DeeDee Halleck

> Cyber Activism & the Independents

From Seattle to Davos - and D.C., Prague, Calgary and Windsor - media activists, environmentalists, tree huggers and labor rank and file have coalesced into a formidable force that has not only had an impact on the international money lenders, but has also caused major trouble for corporate giants such as Monsanto, Gap and Nike. On the lam, Monsanto is changing its name and trying to spin off agriculture.

As the global movement for justice and accountability arose to counter corporate globalization, there was finally a recognition by progressive groups of the importance of alternative media and the realization that the information/ entertainment oligarchy is at the forefront of global capital. The anti-globalization movement sees clearly that corporate media is an integral part of the problem. For these activists, creating new ways of communicating must be part of the solution. Media activists have constructed their own public information spaces by integrating various media formats and technologies: camcorders, Web radio, streaming video, microradio, digital photography, community cable access, DBS (direct broadcast satellite) transponders and laptop journalism. The revolution is not only televised, but digitized and streamed. This is not an attempt to "get on TV" but a commitment to create new forms of information sharing using new spaces and technologies and new ways of collaboration. The movement for an alternative media, with its flexible and open structure, its democratic rendering of the use-values of new technologies, and its continual involvement in interconnecting people in a transnational movement, provides an model of the evolution of a radical opposition, from the spontaneous appearance of individual creative practice, to the collective gathering of small co-operatives with enhancement of practical and technical skill, and to the growth of national and international collectives.

The following is the statement of purpose of the Boston Independent Media Center, created in less than two weeks in response to a global bio-engineering conference held in Massachusetts last winter. This statement has been taken up and tweaked or supplemented by several of the independent media centers, most recently in Windsor, Ontario. "The Boston Independent Media Center is a collectively run media outlet for the creation of radical, objective and passionate tellings of the truth. We work out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media's distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity. Indymedia provides resources and infrastructure for activists, citizens, communities and groups to tell their stories."

Behind the strategic blockades by the radical environmentalists and the lively and passionate video tapes, pirate radio shows and Web sites produced by the camcorder-commandos and server jocks, is an authentic revolution: a revolution in the form of public action and its documentation. The most radical aspect of this new movement is its non-hierarchical nature. The decision making is by consensus. All participants are themselves empowered.

The collaborative nature of the Indymedia work is something the mainstream press can't fathom. In covering this media revolution, the corporate press, either unwilling or unable to see the implications of this new form of information sharing, has focused on trying to find evidence of "hacking". Hacking is something the main stream reporters can deal with. The more complex forms of anti-global cyber activism they can't appreciate. They are stuck with the notion of a sort of individual geek working as maverick computer terrorist and they have a hard time "getting" decentralized consensus based media affinity groups.

The Independent Media Centers have emerged as models, not only for new ways of media making, but as practical examples of collective production. Many different streams came together: the video activist community, the micro-radio pirates, the computer hacker/codewriters, the 'zine makers and the punk music world. From the beginning there has been a committment to democratic process on all levels within the IMCs. Decision making procedures are discussed frequently on IMC list serves. Though quite popular and visited by literally millions, the indymedia websites are not about spectacle, but about involvement, engagement and participation. The front page is divided into columns, the first being links to all the IMC websites from the various locations through out the world. The center section is a loosely edited, regularly up-dated, news post. The right hand column is for on-going continual posting open to all.

The process of Indymedia is completely open, and completely accountable: there is no gate keeping, no selection process (except for what is selected for emphasis on the center news column). Any statement is immediately available for comment, discussion and/or correction. This open structure is especially appropriate for the type of movement which has evolved around globalization. As "J.M.G." pointed out during the demonstrations in Melbourne at the September 2000 meeting of the World Economic Forum: "The inabilities of the mainstream media to comprehensively document the issues and events surrounding S11 are contrasted by the growing number of community based, independent media outlets and individuals granted a forum for interactive dialogue through IndyMedia. The IndyMedia site provides a 'channel' for open discourse, free of editorial, as a simple click on the 'publish' button enables anyone and everyone to upload their stories. Rather than challenging or infiltrating the mainstream the objective of IndyMedia is to create a system outside of the dominant socio-political culture, empowering citizens by providing greater access and opportunity. Under this method of communication the traditional concept of the 'audience' is refuted - challenging the reader/writer to come to their own conclusions by wading through the diverse range of stories relating to s11 and other events. The sheer enormity and breadth of information available has lead to a greater level of engagement with both the issues and the other reader/writers. Creating this space for audience control has harnessed the inherent qualities of hypertext - unlike the majority of on-line news services, which remain overwhelmingly one-way in their transmission."

