Friday, October 3, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Citizen Media

(Warning: this will be a long post. I am writing this post in a very different frame of mind than the cautiously optimistic frame I held at the end of last week, when the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the first attempt to pass President Bush's $700 billion Wall Street bailout package. That House vote had led me to believe that I still had something of a voice – that the vast majority of Americans still had a voice – in deciding the direction of our country, that our system of participatory democracy still worked, even if only somewhat.

But now the bailout package has passed both houses of Congress and has been signed into law, though some polls and surveys indicate that a majority of Americans still oppose the bailout, and a larger majority believe that it will not solve America's economic crisis. It may be that participatory democracy is essentially dead in the U.S., and that the real rulers of this country are the rich and those connected to the rich. Still, I feel the need to consider this next aspect of safety nets for the small and the poor. Who knows, it may do some good.)

The times now upon us will be very disruptive, due to such things as infrastructure breakdowns and resource shortages, the effects of natural disasters, and efforts by certain interests to capitalize on the opportunities created within society by systemic disruptions. In such times it is vital for small, regular private citizens to have access to good information and high-quality journalism, in order that they may make intelligent decisions in response to the events taking place around them. Yet over the last few decades, standard American media outlets have increasingly become unreliable as sources for useful, informative news. This is seen in recent reports of media bias, inaccurate reporting and fabricated stories. (Sources:;; It is therefore critical for small, regular private citizens to develop their own networks for obtaining news relating to the present economic, ecological and resource-based difficulties – and not just personal stories, but big-picture analysis as well.

Why You Can't Get The Straight Story Anymore

When I was growing up I used to hear that there are always two sides to every story, but the newspapers, radio and television stations available at the time carried many more sides than just two. Nowadays there is what is known as the “mainstream media,” which carries just one side to any story. Most of the outlets of the media “industry” are now owned by a handful of very rich and powerful companies. This wasn't always the case; between 1941 and 1975, the Federal Communications Commission issued a number of rules designed to insure a large number of diverse media voices by preventing the consolidation of media ownership in the hands of a few large corporations. One such rule prevented a corporation from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. This large number of diverse voices served to raise the quality of journalism and hindered any one news outlet from easily spreading false news.

But in the 1980's, President Reagan and the Congress initiated a program of business “deregulation” that reversed the protections of the previous FCC rules. Limits on media consolidation were lifted, as were requirements for a minimum amount of “non-entertainment programming,” One particular rule that was eliminated was the “Fairness Doctrine” which required that any television or radio station that broadcast one point of view had to allow time for spokespersons for an opposing point of view to make their case.

That deregulation really accelerated during the Clinton presidency, with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Prior to this law, a radio network could own no more than 40 stations; afterward, gargantuan networks were created, such as Clear Channel which owns over 1200 stations in all 50 states. The current President Bush has accelerated media deregulation even further, leading to the following result:

  • Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, News Corporation, Bertelsmann AG, and General Electric together own more than 90 percent of the media holdings in the United States, according to one source. (Independent verification of this statement is not possible, because information on media ownership is not in the public domain.)

  • CBS Corporation owns CBS, CBS Radio, Simon & Schuster (a book publisher) and other media assets.

  • Time Warner owns CNN, Time Magazine, AOL and other assets.

  • Rupert Murdoch owns at least two dozen newspapers, as well as Fox Networks, MySpace, Sky Television and DirecTV, among other assets.

(Sources: “Concentration of Media Ownership,” Wikipedia,; “Media Regulation Timeline,” NOW With Bill Moyers,; “Media Conglomerates, Mergers, Concentration of Ownership,” Global Issues, 29 April 2007,

Some might say that media concentration in the hands of a few corporations is not a bad thing, and that reliable news is still reaching the American public. But history is full of countries whose citizens were deprived of all sorts of news and perspectives due to concentration of media power in the hands of a small elite. One case in point is Italy under former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media tycoon who forced Italian media to broadcast news and propaganda supporting his government. (For a source on this, see the Global Issues article cited above.)

The Story You're Not Getting

The result of this consolidation of media ownership is that most Americans are not getting the whole story on a variety of serious issues, and that when events force major media outlets to cover issues of national importance, most Americans are getting a strongly biased version of the issues. This applies to “crises” manufactured by powerful people, such as the case made for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, later events proved that the foundations of that case were largely false.

But it also applies to crises that result from accidents or acts of God. For instance, American petroleum product stocks had begun to drop even before Hurricane Gustav. But the combined effects of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike was to remove over a million barrels per day from American crude oil extraction, and to take several refineries out of service for an extended period. Gasoline shortages resulted throughout the Southeast, extending even to areas in the Midwest. There were no reports from American media for several days after shortages began to develop, and when reports finally came, many initial reports contained statements from state government officials denying that there was any problem. To this day, no one in the media has presented a clear picture of the extent of the problem, and most information presented is merely anecdotal.

This sort of coverage is as bad as media coverage of an accident in Minot, North Dakota in 2002 in which a train filled with anhydrous ammonia derailed. When authorities tried to use local radio stations to issue an alert to nearby citizens, none of the radio stations carried news of the accident. All the stations were owned by Clear Channel. The accident injured 1600 people and killed one person.

This failure of coverage extends to misdeeds committed by corporations or government agencies. In 1997, a Fox Broadcasting Company office fired two reporters for drafting a story about Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone. During Super Bowl XXXVIII, CBS refused to air an ad criticizing the federal budget deficit, but aired another ad from a Federal drug control agency.

