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Commentary :: Media
Don't Give Me No Lip, "What's wrong with Mimicking Corporate Media"
30 Jul 2005
-- A response to Jennifer Whitney's article on indymedia, <a href="http://www.ucimc.org/feature/display/87217/index.php";> which can be found here</a>
<p>
The spirit of critique and wanting to help move indymedia forward is something I really appreciate. However, Jennifer Whitney's article, "The Good, The Bad, & (sic) The Ugly: "What's the Matter with Indymedia?" is one part critique, and two parts personal axe grinding, three parts "Ra! Ra! UC, NYC, 501-c(3) IMC" . Beyond the fact that the article is so deliberately misleading in many ways, it should be critiqued on the facts and arguments that it proposes about editorial policy and the mission of indymedia. To its credit, this article raises some of the right types of questions about indymedia's effectiveness and methods, but to its detriment, gives all the wrong answers. Rather, it gives short sighted answers or all the same 'ol answers.
Let me be transparent about the fact that I disagree with taking indymedia in the direction of corporate media and that I am using the indymedia tactic in Portland and work collectively with others here. Yes, I take the deliberate singling out of Portland personally and, Yes, she is coming from a place of personal dissatisfaction and grinding her axe using non-independent media (read "you pay for it or get paid") to broadcast her upset. I find her attitude self-congratulatory and self-important in almost every place in this article. Because the article and her comments to responses to the article put themselves in a position of being critical of people exhibiting these attitudes and so hypocritically does just the same, it deserves a good dose of its own medicine. The article, when being critical of people who use the indymedia tactic, is so much the pot calling the kettle black and the stone thrower in the glass house. At times my article may sound self-congratulatory or self-important, but it will come from a place of defense instead of offense and most importantly is not trying to deny that it feels important or wishes to congratulate itself where warranted. Lastly, I would say it to her face.
<p>
My method of rebuttal here will be to take apart the article primarily in the order in which is was written, but expanding on other issues where relevant. The structure of her article is roughly: (1) History of IMC (particularly Seattle); 2 paragraphs, (2) Introduce critique of editorial policies; 1 paragraph, (2) Give personal credentials; 1 paragraph, (3) Frustrations with indymedia; 2 paragraphs, (4) Discuss indymedia in the framework of communication and social change; 3 paragraphs, (5) Editorial Policies; 2 paragraphs, (6) Grind Axe on Portland Indymedia; 3 paragraphs, (7) Problems with communication modalities in Indymedia and NYC/UC quote; 2 paragraphs, (8) Example of Mexico City IMC; 2 paragraphs, (9) Access and Money; 3 paragraphs, (10) Indymedia as "Journalism" and rationalization of taking money including quotes from two more different NYC/UC IMCistas; 6 paragraphs, (11) Conclusion and quote from NYC/UC IMCistas; 2 paragraphs, (12) Exemplary IMCs. I will refer to quotes in the article using these rough section numbers as a guide.
<p>
Quoting from section 1:
<blockquote>
The newborn IMC (Seattle) provided the most in-depth and broad-spectrum coverage of the historic direct actions against the World Trade Organization that fall. <i>Despite</i> (emphasis mine) having no advertising budget, no brand recognition, no corporate sponsorship, and no celebrity reporters, it received 1.5 million hits in its first week.
</blockquote>
I think it is precisely <i> because of </i> the choice of a different path to making media that Seattle IMC had, at that time, 1.5 million hits in its first week and not "Despite". It is also most likely because of their movement down a path of dependency on corporate sponsorship for rent and internet connectivity that they are barely functional today. Moving down a path toward dependence on money to do indymedia work moves away from what makes it so successful. Whitney's analysis here and later belies a different set of values.
<p>
Quoting from section 1 in the same paragraph as above:
<blockquote>
The site embraced the do-it-yourself ethic completely, meaning that there were no restrictive site managers, editors, or word-count limits. At the time, such restrictions seemed dictatorial, oppressive--counterrevolutionary, even. Now, I find them rather appealing.
