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Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable
Contributors to this volume examine struggles for media justice from a critical perspective. All the authors have been involved in movements for social justice as citizens, scholars, teachers, activists, or as media makers, and many of them are acknowledged leaders in the field.
As we have seen, media activism is a heterogeneous enterprise with diverse politics, agendas, and strategies. The same can be said of the contributions to this volume. For that reason, readers, including the editors of this volume, will not agree with every claim put forth in the following chapters, nor should they if they endorse the premise put forth in the next chapter: that progress toward global justice requires thoughtfulness, reflexivity, and ongoing criticism. Despite their heterogeneity, these chapters have in common an intentional positioning within a social movement frame that insists on a link between media justice and social justice: the strong conviction that you cannot have one without the other.
The first section examines Frameworks for transforming media to create conditions that have the potential to advance democratic participation and promote social justice.
Cees Hamelink’s “Global Justice and Global Media: The Long Way Ahead” sees the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the international community after World War II as a crucial moment in the human struggle for just social arrangements. He examines the role of global media in the subsequent efforts to realize human rights aspirations and finds that media, as currently configured, are more of an obstacle than an asset, explaining in some detail why news media are ill-equipped to cover human rights. While Hamelink acknowledges that valuable proposals for transforming the media have been put forward by activist scholars, he maintains that they have not yet led to significant changes in the global mediascape. Nevertheless, he cautions against despair, seeing the struggle for human rights as a very long one: a struggle for the development of reflexivity over thoughtlessness. In Hamelink’s view, the pursuit of global justice is a long evolutionary process, which will include many setbacks as we slowly make our way through the fog to a destination that is not yet clear.
The conversation with DeeDee Halleck, “Video Activism as a Way of Life,” reflects on Halleck’s more than five decades of activism around media and social justice issues. Filmmaker, educator, and activist, Halleck has been relentless in her commitment to exploring the possibilities of new media as tools for democratic community action and expression—from community radio to public access television to digital satellite broadcasting. An early advocate for alternative community media, Halleck is at the heart of many major grassroots media initiatives. She is cofounder of Deep Dish TV—recognized as the first national, grassroots satellite network—and the founder of Paper Tiger Television, a public access cable series and volunteer video collective. Halleck’s work has inspired video artists and media activists around the world. Her reflections on the successes of media and social justice movements in the past provide critical insights for understanding the potential of mobilizing new media tools for ongoing and emerging social justice struggles in both localized and globalized contexts.
In “Media and Democracy: Some Missing Links,” Nick Couldry looks at youth and public engagement through the lens of storytelling and its limits. The unequal distribution of media resources generates profound injustices, inflicting “hidden injuries” to self-esteem and self-recognition. Without the ability to share with others accounts of what we feel, remember, think, and propose, democracy itself is rendered anemic. Among other consequences, he contends, the lack of effective access to mediated forms of self-expression opens up a gap between engagement and recognition: talk about public issues is rarely linked to action or even to its promise. Couldry argues that we need broader and more sensitive ways of evaluating whether participatory media projects effectively redress the injustices they identify. He maintains that youth media initiatives, which provide access to symbolic resources, are laudable efforts, but they are not enough. For all the potential of new media and digital tools of media production, distribution, and social networking, what is at stake, in the end, is democracy—effective democracy. Couldry maintains that using media tools to change young people’s opportunities to be recognized and heard will only succeed on a wider scale if government and other formal authorities act as if young people and young people’s accounts of their lives matter.
