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Positions: Tensions and Complements

During my fieldwork, a recurring theme was the radio activists’ awareness of disharmonies between their own understanding of politics and goals for media justice and social justice more generally and those of other groups with whom they interacted. While it was understandable that the activists would routinely disagree with groups such as the corporate broadcast lobby, an adversarial relationship with this group did not present particular difficulties for the activists as they went about their work and formulated their goals as an organization. More vexing was the fractiousness of constituents working in the terrain of media reform and media activism who desired to collaborate strategically in order to attain wider goals; disagreements between nominal allies were potentially much more frustrating. This chapter represents an opportunity to reflect on those differences, illustrating how positionality differences among constituents are negotiated in practice. An effect of this reflection is the location and interrogation of my specific position throughout the course of my own research process as well as more general thoughts about the consequences of ethnography and the politics of scholarly engagement.

Media activism may be a special sort of social movement, as it is characteristically embedded in other forms of activism, incorporating diverse and autonomous movements who share the goal of media reform but may also have independent concerns.5 Communications historian and Free Press cofounder Robert McChesney acknowledges this in his claim that “whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because without change in the media, the chances of progress in your primary area are far less likely.”6 Also, media democratization efforts must be understood as split between groups who wish to use the media instrumentally to draw attention to their political efforts versus those who wish to change the media system itself.7 In other words, some groups hope to gain access to the media in order to have a platform for specific views, while others view structural change in the media as an end goal in itself; of course, it is difficult to fully separate structure from content because it is assumed by many that structural change will lead to content change.8 And of course movement actors pursue diverse tactics and ends. William Carroll and Robert Hackett distinguish between different modes of action among people working to change media systems, including: “(1) influencing content and practices of mainstream media—for example, finding openings for oppositional voices, media monitoring, campaigns to change specific aspects of representation; (2) advocating reform of government policy/regulation of media in order to change the structure and policies of media themselves—for example, media reform coalitions; (3) building independent, democratic and participatory media.”9 The first mode is represented, for example, by Media Matters for America, a nonprofit organization that monitors media content in order to correct conservative bias and misinformation in US news and media commentary, while the radio activists’ efforts fall along the latter two lines.

As Carroll and Hackett indicate, even among groups whose primary interest is media democratization, differences emerge. Examples of this abounded during my fieldwork; both radio activists and members of other groups would at times critique the goals or worldviews of other groups or individuals, calling into question any notion of univocality within the movement. Indeed, it is with no little hesitation that I write of “a” movement; while many actors believed themselves to be part of “a” movement, it was not necessarily apparent that they were all referring to the same thing. Even the terms used by groups who are putatively members of the same movement indicate their differing goals and differing degrees of radicalization (compare “media reform” to “media justice,” for example).

Anthropologist and Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project cofounder Todd Wolfson argues that Indymedia is “in its essence an anti-capitalist resistance,”10 whereas an advocacy group like New York-based Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) frames itself as a “watchdog” of mainstream media that uncovers bias and censorship. Both view change in media systems as necessary to uphold democratic ideals, but as Wolfson writes, Indymedia’s scope is incredibly wide reaching: “The indymedia movement is working, in its ideal, as the backbone of a [newly cohering, spatially distributed] class formation.”11 Consider the mission statement of the Philadelphia Independent Media Center: “PhillylMC seeks to play a major role in social, economic, and environmental justice movements by creating alternatives to the profit-driven agenda of the corporate media and providing an open forum for the ‘passionate and accurate tellings of truth.’”12 By contrast, Free Press (a Washington, DC-based advocacy group) offers this description of itself: “Free Press is a national nonpartisan organization working to increase informed public participation in crucial media policy debates, and to generate policies that will produce a more competitive and public interest-oriented media system with a strong nonprofit and noncommercial sector.”13 It should be evident from these descriptions that the scope and degree of explicit engagement with other social justice struggles may vary between different strands of groups working to promote media democracy.