</blockquote>
Those things are <i>still</i> counter-revolutionary. Of course, the author of the article finds them appealing. The article itself is counter revolutionary. The article is not really pro imperialist or anything like that, but simply comes from a reformist or status quo point of view. The point of view of the article and arguments leading from it can be best be summed up by saying, "indymedia should be a reform of the way corporate media does things, writing in the same style with the similar editorial criteria." This is not to say that some editorial policing of an indymedia site are not necessary for pragmatic reasons. At Portland, for example, if many duplicate, corporate reposts, and hate speech posts were not monitored, the newswire would be flooded due to the sheer number of postings from the community and users from around the world. Still, let's not kid ourselves and say that doing these pragmatic things are not short of revolutionary, because they are short of revolutionary, but they can be necessary to make the site usable with so many posts.
<p>
Quoting from section 3:
<blockquote>
On the anniversary of the Iraq invasion earlier this year, I was in Mexico, trying to get information about antiwar protests around the United States. I looked at IMC sites based in cities where I knew there were actions, and found nothing. Eventually, I found what I was looking for--on the BBC. The experience, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Each time I try and find news among the Indymedia drivel, I ask myself the same question: What happens when--in our attempts not to hate the media but to be it--we end up hating the media we've become?
</blockquote>
Section 10 of the article critiques the laziness of indymedia "journalists" and other sections attack the lack of fact finding and research of articles posted to indymedia. Here, in this same article is a glaring example of laziness and lack of fact checking. If, in fact, laziness and not deliberate omission is what is at work. As an example, good old Portland Indymedia Web Radio, of which I am a part, was broadcasting coverage of the J20 events in Portland all day, with several phone calls from other US IMCs, who were also covering the events all day, as well as calls from Germany and the Netherlands and coverage read off of other indymedia websites. <a href="http://indytorrents.org/stats.html?info_hash=db85436c1226dfd9400bfe1f9a4;> Here </a> is a link to the entire radio coverage on <a href="http://www.indytorrents.org";> indytorrents.org </a> from J20 which was broadcast live and made available for download soon after. This begs the question as to which indymedia websites Jennifer Whitney was watching on the anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Anyone can guess which they were and which they weren't. As to the question of hating the media we've become, some of us are not self-loathing indymedia practitioners. I love the media that indymedia is enabling. It is done in a more just and more enabling way than the media models of old. It is coming from different people, about different things, for the benefit of different people. If it doesn't look like "journalism" of old to you, that's because it isn't. That is its strength. That's what makes me love it and what makes others hate it.
<p>
In section 3, Whitney is commenting about her frustrations with indymedia sites. She says, "The few original articles are frequently riddled with unsubstantiated claims, rumors, dubious anonymous sources, bad writing, and/or plagiarism." Firstly, the sites that do not have a lot of original articles are typically those that are run by people who are <i>themselves</i> the writers and have not built a community of writers beyond the collective or 501(c)3 as the case may be. Secondly, modern "journalism", corporate or otherwise money involved, even Whitney's precious BBC, are riddled with these same things. The real riddle is whether or not indymedia posters mimicking these "journalistic" practices would do things differently and for the same reasons as those journalists. Those reasons, to name a few, being; unsubstantiated claims, plagiarism, and dubious anonymous claims due to deadline pressures; rumors due to trying to stir up sales; and bad writing due to lack of passion. I worked on a school newspaper for four years and have writers and newspaper editors in my family, so I can attest to those problems as they stand in even non-corporate "journalism". We all know down what road the extension of the practice of these holds in the form of truly corporate media.
<p>
Later in section 3 Whitney says, 'If the goal of Indymedia is, as its mission statement says, "the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth," we are clearly falling short.' I disagree. Most sites are certainly radical, certainly passionate, and from the standpoint that what one experiences in the world is truth, it is true. If indymedia as whole was to go down the dark path, as some are doing, towards something reformist, aligned with status quo vision of the world, and dispassionate in the "journalistic" sense it would clearly be falling short of its mission. The mission of indymedia is to enable individuals to become their own media, to give voice to the voiceless, and to create a new media community around those people. Using this as a yard stick, some measure up, some don't. Whitney's point of view barely registers on this scale.
