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Independent Media Makes Its Mark at Seattle's WTO Confrontation

The WTO confrontation in Seattle was by any measure a huge media event worldwide, focusing attention on human rights, environmental destruction and child labor as major byproducts of unfettered world trade. But Seattle was also a watershed for the non-corporate independent media. Comprehensive, powerful and immediate coverage of the dizzying array of activities and clashes on the Seattle streets showcased, really for the first time, the independent media's capacity to provide multifaceted, in-depth coverage of a world-shaping news event.
 
 
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The WTO confrontation in Seattle was by any measure a huge media event worldwide, focusing attention on human rights, environmental destruction and child labor as major byproducts of unfettered world trade. But Seattle was also a watershed for the non-corporate independent media. Comprehensive, powerful and immediate coverage of the dizzying array of activities and clashes on the Seattle streets showcased, really for the first time, the independent media's capacity to provide multifaceted, in-depth coverage of a world-shaping news event.It's always been a fantasy of the community-based and alternative media to break through the stranglehold of corporate media gatekeepers who shape much of the news people see and hear. Media critics have long argued that business interests and political realities ensure that most events are reported from the perspectives of political figures, corporate leaders and their spin doctors and PR agents, who have a vested interest in how events are presented and perceived. Now, due to technological advances that enable more direct access to media consumers, the alternative press is much closer to imagining parity with large media organizations.Taking advantage of the World Wide Web as the prime distribution system and other new technologies that make news gathering cheaper and more mobile, hundreds of street-savvy journalists provided a global audience with a bird's-eye view of the rapidly breaking Seattle events. There were almost instant video clips available of a protester hit in the face by rubber bullets fired by Seattle police officers and of police firing tear gas into crowds of nonviolent protesters, as well as on-the-spot audio and digital photographs posted on the Web in rapid-fire fashion.Much of the in-your-face nature of the media coverage was produced by a coalition of activist and journalists operating out of the Independent Media Center (IMC) in Seattle ( www.indymedia.org). These activists and journalists, armed with cell phones, lap top computers, video cameras and web cams, were always at the center of the action, weaving their passion for the issues with their desire for unmediated journalism. The result was raw and often compelling coverage for media consumers and journalistic outlets across the globe.Jeff Pearlstein, one of the founders of IMC, said: "It's all about getting the people's voices heard. We're about providing an alternative to the mainstream press that's without censorship, editing or corporate bias, allowing people to tell their own stories."As events heated up, the ad hoc Independent Media Center became a kind of ground zero for supporting coverage, as dozens of independent media journalists, working for video, audio and print desks, reported breaking news all around Seattle from the Center. Stories were published instantly on the Web, using a system developed by Free Speech TV ( www.freespeechtv.org) to support grassroots media efforts. Indeed Web activism emerged as one of the victors of Seattle's WTO confrontation, becoming a rallying tool that allowed people to launch civil disobedience protests from afar. ABC's Michael J. Martinez reported that online dissent took on new force last week, with people logging on to sites created to organize virtual protests and parody official WTO Web pages. One site was even designed to bring down the real WTO site by flooding it with hits. Given that activism surrounding the WTO talks would have been much weaker without the Internet, it seems reasonable to say that a new age of cyber civil disobedience has officially been born.Along with the Web, daily video feeds, pooled and edited by a consortium of grassroots TV organizations, were transmitted to satellite from IMC, adding to technology-driven activism. Greg Ruggiero, an IMC spokesperson, said: "People of all races, of all ages, from all over the world are working together to get the word out, telling their stories, breaking down the dominant media structure. This is democratic media, this isn't alternative media. We're not alternative to anything. We're independent media bringing information directly to the people."Cooperation was in fact the hallmark of the operations at IMC. Jim Hightower's producer, who was doing a daily show at a nearby Methodist church called IMC and said he was with former French Prime Minister Francois Mitterand's widow – Did they want to interview her? Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica's "Democracy Now," needed her Web site changed; an IMC volunteer staff did that overnight.Of course, things weren't perfect and seemed chaotic at times. Ruggiero reported that so many people were going to their Web site, it was crashing despite mirror servers set up around the world to help provide more bandwidth. For Ruggiero, this was an indication that people are hungry for information straight from the source. "One of the hottest offerings on the site is an interview via cell phone with a protester who was arrested and was talking to us from a bus as he was being driven away," Ruggiero said. "While all this was happening, we made sure that the reason why we were here – the critique of corporate dominance, the importance of issues like genetic engineering, worker rights and the environment were not getting overshadowed by the confrontations in the street. Our work, our content is all designed to provide a critique of the global corporate world." Another journalistic force in the Seattle media effort was Norman Solomon, a hardworking author and syndicated AlterNet media columnist. Solomon co-hosted with Julie Light of Corporate Watch ( www.corpwatch.org) a daily radio show produced by The National Radio Project, and also wrote a daily column for the World Trade Observer ( www.worldtradeobserver.org), a daily anti-WTO newspaper and Web site put out by Earth Justice Legal Center and led by Tom Turner. "It's exciting to be here," Solomon said. "And it's been an enormous challenge. We have a dozen people operating with very little sleep and the logistics are difficult because events are spread out. There's also chaos in the street and curfews. One of our reporters was roughed up, jabbed in the back with a billy club and deliberately sprayed in the eyes with pepper spray after she showed the police her official press credentials."Solomon and others gave high marks to the World Trade Observer, which distributed 10,000-15,000 copies of its paper a day. "It's the only daily activist take on everything that's happening," said Judith Barish, one of its editors. "Our Web site is being overwhelmed too," she explained, "and interestingly many of the hits are coming from Geneva, so we figure that's how all the WTO bureaucrats are tracking the opposition here."It is somewhat ironic that the "new" global independent press had its debut during the unmasking of one of the least publicly understood international developments of the last decade. The WTO, the world trade apparatus, that is the successor to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) threatens to undermine local, democratically developed issues, such as protection for dolphins and sea turtles, elimination of pesticides in food and labor rights. For years the WTO has been accustomed to operating with little media scrutiny and coverage was relegated to the business pages of newspapers and magazines. But, thanks to activists and progressive journalists, this is no longer the case. As Tom Hayden told The Nation's Marc Cooper on the streets of Seattle: "A week ago no one even knew what the WTO was. Now these protests have made WTO a household name. And not a pretty word."The ability to transform the world's perception of global trade, of course, didn't happen overnight. Months and months of preparation by organizers, activists, trade unions and highly trained direct-action experts all culminated in the crowning moment when tens of thousands of concerned people sat down in the streets and prevented, for a day, the WTO meeting from taking place. Key to the success of the protests were Direct Action Network, Public Citizen, People for Fair Trade and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Most of these groups operated out of a public space in the Seattle Town Hall set aside for nonprofits. IATP had a sophisticated media streaming operation ( www.wtowatch.org), aimed at international journalists and developed by RealImpact, a subsidiary of RealNetworks, the pioneer in streaming audio and video technology. The IATP site also includes insightful daily radio commentaries by trade expert and columnist David Morris, who is particularly pointed in his hammering of Pat Buchanan's divisive anti-free trade rhetoric.The print side of the independent media equation was equally on top of things. The local Seattle Weekly ( www.seattleweekly.com), led by editor Skip Berger and crack reporter Geov Parrish, provided superior coverage leading up to the WTO meeting week. It also had a special issue on the streets on December 1 and kept its Web site cooking daily with new material. Harold Myerson, one of the country's top political reporters, filed an excellent report on Tuesday night for the December 1 edition of the LA Weekly ( www.laweekly.com). On the daily Web front the international aspect of the WTO gathering was covered daily by Sebastian Naidoo from www.oneworld.net, while Salon magazine ( www.salon.com) featured on-site coverage by veteran economics reporter David Moberg and journalist L.A. Kaufman. Tom Paine ( www.TomPaine.com) also contributed, in particular with an excellent piece by Bill McKibben.All this material, and much more, is featured on a special WTO site, developed by Tate Hausman at AlterNet ( www.alternet.org), which over the past six weeks has cataloged some of the best written material on global trade. The collection includes dozens of articles and links to valuable content such as the "WTO Primer" and the "Citizens Guide to World Trade."