> The Public Broadcasting Fortress

And where is public television in all of this? Public television's participation in these global discussions is pretty much limited to promotional advertisements for Archer-Daniels-Midland, Miracle Gro, Amgen and other agro-businesses. As it's presently constituted, public television is incapable of almost any kind of reporting on the sort of systemic critique that this global movement represents. We have a nominally public communication apparatus that is structurally imbedded in the corporate system. Any sustained critique of that system cannot take place within that apparatus.
Public broadcasting sees itself as an adversary to independent production. One of the most distressing signs of this was the way in which NPR (National Public Radio) has gone to bat against microradio. Even the National Association of Broadcasters has not been as smarmy as the lobbyists for so-called public broadcasting in getting Congressional passage of anti-microradio legislation.

In terms of video production, PBS stations have set themselves up as fortresses against not only independent producers but community groups of any stripe, except perhaps the Junior League or the chambers of commerce. What a contrast there is between the icy gloom of most publicly funded PBS station offices and the bustle and excitement of the many successful cable access centers. There community organizations feel welcome; there independent producers can utilize resources and channel space. Shouldn't public television also be a space in which the community participates?

During the late 1970's the second Carnegie Commission sparked an occasion for activity in the critique and reform of public television. I was involved in the movement as a representative of the independent media community, as President of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF). There was an impressive coalition of media producers, labor, women's organizations, civil rights activists, progressive religious organizations and others who came together to appeal first to the commission and then directly to Congress to take the need for an authentic public television seriously. And gains were made; there was an acknowledgement of the work of independent producers and legislation for affirmative action at stations and in programming. On some level, perhaps we can thank this movement for the few courageous series that PBS has created: "Matters of Life and Death," "POV" (Marc Weiss, founder of POV, was a veteran of that '70s struggle) and, indirectly, but certainly part of the picture, "Eyes on the Prize." And wasn't it right after this activism that Charlayne Hunter Gault joined Jim and Robert?

The most far-reaching result of this organizing effort perhaps has been the implementation of "Sunshine Laws" on a national scale. These right-to-know laws have been won in California thanks to the efforts of Larry Hall, Henry Kroll and other Bay Area activists. The laws mandate that organizations which receive funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) must hold open board meetings (and committee meetings, except for those portions of the meetings which deal with personnel issues). This law is one that the Pacifica Foundation has consistently violated (though CPB itself has to enforce the regulation and, in the case of Pacifica, has been reluctant to do so), and it is routinely ignored by many stations around the country. However, as far as I know it is still a law, and if citizens get organized, this is quite an important tool for community groups to have at their disposal.

There is no Carnegie Commission at this time to focus a critique. Public television as it is now constituted would be too vulnerable, too open to criticism. Labor is too militant. As Seattle has demonstrated, progressive forces are too organized. So there has been no national forum for that sort of discussion. However, there is a deep need for a new assessment, and I hope that the recent "Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest" conference, as far as I know the first of its kind, is the beginning of a new movement to assess public broadcasting and to reinsert the public-interest mandate that was the impetus for its beginning

> A new reform movement

A reform movement for this new millennium has resources which were not present in the 1970's. Things are different now. The enthusiasm which coalesced around the Media and Democracy Congresses in New York (1996) and San Francisco (1997) are an indication of the potential for progress. There is potential for a broad movement for communication reform. Aside from the impressive and enthusiastic Independent Media Centers (IMCs), I will enumerate a few of the other assets now in place for reinvigorated media activism:

1. Academic Study

The serious, sustained research that is being done on the public sphere and in cultural studies at many universities. By framing the discussion of public television in terms of the privatization of public space and the need for an authentic public sphere, critical theory has given the reform movement a wider perspective. By showing the historic consequences of colonialism, slavery and academic elitism, the cultural studies movement has made diversity not only a required college class, but a requirement for cultural administration at any level.


The on-going work of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, whose publications and archives provide potential reformers with ammunition and examples. Their crucial studies of the commercialization of children's programming, of the recurring bias on "NewsHour" and the lack of working-class representation on PBS and NPR are landmark studies which give substance to public broadcasting critiques.