Anthropologists Hugh Gusterson and Faye Ginsburg have both studied how people may come to have strong beliefs about polarizing topics.14 While Ginsburg studied pro- and antichoice activists and Gusterson examined nuclear weapons scientists and antinuclear activists, both found that people’s deeply held beliefs were often accompanied by what Ginsburg calls “collective narrative forms for interpreting” facts or events that they encountered in their lives; this was true for people on both sides of these polarizing issues. Something I noted in the course of fieldwork was that while the activists tended to deploy these narrative forms, policy advocates did not. An example is one Philadelphia-based activist who said, “A big problem [for] a lot of activists is that the more you get involved [in social justice work], the more you see how fucked up everything is, and how you really have to change everything in order to change one thing . . . A big problem of oppressed groups and activists is that they don’t have any access to the media, and I thought that building [a radio station so that] they could have their own show[s] would be a way to help everybody that I wanted to without focusing on one thing.”15

Conversely, I observed that in Washington, when I asked people how they had come to the area of telecommunications policy, they might typically reply that they had gone to law school, become a law clerk, and been assigned to research an issue in telecommunications.16 Compared to the grassroots activists, these members of Washington policy circles displayed a much more dispassionate and agnostic attitude toward the area in which they worked. Even a former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner who was hailed by activists and advocates as a strong supporter of LPFM characterized her interest in promoting LPFM as derived from her obligation to correctly interpret the statute governing radio and the public interest.17 Rather strikingly, the activists imputed a “conversion narrative” to William Kennard, the FCC chairman who oversaw the introduction of LPFM; in telling the narrative of how LPFM became legalized, they routinely said that he became passionate about LPFM partly due to learning about the role of unlicensed community radio in combating the apartheid regime in South Africa. (Kennard is African American.) When I asked his former chief of staff whether this was true, she would not speak for him nor confirm the claim;18 whether or not the conversion story is true, it seems significant that the activists wish to claim Kennard as “one of them” in terms of experiencing a profound and fervent commitment to media democracy. Whether or not policy advocates privately express more passion about these issues, the activists’ reliance on these “life scripts”19 and policy insiders’ aversion to them points to a difference in style. This distinction may present obstacles to collaboration even when policy goals are similar.

The 2005 National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), sponsored by Free Press, provided a useful site to examine the internal politics of media democracy work. During and after the conference, the second of its kind, groups on the more radical-activist end of the spectrum voiced a number of critiques. First, a major concern for Indymedia participants was that the conference venue provided no dedicated space for media production and was not WiFi enabled. This not only presented a practical obstacle to people who expected to report and blog from the conference but also represented to many a symbolic fissure between their goals and those of the conference organizers (perceived by many as a moderate, Beltway, “reform” group without grassroots engagement). After the conference, some participants posted their objections online: “NCMR suckiness/concerns included: lack of any focus on Indymedia & access to answers to questions people had about Indymedia; banging of heads between Indymedia & Free Press—because Indymedia is subversive and Free Press is reform-oriented . . . lack of an open media lab; framing of actionable items (in caucuses) as ‘how can you amplify Free Press’s message’; . . . lack of discussion about how capitalism is intertwined with the issues of the NCMR; and the lack of centering of media justice issues at the conference.”20 Another attendee registered a somewhat complementary viewpoint but drew different conclusions, in that she was less bothered by what she perceived as the differences between Indymedia’s and Free Press’s goals for engagement:

It’s interesting to see the continued tension between the small professionalized media reform ngo’s [nongovernmental organizations] and participatory

social movements like indymedia. On some level i agree with what [another commenter] said, “I refuse to get upset with the reform conversations because it was a reform conference.” She’s right, it’s a reformist conference by reform minded organizations with fundamentally reformist goals. That’s ok, they don’t want to tear down the system. It’s good that indymedia and other radicals are engaging and participating in that process while acknowledging that it’s a process lead by free press and the other ngo’s.21

Though these participants were to greater and lesser degrees dismissive of Free Press (and other “NGOs”), they agreed that the concerns of Indymedia were fundamentally different from those of “media reformers” who were perceived as more institutionalized and less radicalized. And Indymedia itself is not immune from radical critique. One person who had been active in Indymedia commented to me that “‘Let 1000 flowers bloom’ is not a fucking politics— this is totally naive!”22 by which he meant that more structured efforts were needed to put media production into the hands of people without power; he was extremely critical of the race and class backgrounds of the people he saw having self-organized to form Independent Media Centers (IMCs), at least in the United States.

