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Media Making as Participatory Democracy: Port Huron to OWS

One of the most important characteristics of the Occupy movement is the expanding universe of media makers --citizen journalists, livestreamers, artists and others.
 
 
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 “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
- The Port Huron Statement, 1962

“We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”
- Occupy Wall Street, 2012

Fifty years ago, the authors of the Port Huron Statement wrote that “Every generation inherits from the past a set of problems - personal and social – and a dominant set of insights and perspectives by which the problems are to be understood and, hopefully, managed.”

Today, the generation that sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement has likewise inherited a distinctive set of problems and generated its own new insights and approaches to them. One of the most important characteristics of the Occupy movement is the expanding universe of media makers - citizen journalists, livestreamers, artists and others - who see their work as overtly political and a central part of the movement itself.

New tools and technologies are empowering more and more people to commit acts of journalism - many for the first time - as their preferred mode of engaging with the movement. For many, grassroots media is not just a means to forward the goals of Occupy Wall Street. Creating media and telling a new story about our society is also an ends in and of itself. Media making is increasingly a political act as important as the occupations themselves.

Seek the Unattainable to Avoid the Unimaginable

The Port Huron statement was a radical vision for participatory democracy and an agenda for social change drafted by a group of students in 1962. The document gave new voice to a rising student movement that gained moment throughout the sixties and early seventies. While it defined a new political vision for participatory democracy, its vision for the role of media in democracy was almost identical to that of America’s founders.

In describing their ideal model of participatory democracy, the authors argued that “society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.” This statement echoes Thomas Jefferson’s well know quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

While the Port Huron Statement reasserts that an informed citizenry is fundamental to the American experiment, they don’t go much further. While the role of the media in our democracy was seen as fundamental, it was largely understood as something outside of the movement itself. At the time, the media was still something that primarily happened to us.

Media Making as Participatory Democracy

Like the authors of the Port Huron statement who described themselves as “looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” members of the Occupy movement are also looking out at the world with a sense of deep concern. But many of them are looking through the lens of a camera or the screen of a cellphone and broadcasting their vision of the world.

In the Nation Magazine this month Tom Hayden, one of the original authors of the Port Huron Statement, argued that “perhaps the most important issue for participatory democracy will be ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing information.” It should be noted that even while technology has put more and more media tools in the hands of people, policy decisions happening right now are putting more and more control of the media in the hands of corporations. Specifically, the Internet has democratized media making, but the policies that shape the future of the Internet are increasingly un-democratic.

 
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