<p>
In section 4 Whitney says, "(But) the burden to communicate effectively belongs to the active party--the teller--not the audience." Isn't the listener or audience actively engaged in any dialogue of any value? Certainly. They should be just as active in the process as the writer. This is what indymedia should, in contrast to "journalistic" practices, do. The world that Whitney apparently wants to see is one very much like the corporate/money media of today. That is, where the reader of the paper, the listener of the radio, or watcher of the TV is supposed to just sit there and have things <i>pushed at</i> them. On the contrary, real communication involves push and pull. Indymedia should seek to <i>pull</i> information from the community it serves and not push things at them.
<p>
Later in section 4 Whitney says, "And (sic) if we have so little respect or concern for our audience, what on earth are we doing working in a medium based entirely in communication?" My thoughts exactly. To have respect for our audience means to appreciate their intelligence and ability to sort out fact from fiction, truth from lies, passion from rhetoric. They do not need to be spoonfed, told how to spell, or otherwise led like a horse to water as to what is the truth.
<p>
She later says, "Simply put, an unread article changes nothing." It also holds that an article that is widely read containing ideas from status quo changes nothing. Those seeds that Whitney speaks of in this article are all those passionate articles, full of spelling mistakes, that tell the writer's story in an unorganized fashion, but true to their experience, that are only read by a few. Those seeds land in the mind of someone who thought that journalism was something that you passively absorbed, done by people who get paid, who write dispassionately, and grammatically. Then that someone sees things differently and realizes that they can tell their truth also. The seeds of little status quo independent journalists are sterile, they will not grow.
<p>
Speaking about the effectiveness of writing styles Whitney says,"People don't read sloppy, unedited, or disorganized stories; they don't look at bad photographs or videos." That is certainly not the truth. Getting out <i>my</i> red pencil on the subject of sloppy editing and perfectionism in spelling and grammar, one should never begin a sentence with the word "and". Certainly, they shouldn't do it repeatedly throughout their article. The correct placement of semi-colons is also important for clarity. A poor use of the semi-colon is exhibited in the quote above. I also believe it's "counter-revolutionary" and not "counterrevolutionary". I would suppose that most word processing programs have grammar, as well as spelling checkers, for those interested in the finer points. I am going to give Whitney's article a 'B-' for grammar.
<p>
Section 6 is essentially an axe grinding against Portland Indymedia. I would like to respond to its claims about Portland with respect to editorial policy surrounding hate speech, but the content is so irrelevant because of its untimeliness that it's barely possible to talk about, as is obvious from the comments to the article on UC-IMC from pdximcista. I have been doing indymedia in Portland since 2002, which is after the dissolution of the previous collective structure and process with which Whitney was interacting. The attacks that Whitney mounts are against things that I have never experienced once in (3) three years running. It amounts to the kind of testimony that Colin Powell gave to the UN about weapons in the middle east. Way out of date, from a disreputable source, and deliberately used to mislead the reader. It's either that or pure laziness.
<p>
The other thing Whitney attacks Portland for in section 6 is the redistribution of IMCs on the cities list into regions that reflect non-imperialist demarcations of land. She dares not directly state whether she agrees with the intent of Portland to erase the imperialist drawn boundaries, but rather attacks the precision with which the cities where put into the correct regions. Does Whitney like the borders and names the way they are? We are not certain. But we are certain that the 15 hours that someone put into making a <i>starting point</i> for a non-imperialist list where not appreciated. It seems that Whitney doesn't appreciate any of the hard work of people at Portland, except in respect to technical issues.
<p>
The truth is that Portland does things well in many areas, other than just technical things. It is one of the most used sites in the indymedia network on many scales along with Italy, NYC, and Indybay, despite what Whitney may have thought about the usability of the site. Portland stands out from IMCs like NYC and UC in Portland's commitment to making indymedia about enabling posters, promoting autonomy, and not going down the dark road of mixing money with media. But, Portland doesn't stand out in this respect from most of the other IMCs. Most IMCs are coming from the same place as Portland in general, even though internal processes may be somewhat different.