3. Activists Using Media

The wide use of television and computer media as activist tools within the environmental, labor and social-justice movements. Years ago it was hard to convince a rank-and-file union group that they needed a video about their cause. Now it is an accepted necessity. The United Farm Workers were pioneers in this endeavor with their emotional look at pesticides in the short tape, "The Wrath of Grapes." That tape has been reproduced more than a million times and continues to inform struggles around pesticides. "Lock Down USA," produced by Deep Dish TV, is virtually a part of the Schools Not Jails movement and is being shown in literally thousands of high schools and colleges. These examples are not films about the movement or films about a subject which the movement also addresses, they are part of the movement.

4. Media Literacy

The expanding base of media education and the media literacy movement which has adherents in almost every public elementary, junior and high school in this country. Teachers are realizing that they need to make the media a subject for discussion, even as early as kindergarten. And not only discussion, but also practice. With the demise of art-education funds, teachers often must bring their own personal camcorders to school, but for many of them, filmmaking has become a useful catalyst for creative work by groups of students. For some the video camera becomes a tool for educational research within their communities. One example is Fred Isseks of Middletown, New York, whose students have documented the corruption and dangers of the town dump - to such a degree that the landfill mafia has made threats on the teacher's life. But their work resulted in a major investigation of the problem and has (at least for now) put an end to a long-standing practice of allowing the dump to be used for extremely toxic waste. The teachers and students of these classes know the potential for educational television.

5. Coalitions and Web Sites

The Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, the Center for Media Education and People for Better TV form a useful band of infrastructure support for future reform initiatives. There are useful and informative Web sites such as Nettime, Alternet and MediaChannel, which regularly discuss communication policy issues. And the Media Access Project, a veteran center of public-interest advocacy, is still there.

6. Public Access TV

Public access television is one of the most exciting and controversial U.S. media developments within the past two decades. In 1972 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that cable systems be required to provide channels for public access. Many regularly scheduled television programs have been made for local networks, some of which have been running for over ten years. The subjects can range from astrology, call-in shows to discussions of spousal abuse. In the United States, the numbers of public channels and extent of equipment and facilities available are negotiated by the cable corporation and the local governments in the process of franchising. This process can be quite complex and can take several years to finalise. The structures resulting from the negotiations, known as 'access' or 'PEG' (public, educational and governmental) channels have created an informal network of non-commercial makers and viewers in several thousand cities and towns in the United States who have had to inform themselves about the political economy of corporate media in very concrete ways as they battle for just cable franchises. They have created new forms of public communication participation. In both the form of their governing bodies and the formats of their interactive programming, many of the community television centers are models of what an authentic television space for and by the public might be.

7. FreeSpeech TV

Freespeech TV is a publicly-supported, independent, non-profit TV founded in 1995. In 2000, FSTV realized its goal of launching the first national progressive, non-commercial television network when it was awarded a full-time satellite channel on DISH Network as a result of an FCC policy to set aside 4%-7% of satellite channels for public interest channels. This set-aside, which has become part of the direct broadcast rules, was itself proposed, lobbied and fought for by Freespeech TV. It is now available nationally, 24/7, on DISH Satellite Network. Deep Dish is a model of how satellite technology can create networks of interest. By organising the programming around issues from many different geographical sources, the network re-connects often scattered and isolated movements. By identifying producers and groups from around the country, Deep Dish uses video to create community, to bring people together who might not know about each other. Freespeech will be working with Deep Dish, the IMCs and hundreds of independent producers to provide an authentic alternative to public television as it is now constituted. The success of this effort may very well impact PBS.

8. International Reform

And, finally, there is the international community. Back in the 1970's the movement to reform public broadcasting was informed and supported by an international movement for a "new world information order." The MacBride Commission was in full swing, and there were research papers and symposia addressing issues of media democracy. That commission is one of the principle reasons the United States still has not paid its share of United Nations dues (in the billions). At this point, although there is no international organized movement for information parity, there is a growing realization that the rapid privatization of public space - such as we've seen in Eastern Europe - was a mistake. There is growing outrage against the violence and exploitative nature of commercial media and global consumer capitalism. The global movement for empowerment and accountability, which has been made manifest in the struggle against the WTO and the IMF, sees culture as absolutely imbedded in the domination and exploitation it is fighting. It will ultimately have an impact on broadcasting structures not just in the world, but here in the States - the belly of the beast - and certainly, eventually, at PBS itself.

This article was adapted from a paper on PBS presented at the "Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest" conference, University of Maine, June, 2000 and a second paper on the Indymedia network presented at the "Our Media" preconference in Barcelona, July, 2002.

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