists have been fighting for media justice since before the birth of this country,” he says. “For those who think that a people-of-color-led fight for media justice is new, just check out the history of both black people’s overall struggle to have some degree of control over their portrayal as human beings, and the tireless work that countless black journalists have done to try to democratize the media landscape in this country. As Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm said in the premier issue of Freedom’s Journal back in 1827: ‘We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.'”

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