<p>
Principles are very important to most Portland IMCistas and they generally find it hard to compromise on these. But, they are, at the same time, willing to work with anyone, even those that we disagree with on some issues or are reformists because we have more in common with them than we do with corpo media. Portland has well reputed video and audio groups as well. Groups that have helped to make convergences and social justice events and coverage from them possible in Sacramento WTO, Miami FTAA, San Francisco BIODEV, Cancun FTAA, New York RNC, Scotland G8, Washington DC, and other places. Portland's commitment to the indymedia network is to provide mutual aid of any kind, to create an environment where trust is more important than process, and share/learn experiences with other IMCs that will create <i>nothing</i> short of a revolutionary shift in media. This is how I experience myself and others in Portland IMC. I experience that with many of my comrades that I have met at other IMCs. I speak for myself only.
<p>
In section 9 about access to media Whitney says, "Certain local groups have breached the digital divide, even if only for a brief spell. Seattle set a strong precedent during the week of the WTO protests by printing 2,000 copies of the daily paper The Blind Spot and distributing them on the streets during the actions." It is clear from this quote and others later about indymedia print projects that Whitney places a lot of value on the older printer model of media. This is not in itself a bad thing. But, it is also clear that Whitney does not seem to fully "get it" as far as what the indymedia revolution is really all about with respect to its new models, including digital technology.
<p>
Whitney seems to accept that printing is dependent on money and access to a printing press based on her comments about funding and use of comments from NYC about their print projects. Since the advent of modern written language, access to publication of ones writing has been very limited. There has always been a publisher that controls this access. Copies of books where at first handwritten. What books were copied and how much they cost limited access. Since the advent of the printing press more could be done. However, still access to a printing press required significant capital or significant approval from a publisher who had that capital to widely distribute ones writing. Till the advent of the digital domain and the internet, that's there things were, so far as print are concerned. Those whose voices we have heard in history, politics and culture (before tv and radio) were those that could access a printing press. Ben Franklin was a printer. His buddies Jefferson and Adams got some cheap printing deals on there writings, including the Federalist Papers and others. Marx and Engels are another example. Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital without free printing? Nope. This was closed publishing. There was, of course, open publishing in the form of community bulletin boards, word of mouth, or whatever you copy out by hand.
<p>
The use of digital media and the ability for open publishing to eclipse closed publishing (like printing) is a major part of the revolution of indymedia at this stage in the game. The critique that only those with internet access can get access to the website to post their writings is accurate. But, when compared with the lack of access, costs, burdens, and environmental waste of the printing process it looks real good. The fact that a poster to an indymedia can have their ideas accessible to others all over the world is really a total shift. Not only are these ideas widely available, but they are available along with the writings others who are concerned about social justice and the ability to have a dialogue is there.
<p>
The bottom line is that, in the scheme of things, getting something in print comes with a wide area of access problems. To print a paper costs money. The more you print the more money you need. So you have be selective about which articles and what lengths of articles you choose. Then you might have to edit even those articles for length based on layout issues. If you need enough money, you might not be able to be independent and have to get money from advertising. Then, if you want to survive you need to stay in line with your advertisers. If you piss them off you are in trouble. So, you should better not print anything they won't like. We all know where this leads. The digital era erases these access problems for the written word. Having to get access to the internet is by far less burdensome and yields more voice. This doesn't mean we have no work to do in terms of access. We just need to focus it on the right things.
<p>
In section 10 Whitney is discussing what it means to be a "journalist" and what she feels is the laziness of posters to indymedia as well as a rationalization of taking money for indymedia work. This section reminds me of the talk that Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! gave at the US indymedia conference in Austin, TX earlier this year. It just doesn't understand the audience to which it is speaking. Amy Goodman thought she was talking to bunch of people who are writing articles to websites. When, in fact, she was talking to a group of people who were hopefully trying to encourage others in their community to write articles. Same here in this section. Whitney just doesn't get the soul of indymedia. She's coming from a point of view that is just a re-hash of old models or things with which she is already comfortable. Indymedia is not, "..lacking good journalists". If anything, it is lacking enough enablers of journalism. Again, indymedia should not be about pushing content to passive readers, but pulling content from active posters. If one wants to use the old model and tactics, just start your own independent newspaper or website and write or edit the damn articles.