Jessica Clark and Patricia Aufderheide’s “A New Vision for Public Media: Open, Dynamic, and Participatory” acknowledges that public broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, and network newscasts have played a central role in US democracy, informing citizens and guiding public conversation. However, they point out that the top-down disseminating technologies that supported these media are being supplanted by an open, many-to-many networked media environment. They ask, what platforms, standards, and practices will replace or transform legacy public media? They examine in some depth the answers that are already emerging out of a series of media experiments taking place across legacy and citizen media. After taking a hard look at the “first two minutes” of Web 2.0 experimentation, Clark and Aufderheide conclude that the crucial initial step is to embrace the participatory: that is, the feature that has been most disruptive of current media models. Multiplatform, open, and digital public media will be an essential feature of truly democratic public life as we move forward. They will be media both for and by the public. But, Clark and Afterheide conclude, this will not happen by accident or for free. If we are going to have media for vibrant democratic culture, we have to plan for it, try it out, show people that it matters, and build new constituencies to invest in it.
The second section of this volume, Collaborations, explores the potential as well as the challenges involved in creating community partnerships in struggles for media and social justice.
In their chapter, “Sustaining Collaboration: Lessons from the Media Research and Action Project,” Charlotte Ryan and William Gamson reflect on their long- running collaboration with social justice activists at the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP) at Boston College. Since the mid-1980s, MRAP has served as a space for collaboration between social movement scholars and policy advocates to the mutual enrichment of both activism and scholarship. Still, MRAP has faced a number of challenges, which Ryan and Gamson explore in the form of a conversation about the project’s two constituencies. Aspects of academic culture push fast-track research achievable in a summer, they observe, and thereby minimize relation building. Activists may be alienated by the “secret language” of scholarly jargon and feel pressure to claim early and exaggerated victories rather than share mixed or disappointing outcomes. In addition, chronic funding shortfalls and the labor involved in seeking funds to mixed results can prove demoralizing. Community-university partnerships, in short, usually involve three- or four-way negotiations among community-based organizations, universities, funders, and, sometimes, government agencies. Despite shared goals, each social location has competing agendas, constituencies, timetables, standards, budgets, and space limitations. These factors complicate collaboration. Ryan and Gamson offer lessons from the MRAP experience and highlight the many rewards of joint work for all involved.
Nina Gregg’s contribution, “Media Is Not the Issue—Justice Is the Issue,” provides a close analysis of several community-based efforts to address media justice in central Appalachia, with a focus on projects supported by the Appalachian Community Fund (ACF), a social justice foundation. ACF, along with a partner organization, convened a Southeast Media Justice Conference in February 2007. The conference was designed as an opportunity for social justice organizations in the Southeast and Appalachia to explore issues of media control, to expand their understanding of media justice, and to share with each other examples of the work already happening in the region. ACF subsequently awarded competitive media justice grants to four community organizations in 2007 and to five community organizations in 2008. Examining several media justice projects, the chapter explores what media justice means to activists in rural Appalachian communities and how they are organizing to challenge media control, develop alternative media institutions and channels, and increase the voices of marginalized communities through analysis, strategy, and skills. Rural media justice organizing offers a perspective on media and social justice that differs significantly from the familiar focus on concentration of media ownership and federal communication policy.
In their chapter, “Detours through Youth-Driven Media: Backseat Drivers Bear Witness to the Ethical Dilemmas of Youth Media,” Lora Taub-Pervizpour and Eirinn Disbrow examine the assumptions of media scholars, community media educators, and media activists who understand youth media as a vital space of media resistance. Media made by young people is a realm of media practice where it is possible for youth to intentionally adopt positions as media producers. In these acts, young people are seen to confront the deep, proliferating, and pernicious ways in which corporate mass-mediated culture constructs and exploits young people as consumers. In assuming the stance of media maker, it is widely believed that young people acquire agency and engage in acts of resistance. While the authors position their work in solidarity with media researchers whose scholarly activity attempts to fortify youth media-making programs, they also examine the social, cultural, and political-economic forces that shape and constrain the possibilities of young people’s media production. Taub-Pervizpour and Disbrow draw on long-term research conducted within a youth media program involving low-income, urban minority teens to suggest the need to scrutinize the particular ways in which marginalized youth and adult media educators collaborate in cultural production, including attending to the relationships and contexts in which young people conceptualize, research, and make media. They remind readers that new digital media technologies are not inherently democratic and argue that merely placing them in the hands of young people, marginalized by class, race, language, or gender, is not intrinsically oppositional.