There is still a strong media bias in describing the struggles and achievements of members of ethnic minorities. This is seen in how blacks are portrayed in news stories, as well as media support for targeted enforcement zones in minority neighborhoods, and the continuing belief promoted by the media that drug abuse is rampant in minority communities and much less prevalent everywhere else. (Sources: “Media and Its Portrayal of Black Americans,” The Black Image in the White Mind,; “Sirens Vs. Sirens: The Battle for 82nd, The Oregonian newspaper, 14 September 2008; “The Media's Bias Against Black Men In America,” Newsmax,; “Drug Enforcement Racist?”, The Badger Herald, 8 May 2008, This bias, combined with the “targeted enforcement” tactics of the national “war on drugs” is creating a permanent class of disenfranchised, exploited slave labor and human capital to be exploited by the prison labor and private prison industry.

American media is doing a bad job covering the breakdowns of our present market-driven economic system and the risks posed to that system by climate change and peak oil. And since most local media outlets in America are owned by national or multinational corporations, the quality of coverage by local broadcasters and papers has deteriorated. But just as foreign news outlets often presented a clearer and more informative picture of the crises caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, foreign media is also doing a better job of covering the slower breakdowns in American society caused by the credit and finance crunch. The British newspaper The Guardian has done a particularly good job of describing the blight in Elk Grove, California caused by the mortgage crash, and the continuing blight of Detroit, and has openly discussed these as signs of the fading of American prominence.

These things and many others are a sign that American mainstream media are an unreliable source of news. People in the 1950's and 1960's could get the necessary information for informed decisions by reading the Los Angeles Times or Herald Examiner, or by watching Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite on television. But nowadays it is not enough to watch TV news or read most major American papers, and those who rely solely on these as sources of information haven't exercised “due diligence” in their decision-making process. Those who rely on mainstream media are being programmed to continue to rely on our breaking American system while fed a constant stream of reassurances that the system continues to work, and are being dissuaded from preparing alternatives for themselves. While this sort of programming benefits the rich masters of the system, it doesn't help people to adjust to sudden breakdowns such as those that occurred with gasoline after the recent hurricanes.

The Solution: Making Your Own Media

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The only security of all is in a free press.” Yet the agencies which we call “the press” in the U.S. are no longer free. This creates a crisis of legitimacy for the official mainstream media when people see things happening with their own eyes, yet find that their stories go distorted or unreported by the mainstream media. The rise of citizen media addresses this crisis of legitimacy.

Motivated citizen journalists can establish themselves as reliable sources of news, as long as they're willing to put some effort into their work and to produce an excellent product. In fact, by good work and excellence they may even establish themselves as a more reliable source of news than the mainstream media. Citizen journalists have a variety of new tools at their disposal. The blog is the easiest to implement, followed by the podcast, the video log, and the community newspaper. Blogs can be started for free. (Google's Blogger site has tools which can produce a very attractive blog that is easy to maintain and free of charge.) The other methods will of course cost more. The means used by any one citizen or group of citizens will depend on the amount of money, equipment and time at their disposal. But whatever the means used, it must be implemented with excellence.

For instance, someone may want to start a community blog. Such a person should establish the geographical boundaries which he or she can reasonably expect to cover during the time they can afford for gathering news. Next, when writing stories, the blogger must make sure that every detail is factually accurate. This cannot be stressed enough. No one will take you seriously if you don't get your facts straight. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are also very, very important. “If you cant spel rite, youl loose readerz!” (And just in case nobody caught it, “loose” should be spelled as “lose” in the previous sentence.) Your aim is to employ as many means as possible to get readers to take you seriously, to establish yourself as someone who knows what he or she is talking about.

If you have a digital camera, use it. When covering issues of concern in your community, be sure to take pictures and post them on your blog. Pictures and quotes humanize the subjects of your blog in the minds of your readers, and reinforce your message. And when you get permission to interview someone or take their picture, tell them the Web address of your blog and that they should expect to see themselves online shortly. It will boost your readership!

Podcasts and video logs (such as amateur YouTube clips) are also useful tools, but they require special equipment and time devoted to learning how to use that equipment. There are good books on these media forms, such as Digital Filmmaking 101 by Dale Newton and John Gaspard, Filmmaking for Teens by Troy Lanier and Clay Nichols, and Podcasting Now! by Andrew J. Dagys with John Hedtke. These are good references for those with the necessary time and equipment, although I realize that money for such equipment is probably tight for most people right now.

A group of citizen journalists can found a community newspaper. Publishing a hard-copy paper requires computers, software and an inexpensive printing house, as well as postage and staffers to mail papers, so this is not for the faint of heart. One good example of a community newspaper is the Fullerton Observer (, a paper founded by Ralph Kennedy in 1978. Sharon Kennedy is the current editor. Her newspaper has published stories relating not only to Fullerton, California, but also to global warming, peak oil, the Iraq war, and the development of advanced crowd control technologies by the Federal government. She relies on a loose cadre of volunteer writers and columnists for many of the articles published each month. (She doesn't know this yet, but I may ask her one day if I can interview her further about the details of running a community newspaper.)

Lastly, there is the combination of two or more forms of electronic media into a multimedia presentation designed to highlight an issue that needs attention. This was done in 2007 by a team of “alternate reality game writers” who created the World Without Oil “game” website ( with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. World Without Oil is described as an alternate reality game, but I tend to think of it as much more of a collaboratively written story than a game. It powerfully illustrates some of the societal breakdowns that could occur from a sudden shortfall in world crude oil availability (those living in the Southeast might want to check out the WWO website and compare its projections and stories to their own experiences in the aftermath of this year's hurricanes). WWO was a major influence on the decisions I made early in 2007 in my preparations for a post-Peak future. Collaborative multimedia presentations such as WWO can be an influential tool in raising public awareness of community and societal issues.

Concerned small private citizens can thus provide themselves with a voice and a means to tell the necessary stories that are swept under the rug by our mainstream media. But there is an urgency to this; citizen journalists must act quickly to start making their voices heard. You – be the teller of the story that must be told.

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