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Media Crisis and Response

By: 
Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
April 1, 2009

The US military has not withdrawn from Iraq, but the US media has. A December article in the New York Times reported “America’s three broadcast network news divisions have stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq.” The article went on to note “network evening newscasts devoted 423 minutes to Iraq [in 2008]…compared with 1,888 minutes in 2007.” The fading coverage of Iraq is a reflection of political decisions and ratings pressures, but it further illustrates that funding is being cut for serious journalism in almost every format. Media’s role as a force for communication in our society and as a counterforce against the powerful is in crisis.

NPR, which until recently had been undergoing a growth in staff and programming, recently cancelled News and Notes, their only news program that focused on Black issues, as they cut almost 10% of their staff nationwide. Print media is undergoing the most widely publicized decline, as online competition such as Craigslist takes away advertising dollars and readership switches to the web.

The end of print?

At least 525 magazines went out of business in 2008. Another recent New York Times article reported, “After a century of continuous publication, The Christian Science Monitor will abandon its weekday print edition and appear online only.” The article quoted the paper’s editor as saying, “We have the luxury – the opportunity – of making a leap that most newspapers will have to make in the next five years.” The Los Angeles Times has cut nearly half its staff in the last eight years, while the Tribune Company announced that they would trim 500 pages of news each week from the company’s dozen papers. The Miami Herald slashed 370 jobs, nearly a third of their workforce. Book publishers – corporate and independent – have also been announcing staff layoffs and bankruptcies. Many of these reductions happened before the current economic freefall, and there are dire predictions of steeper drops on the horizon.

While the corporate media has lost funding and shown an ever-decreasing interest in investigative journalism, grassroots media is undergoing its own crisis. Part of it is the economy – for example, rising print costs and postage rates for print publications. But the deeper problem is the major changes in where people turn for news and information.

Statistics about the declines in sales and distribution are widely available, but here’s the bottom line: consumption of media hasn’t gone down – if anything, it’s gone way up. I consume more media than most people. Yet in the past five years, I’ve only bought a handful of CDs, DVDs, magazines, or books, and most of those have been releases from someone I directly know. Like most people, I get an increasing share of my media online and for free.

Corporations will continue to make money off of media. But for independent media-makers, will this work continue to be financially sustainable? Advertising money funds many news websites – not a model that is effective for anti-corporate activists. There are some foundations that have stepped in to fund investigative reporting and other projects, but this doesn’t nearly meet the need, and – as with the nonprofit industrial complex overall – it is not accountable to community needs.

Investigative reporting has played a vital role in uncovering stories that have shifted the direction of this country, from Cointelpro to Watergate. Yet neither the corporate media’s profit-dependent model - nor increasingly unfunded grassroots outlets - are in a position to give the support needed for a resurgence of in-depth reporting.

Left Turn

Grassroots organizers and activists founded Left Turn as a political project. The magazine has focused on writing by people directly involved in movements, rather than journalists or academics. In 2004, the magazine transitioned to an editorial collective who had very little experience in publishing. Instead of being media-makers who founded a magazine, we are organizers who suddenly had a magazine given to us. Because of this, we have always seen the magazine as a tool or resource for organizing. We have looked for alternate models of distribution, not relying on corporate distributors and bookstores, or anonymous mass mailings.

Most of our distribution happens through what we call our activist distribution network – grassroots organizations, activists, infoshops, and collectives who pay what they can and distribute the magazine to their communities. Many of these distributors also suggest content for the magazine and write articles about organizing happening in their communities.

We are an all-volunteer collective with members in cities across the US, including Chicago, Durham, Washington DC, New York City, Oakland, and New Orleans. This model is not necessarily sustainable in the long-term, and has many drawbacks. We have had financial setbacks. For example, we lost big chunks of money when both Clamor Magazine’s distribution arm and Tower Books went bankrupt. But we have consistently grown and – we think – improved while magazines all around us have gone out of business over the past years. We also believe that our model; which involves much more direct contact with our readers; creates a kind of media that is more accountable to the communities it seeks to serve.

Recently, Left Turn joined a coalition of activist and radical media projects that launched the Grassroots Media Tour. Sponsors included Bitch Magazine, Free Speech Radio News, $pread Magazine, and Make/Shift Magazine. The tour brought performances, film screenings, poetry, workshops, and discussions to communities across the South – from Greensboro, North Carolina, and Miami, Florida, to Denton, Texas. Nearly one thousand people saw the tour, with standing-room only crowds in several cities.

As participants in the tour, the most exciting aspect was the opportunity to connect with people across the South who are engaged in the vital work of connecting media and social justice. We met with organizations such as the Hive in Greensboro, Project South in Atlanta, Take Back the Land in Miami, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, and many more. These are inspiring and exciting organizations struggling at the grassroots for justice and liberation.

Media accountability

Some of our inspiration for this tour came from the mass mobilizations for the Jena Six in 2007. Almost 50,000 people from around the US came to support high school students in a small town in northern Louisiana who were facing life in prison for a school fight. The organizing and publicity for the Jena case originated from the grassroots. Left Turn was the first national news outlet to cover the case, and the story spread over email, blogs, social networking sites, Black radio, and other noncorporate outlets such as Democracy Now! and The Final Call Newspaper. While CNN and every other major corporate news outlet eventually covered the case, there is no doubt that it was the grassroots that made it a story.

The attention certainly helped the case – all of the youths are now free. While they still have charges hanging over their heads, they are in a much better situation, with much better legal representation, than most Black youths entangled in the Prison Industrial Complex. However, this public scrutiny was hard for everyone involved, especially the young students at the center of the case. Mychal Bell, the only member of the Jena Six to have been convicted, recently attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest with a gun.

The Jena Six case serves to illustrate two important points. The first is the power of independent media. The second lesson is the importance of accountability for the media in our movement. It’s not enough for media to be focused on grassroots struggles; we also need communication, collaboration, and empathy for those directly affected. As Mychal Bell has demonstrated, there are lives at stake.

As technology continues to change the way we consume media, the future of both corporate and independent media is unclear. But the importance of media, for communicating across communities and for uncovering the deceptions of the powerful, remains unchanged. We need to find ways, as a movement, that we can support – and hold accountable – grassroots, community-oriented media.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience.

A full report from the Grassroots Media Tour is online at durhamtodenton.blogspot.com.