Mari Castaneda’s contribution, “jAdelantef: Promoting Social Justice through Latina/o Community Media,” examines the ways that Latina/o community media promote social justice not only in Latino communities but also within the broader landscape of US civil society. Her chapter analyzes broadcast and print media examples from across the country and the US-Mexican border that demonstrate the important role of such Latina/o community media in creating social change through media justice. Latina/o media in the United States have a long tradition of emphasizing community needs and social justice in their coverage of education, politics, culture, and economics. Community media have consistently committed their access to newsprint and the airwaves, observes Castaneda, to addressing pressing issues that affect Latino populations in direct and indirect ways. The rising backlash against Latino immigrants, the shifting US demographics, and the inequities that Latinos continue to experience are issues that make the coverage by Latina/o community media even more critical, especially since they make visible communities that are voiceless and denigrated in mainstream English-language media.
The third section, Power Struggles, examines specific efforts to push back against structures of dominances within media and cultural institutions by using media, media critique, or both to challenge attempts to silence or marginalize alternative voices and practices.
In her chapter, “Feminism and Social Justice: Challenging the Media Rhetoric,” Margaret Gallagher unpacks the paradoxes of the progress of feminism. Acknowledging that the international women’s movement has made significant progress since 1970 as is evident by the fivefold increase in the number of women serving as heads of government in the twenty-first century, Gallagher nevertheless points out that no country has yet achieved gender equality. In fact, gender gaps in health, economic, and political participation have actually expanded in 43 countries since 2008; however, mainstream media narratives routinely suggest that the women’s movement has achieved its objectives and is no longer relevant. In many of these narratives, there is an explicitly negative critique of feminism as a social movement. Gallagher maintains that challenges to the feminist movement have become increasingly sophisticated and resistant to criticism, as feminism has become part of the cultural vocabulary that media narratives draw on. With few exceptions, the feminist discourse that mainstream media invokes is conservative; emphasizing individualism and consumerism, it fits perfectly within the grammar of neoliberalism. Incorporation of feminist ideas into media discourses that serve to deny the politics of feminism as a social movement makes the pursuit of social justice for women especially challenging today. Gallagher examines how this discourse works in specific contexts, including advertising, policy, access to information and communication technologies, and media reform. She identifies new strategies that are necessary to open up spaces for women’s agency in the new media environment, arguing that what is actually needed today is wide-scale social transformation of media in which women’s rights and women’s “right to communication” are respected and implemented.
Brian Martin’s contribution, “Defending Dissent,” identifies some enduring struggles involving defamation laws as well as the new opportunities that the Internet has opened up for resisting attempts to suppress dissent. Media organizations constantly face threats of lawsuits, which lead them to avoid stories that may make them vulnerable to legal action. Individuals, especially individuals who express controversial views that challenge powerful people or organizations, may also face legal threats or action, which have the effect of inhibiting free speech. As president of Whistleblowers Australia, Martin created a website, “Suppression of Dissent,” where whistleblowers and others could tell their stories and post supporting documents. He shows how the Internet can be used to evade defamation threats by ensuring that the material is widely circulated, so that legal action—rather than hiding the material—actually makes it more widely known. In essence, he argues, the Internet can serve as a “defamation haven,” analogous to tax havens. He describes the forms of resistance that are most effective in evading suppression and defending dissent. This experience also led to his research on how to make censorship backfire so that it would damage censors instead of their intended targets. Martin sees the Internet as a new arena for resisting suppressions of free speech, but one with quite a different topography than the traditional venues. He argues that the ground is tilting toward free speech, but that it is important to know how to take advantage of the opportunities.
