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Cyber Activism, Independents and the PBS Fortress: can the tactics of Seattle apply?

DeeDee Halleck
Professor, Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego


In Seattle and Davos, DC and Prague, in Calgary and Windsor, media activists and environmentalists, labor rank and file and tree huggers coalesced into a formidable force that has had an impact not only on the international money lenders, but has caused major trouble for agri-giant Monsanto and fashion outlets at the Mall like Gap and Nike. On the lam, Monsanto is changing its name and trying to spin off agriculture.

One of the notable aspects of the recent activism has been the powerful integration of the movement with the alternative media. 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 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 committment to create new forms of information sharing using new spaces and technologies, and new ways of collaboration.

The following is the statement of purpose of the Boston Independent Media Center, created in response to a global bioengineering conference that was held in the Bay State last winter. This statement has been taken up and tweaked or supplemented to 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 and web sites produced by the camcorder commandos/server jocks, is an authentic revolution: a revolution in form of public action and its documentation. The most radical aspect of this new movement is its non-heirarchical nature. The decision making is by consensus. All participants are themselves empowered.

And where is public television in all of this? Public television's partication in these global discussions is pretty much limited to promotional advertisements for Archer Danials Midland. Miracle Gro, Amgen and other agro business companies. Public television is as presently constituted, 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 structurely 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 has gone to bat against the microradio rule-making. Even the NAB has not been as swarmy as the denizens of the so called public broadcasting lobbying sector in getting Congressional passage of the anti micro radio 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 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 renewed activity in the critique and reform of public television. I was involved in the movement as a representative of the independent media community. There was an impressive coalition of independent film and video producers, labor, womens 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 some of the few courageous series that PBS has created: Matters of Life and Death, POV (Marc Weiss, founder of POV, was a veteran of that 70's struggle) and indirectly, but certainly part of the picture, Eyes on the Prize. And Charlene Hunter Gault joined Jim and Robert. The most far reaching of results of this organizing effort was perhaps the implementation of the sunshine laws on a national scale. These laws had beeen won in California, thanks to the efforts of Larry Hall and Henry Kroll. The laws mandate organizations which receive funds from the Corporation for Public Television to hold open board meetings (and committee meetings, except that portion of the meetings which deal with personnel issues). This law is one that Pacifica has violated, and it is routinely violated by many stations around the country. However, as far as I know it is still a law, and if citizens get organized as I believe Jerry Starr would like, 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 Telvision 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 this type of forum and I hope that this 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 reform movement for this new millenium 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 NY(1996) and SF (1997) are an indication of the potential for progress. There is a potential for a broad movement for communication reform. I will enumerate a few of the assets now in place:

1. 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 privitization 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.

2. The on-going work of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, whose archives provide potential reformers with ammunition and examples. Their crucial studies of the commercialization of Children's Programming, of the News Hour and the lack of working class representation on PBS and NPR are landmark studies which give substance to public broadcasting critiques.

3. The wide use of television and computer media as an activist tool 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 called The Wrath of Grapes. That tape has been reproduced more than a million times and continues to inform struggles around pesticides. A tape which Deep Dish produced, Lock Down USA, 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. 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. Not only discussion, but also practice. With the demise of art education funds, the teacher often must bring their own personal camcorder to school, but for many 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 Izzeks of Middletown, New York, whose students have documented the corruption and dangers of the town dump. To such a degree that the land fill mafia has made threats on the teacher's life. But it has 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. The Center for Independent Public Broadcasting about which we will hear more from Jerry Starr, The Center for Media Education and People for Better TV form a useful band of infrastructure support for future reform initiatives. And the Media Access Project is still there.

6.The public access activists in hundreds of towns and cities across the country, 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.

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 order". The MacBride Commission was in full swing and there were research papers and symosia address issues of media democracy. That commission is one of the prinicple reasons that the US still has not paid their share of un dues (in the billions).

At this point in time, although there is no organized movement for information parity, there is a growing realization that the rapid privatization of public space as has happened in Eastern Europe was a mistake. There is a growing outrage against the violence and exploitative nature of commercial media. The global movement for empowerment and accountability which has been made manifest in the struggle against the WTO and the IMF, see culture as absolutely imbedded in the domination and exploitation it is fighting. That will ultimately have an impact on broadcasting structures, not just in the world, but here and at PBS itself.

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Last Modified: June 1, 2001

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