<p>
She also cites, "(It's) the lack of journalistic principles, and the laziness." I think what's most at issue is what our principles are and our courage to see them through. Whitney and others that share her viewpoint are frustrated with the "quality" of articles that they are seeing. But, they are mostly scared of going into uncharted territory. The process of revolutionary change requires commitment to principles, stick-to-it-tiveness, patience and courage. What we are seeing from posters to our websites today is the revolutionary shift in the <i>way</i> in which media is made in transition, in process. We are young yet in this more free and open expression. We should not stunt our own growth or break our own spirit because what we see now offends our sense of good writing or causes us to fear ineffectiveness. Essentially, I see Whitney's viewpoint as short-sighted, fearful, impatient, and desirous of a return to the old.
<p>
Later in the section on laziness she says:
<blockquote>
People seem to forget that writing and photography are skills that people develop over many years. They are not unattainable, they are not rocket science--but it's the worst sort of arrogance to think that your very first article, unedited, should make it to the front page.
</blockquote>
I believe on the contrary that is the worst sort of arrogance to think that someone else's very first article, unedited, should <i>not</i> make it to the front page. So much of Whitney's article is really an argument against itself. She quotes Tarleton as saying, "We're not doing the paper (Indypendent) to boost the ego of our writers. It's for our readers-- to give them the best possible information within our limited ability and resources." This seems like bizzaro speak to me. If it was not to boost the ego of the writers than why not purely use submissions from outside the Indypendent collective in general? Is there anything wrong with the people in an indymedia project enabling each other as writers and putting out a paper? No. But let's drop the pretense.
<p>
Whitney then focuses on taking money for media work.
<blockquote>
Some (often anonymous) folks tend to accuse independent journalists of having "sold out" if we publish in corporate outlets, make money as journalists, take ads in our publications, or demand high quality or even rewrites of submissions. But that means media in which talent and skill are punished, mediocrity rules, and we all hold hands and congratulate each other for "telling it like it is," even when few can understand the telling. Is that really the kind of media we want?
</blockquote>
Talent and skill aren't being punished. Sacrificing integrity for what must be done to the article to get the money and falling down the slippery slope are being punished. A media where privilege, money, control, and column inches rule is not the media we want either. We want a media where people have the courage to stick to some principles and learn from the mistakes of others. Does Whitney deny that such a thing exists as selling out? It exists all around us in the media. It is, in fact, in a large way exactly what we are fighting against. Are people doing indymedia work some how immune to selling out? Did a good percentage of NPR reporters not start their careers thinking they were fighting the good fight? This is doubtful. People do sell out. But, the way is clear. Take no money for your indymedia work and you sacrifice nothing. The question is not laziness, but fear of conviction to principles and opportunism. I think it is fine to do media work for money, just not indymedia work. Keep those two separate for me, thank you. We want people to be able to trust us.
<p>
Particularly chilling in this article is a quote from Joshua Breitbart:
<blockquote>
Indymedia's biggest problem is that it is unique. People want it to solve every problem, to be all things to all people, and it just can't do everything. Some of the practices and tools that we've developed can be taken out and put into other struggles and communities where they can gain new relevance--be experimented on in new ways. We should be thinking about how to make it no longer unique, so it's not so valuable, because we have other independent media available.
</blockquote>
I believe that indymedia shouldn't solve every problem. But, did I understand the rest correctly? What can I say? Jesus fucking Christ! Et tu Joshua?
<p>
Whitney's closes the article with, "The best journalists are the ones who provoke, who pose a real threat to the status quo." I couldn't agree more. Whitney's article is just a restatement of that status quo, and as such, poses no real threat, except in its ability to divide us. One of the very last lines of the article on UC-IMC is my favorite and sums it up for me, "This article is copyrighted material, the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner." Nuff said.

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