In his chapter, “Software Freedom as Social Justice: The Open Source Software Movement and Information Control,” John L. Sullivan maintains that free, open source software (FOSS) advocacy can be increasingly characterized as a broader movement for social justice. He tracks the emergence and development of FOSS efforts such as the GNU/Linux operating system and the GNU Public License (GPL), noting that advocacy of open source software has expanded beyond the relatively small community of software programmers to encompass a larger group of nonexpert users and related organizations. Sullivan shows that the interests of FOSS advocates have begun to merge and overlap with the interests of the free culture-digital commons advocates in the past halfdecade, with increasing cross-fertilization across these two groups. These issues more closely align the current aims of FOSS with other digital rights initiatives, suggesting the emergence of a larger umbrella movement for cultural and software freedom on the horizon that advances social justice efforts.
In “Watching Back: Surveillance as Activism,” Mark Andrejevic explores the appropriation of monitoring technologies by social activists who turn the surveillance cameras back on the authorities as a means of holding them accountable to public scrutiny and the legal system. He focuses on the work of I-Witness and the Glass Bead Collective, both based in New York City. The two groups assemble amateur and professional videographers to monitor public rallies, marches, and other politically oriented demonstrations in order to document abuses by law enforcement agencies. They have had success in getting charges dropped against activists and others who were arrested and charged on false pretenses, but they have also been targeted by the authorities, most notably during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Andrejevic explores both the democratic political potential of techniques of reflexive surveillance—activists filming themselves in order to document police abuse—as well as the potential drawbacks of the approach.
The last section, Media Justice, examines struggles for justice in media policy, foundation funding of research, and media reform efforts themselves using historical analysis as well as ethnographic and experiential knowledge of activists doing media democracy work and monitoring media censorship.
Christina Dunbar-Hester’s chapter, “Drawing and Effacing Boundaries in Contemporary Media Democracy Work,” profiles a movement that emerged in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and that seeks to change the media system in the United States. The movement developed in light of such factors as a regulatory environment favoring national broadcasting networks and corporate media consolidation, embedded practices of community media production and pirate radio, Indymedia and the transnational “antiglobalization” movement, and the emergence of “new media” including the Internet. Dunbar-Hester maintains that due to the heterogeneity of participants in the movement and the way in which it overlays other, related social justice agendas, the media democracy movement represents a diverse, even chaotic field of activism. She identifies key sites of intervention, including radical activist, reform, and academic agendas based on ethnographic research on low-power radio activists and the groups with whom they interact. The chapter also examines the difficulties involved when diverse groups, who nominally share the same goals of democratic social change through critique, seek to collaborate.
In his chapter, “From Psychological Warfare to Social Justice: Shifts in Foundation Support for Communication Research,” Jefferson Pooley compares and contrasts the Ford Foundation’s recent foray into media research and policy reform with earlier interventions by American foundations. As with the previous initiatives of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, Ford’s recent efforts have been linked to its wider public policy goals. The difference is that Ford’s objectives, for the first time, largely align with those of social justice activists. In other words, Ford’s $20 million outlay from 1998 to the present has supported— rather than thwarted—media and social justice campaigns. Pooley traces this remarkable shift by comparing earlier foundation interventions (Rockefeller funding in the 1930s and Ford’s programs in the 1950s) with Ford’s collaborative grantmaking to media academics, activists, and policy researchers over the last decade. He argues that Ford’s recent activities challenge overly rigid assumptions made by the large critical literature on foundations, social science, and the status quo.
Mickey Huff and Peter Phillips’s chapter, “Media Democracy in Action: Truth Emergency and the Progressive Media Reform Movement,” critiques the tendency of mainstream media to marginalize, through ridicule or inattention, major stories and story angles that fall outside a narrow range of acceptable media discourse. They discuss the process by which some stories and interpretations earn respectful treatment from corporate media, while others do not, by drawing on over a decade of experience at Project Censored, which labors each year to publicize the stories that the mainstream press ignored. Examples from Project Censored’s book series, along with reflections on the project’s evolution, inform Phillips and Huff’s argument that activists and scholars need to creatively redefine what journalists establish as legitimate news. They conclude that mainstream media is contributing to “a truth emergency,” which undermines the viability of democracy.
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