Sunday, September 6, 2009

Citizen Media - The Stories We Must Tell

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower,

we come on the ship that sailed the moon;

We come in the age's most uncertain hours

and sing an American tune...

Paul Simon, American Tune

As I have said in previous posts, corporate media is a tool of the present masters (owners of the major pieces) of our economic and political systems, and is used by these masters to enforce the present status quo. This is done by telling the story of the rich as if it was the only legitimate story, by marginalizing the stories of the poor, and by suppressing any dissent to the present system. Thus corporate media is unwilling to accurately depict the failings of and threats to the prevailing system, or to state the need for alternatives that threaten the power of the masters of this system.

So we hear of green shoots instead of plain evidence of continued economic collapse; Peak Oil is never discussed; major newspapers write editorials against genuine health care reform; and the threat of man-made climate change is not publicized. When alternatives to the present system are discussed, their discussion in corporate media is frequently in disparaging tones (as when describing those “frugal doomer/survivalist loonies riding bicycles and raising chickens!!!”). When the rich prosper (as in stock prices rising due to corporations cutting costs and returning dividends), this is held up as a sign that the economy is recovering – even though hundreds of thousands of ordinary people are still being thrown out of work each month.

When left to itself, corporate media ignores the stories of the exploitation of the poor by the rich. When the poor rise up against such exploitation, their action is either not covered at all, or is too frequently called “agitation,” “terrorism,” “militancy,” or some other derogatory term. Corporate media portrays certain segments of humanity unsympathetically in order to legitimize the robbing, exploitation and general mistreatment of these segments by the rich masters of First World society.

Citizen media is a countermeasure to all of this, a weapon by which the poor and powerless can defend themselves. Citizen media is the means by which we can tell our story when no one else will. Here are some stories we should be telling:

  • The general stories of our communities and of the people in them. This is especially important for poor people and minority neighborhoods. When mainstream America sees that we are just as human as the subjects favored by the media, they can't easily oppress us in good conscience. They can't so easily write our neighborhoods off as merely another “high-crime” area or “blight district.” Create a biographical sketch of the people of your place, of their hopes and fears and struggles and humanity.

  • The things we are doing to make our communities a better place. This includes not just general betterment, but also steps to make our places resilient in the face of economic collapse and resource constraints. Show the world your care for your place by showing the investment of time and effort that you are putting into your community.

  • The actions taken by some of our economic and political masters to break our neighborhoods, destroy our resiliency and exploit us. By publicizing these stories, we make it harder for the big people to get away with what they are doing. Talk especially about the things being done by the big guys (both corporate and governmental) to thwart the things ordinary people are doing to make their communities better and more resilient.

These stories must be told in a format that is of high quality, regularly updated and readily accessible. This will mean hard work for would-be citizen journalists if they want to turn out a quality product. (I can testify that trying to write a quality blog is hard work! It takes a serious investment of time.) But those who rise to such a calling will find that it's quite rewarding. A case in point is the example of Ralph Kennedy and those with him who founded the Fullerton Observer, a local independent paper based in Fullerton, California. The Observer is available both in hard copy and on the Web as a free download. I recently asked Ralph's daughter Sharon Kennedy for some background information on the Observer as well as thoughts on running a community newspaper. Here is her response:

The Observer was started on a shoe-string by a group of friends after the OC Register bought up the local hometown paper (and 31 others) and turned it into an advertising rag. The friends each had their interest in a certain part of the town such as city hall, police relations, homeless issues, affordable housing, transportation and bike trails, education, keeping some open space, etc. or accomplished other tasks such as pasting up (before computers), driving to the printer, picking up the papers and distributing them.

Each reported on meetings and happenings around town on their issue and each contributed money to the paper for years before it became self-sustainable. Over the years the paper has had an influence on numerous issues and has made the town of Fullerton, one of the better towns in OC. It also created a sense of community by offering citizens a place to sound out and find others with the same concerns. And since it is read by Fullerton officials, these concerns reached city hall in a different way and built support or opposition which improved our town in one way or another. The paper helps keep officials and institutions accountable to the people of the town.

The paper also served local entertainment by letting people know what was offered right here in town and local businesses by providing inexpensive ad space so they could offer their services and products. It is a very rewarding all-volunteer community written paper which makes it unique. All towns used to have a hometown newspaper. Another effect of the paper has been to make the OC Register have to create a more adequate version of the Fullerton paper they bought. My father, the founding and longtime editor Ralph Kennedy felt independent newspapers are necessary for a healthy democracy.”

One final note is in order. Citizen media now relies heavily on Web-based tools such as blogs. But we must also begin to look beyond the Web to other means of cheaply and easily broadcasting our stories. This is especially true now that the freedom of the Web in America is coming under increased scrutiny from the United States government (as in the proposed Cybersecurity Act of 2009). Of course, the governments of several other nations, including China and Iran, are already trying to restrict the freedom of Internet communication for their citizens. Therefore we must not put all of our citizen media eggs in one Web basket.

Citizen journalists may therefore need to rely more exclusively on “old-fashioned” means of distribution such as hard-copy community newspapers. But there are other means of sharing electronic media beside the Web – especially with the availability of cheap memory sticks, CD burners, and such. We may see the revival of the “sneakernet,” as described in the following link:

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