Interestingly, not everyone was attuned to the critiques of the NCMR emanating from more radical groups. In 2005—6, Free Press handed over responsibility to administer a database and other program areas it had been planning about media research to the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in New York City. That fall I met with an administrator at the SSRC, who was generally concerned about fractiousness between the media advocacy and activist groups with whom he was going to be working and their potential inability to collaborate with academics to produce research. He, however, viewed the NCMR as a success and was dismayed when he learned how unsatisfactory some of the Indymedia and radical groups had found it. He was explicitly worried about the potential for infighting between groups to present difficulties for the SSRC, which hoped to provide a clearinghouse for useful research but not mediate between the concerns of different groups.23 The SSRC initiated a grant-giving program area (“Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Public Sphere: Bridging Media Research, Media Reform, and Media Justice,” funded by the Ford Foundation), providing grants to advocacy groups and academics working in collaboration to produce policy-relevant research.24 In spite of its concerns, the SSRC was indeed interested in facilitating specific types of relationships between groups and fostering the production of academically rigorous research that was of specific use to advocates.25

At the NCMR, some participants opted out of scheduled conference events to hold a small rally decrying the fact that Democracy Now!, a news program featuring Amy Goodman, was not broadcast in St. Louis. Wandering away from the conference site of a downtown hotel, the activists set up a protest with banners and signs near a highway off-ramp. Concerned that drivers were flying by without noticing the protest, one Prometheus organizer spontaneously decided to get their attention by writing “Democracy Now!” across her belly with a marker and flashing her bare breasts and stomach at the cars. Whether or not this worked to capture the attention of the passers-by, her action seemed on some level a protest against the tone of the conference itself; she seemed to translate some of her frustration at the conference into an oppositional and “improper” bodily response. (Democracy Now! staff, including Goodman, looked on, and I do not know whether or how they reacted internally to this addition to their rally.) Of course, this mode of expression would certainly be off-limits if, for example, a congressional meeting about LPFM were to go badly. This indicates that maintaining decorum at NCMR was not her highest priority and, in fact, this breach in her composure may have served to mark a boundary between herself and the “media reformers.”

Commenting on Prometheus’s status in the terrain of work to promote media democracy, the same activist said, “Big nonprofits should be asking existing community media [outlets] working on getting media reform issues out [in] to their communities [to help them], not [addressing] a generic American public that doesn’t exist . . . The movement for a democratic media should not be run out of DC. Nonprofit policy groups only have ground to stand on because of the success of groups at the grassroots level.”26

In fact, Prometheus organizers are quite thoughtful about the issue of their position in the spectrum of groups working on media democracy, making an effort to reflect on their goals and situate their organization accordingly. Another Prometheus activist said, “Radicalism is not extreme sports, to me. I’m working to advance goals within liberal reforms that are consonant with a more radical vision. I have radical ideals, but I’m also a pragmatist.”27 This issue of positioning can feel like a balancing act for Prometheus at times, as their organization seeks to display radical activist ideals and maintain credibility with radical and grassroots groups, while working within an increasingly bureaucratic nonprofit organizational framework, as well as within the legal and bureaucratic framework governing LPFM. Additionally, they are not immune from criticism from more radicalized elements of the microradio activism community, as some microradio proponents (such as Stephen Dunifer) deride efforts to incorporate low-power radio into a legal, regulated context.28 The same Prometheus activist who said that “radicalism is not extreme sports” wryly proclaimed that “Dunifer is a great anarchist and a terrible businessman.”29 He doubtless admires anarchism more and respects people for adherence to ideals. Yet in order to accomplish practical goals, he was willing to compromise some of his most extreme beliefs; in fact, he felt that there was a greater good at stake and that working toward practical and attainable goals was the best use of his effort. In my observation, Prometheus seemed to navigate these differences by adopting a fairly tolerant stance toward groups with different views than their own—they not only work with nonpartisan reform groups but have forged alliances with conservative Christians on the issue of LPFM legislation—and through frequent reflection on their own goals and position. Still, much boundary work occurred in the organization in order to demarcate Prometheus from other groups with whom they work, mainly “Beltway” nonprofits and policy groups. (I do not mean to suggest that all of these instances of boundary drawing are reflectively self-conscious; indeed, they are often spontaneous and unmeditated means of managing anxiety about organizational change and maturation.)

 
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