1995 Media Heroes: Now More Than Ever

When the history books are written, no doubt 1995 will be remembered as a benchmark. In the past year a new standard of global media monopoly was established, culminating with three mega mergers: the Disney takeover of Capital Cities/ABC; the Time Warner buy out of Turner Broadcasting (creating the largest media conglomerate in the world, at least for the moment) and the Westinghouse move to grab CBS. Simultaneously, a lobbying blitz shameless enough to surpass the most jaded of expectations resulted in the passage of the wildly deregulatory Telecommunications Act earlier this year. The mega media companies are about maximizing profit -- a far cry from the ideal of a news media intent on maximizing democracy and participation. Instead, we have nine-second soundbites, "infotainment," encroaching censorship, and a communications landscape where PR agents outnumber working reporters. To fight current media trends, strong, creative responses are crucial. New investments must be made in public interest journalism, and engaging ways of reaching wider audiences with compelling ideas and effective reporting pursued. Collaboration among media makers is key to creating the greater "echo" necessary to compete in the marketplace of ideas now dominated by corporations, pundits and conservative spinmeisters. The San Francisco-based Institute for Alternative Journalism, with the help of advisors and friends, has named 10 people and organizations whose heroic efforts in this dark media age command attention, praise -- and wider audiences. The fifth annual Media Hero honorees embody a vital resource -- the values and skills needed to keep independent media alive and thriving into the next century. This year we are also proud to offer an additional honor for lifetime achievement to the man who, literally, wrote the book on media monopoly, Ben Bagdikian.-- Don Hazen1995 MEDIA HEROESSpecial Recognition For Lifetime Achievement: BEN BAGDIKIAN If there is one person most responsible for the vital discussion of the media monopoly facing America today, it is Ben Bagdikian, the Institute for Alternative Journalism's first recipient of the Special Award for Lifetime Achievement. When in 1983 Bagdikian wrote The Media Monopoly, his now-classic analysis of the concentration of media in the U.S., he reported that 50 corporations controlled most of the country's daily newspapers, television and radio operations, book publishers, and movie studios. When he put out the most recent edition of his book in 1992, the number of corporations had shrunk to 20; now, as Bagdikian has had the misfortune to correctly predict, a mere six or seven companies control 90 percent of the major media outlets in the United States. Ben Bagdikian would probably deny that he is an advocacy reporter, but he has been one hell of an advocate, digging up the facts and laying out the stories, most famously about media concentration, but also about a wide range of social issues. During Vietnam, Bagdikian was the person responsible for procuring the Pentagon Papers and presenting them to the editors of the Washington Post. He later moved from DC to California and served as the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley. I don't know how the hell he ever got that job or kept it, but he did -- and that, of course, is a tribute to his real intrinsic worth as a journalist. Over the years, the soft-spoken Bagdikian has scared the hell out of many people, and continues to scare the hell out of the chains with his irrefutable evidence of growing media monopoly. And the reason is he's done this is because he's a great reporter, perhaps the greatest of our time. (Bruce Brugmann)Bruce Brugmann is the publisher and editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian1. ANNA DEAVERE SMITH The decision to give Anna Deavere Smith a media hero award initially seemed to be bending the rules a bit. Smith isn't technically a journalist. But what strikes many people about her work is the brilliance of its reportage. Her theater piece Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, to take just one example, taught me more about the forces behind the Los Angeles riots than anything I had read in months of articles in the Los Angeles Times. Smith delved deeper and got her subjects to delve into their own motives more deeply than any reporter covering the LAPD's brutal beating of Rodney King and its aftermath. And she broke news. Twilight culminated with a dissection of the behind-the-scenes struggles in the jury room of the King case -- which no one else had reported. Smith had scooped the major media. Smith gets these stories because she's a reporter of the highest classic order. She approaches her subjects not for a quick and sensational headline, but for what they can tell her about the deepest problems tormenting our country. So many reporters in our cynical, I'm-so-clever post-modern press corps want to show off their performance at the expense of understanding. Anna Deavere Smith, ironically, is a performer who puts understanding, hers and ours, first -- and gives a brilliant performance to boot. (Susan Faludi)1992 Media Hero Susan Faludi is the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women2. LESLIE SAVAN Twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and author of The Sponsored Life (Temple University Press, 1995), Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan takes advertising seriously as a cultural phenomena. Her work explores, unpacks and dissects the 16,000 images that come into our world every day, images that we are told we are too savvy to be affected by. That alone is important. But she has also taken on advertising consistently, over time creating a body of work that stands up as a history of our sponsored lives. Her words are playful, enraging, witty, and human. She responds to the advertising industry as a scholar and as a political woman, and in doing so she moves the debate from people as a cost-per-unit item, of culture as something your wear or eat or buy, to a place where we are citizens, not consumers, and where ours minds and actions matter. (Marianne Manilov)1993 Media Hero Marianne Manilov is the director of UNPLUG, an Oakland-based organization that fights commercialism in schools.3. ROBERT BRAY, SCOT NAKAGAWA & THE NATIONAL GAY & LESBIAN TASK FORCE Anyone who cares about gay and lesbian issues is likely familiar with the excellent organizing of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). But they might not be familiar with some of the personalities key to the group's success, particularly in fighting the right and in battling the succession of anti-gay initiatives that continue to crop up on ballots around the country. A seasoned activist and organizer with over 17 years experience, NGLTF field director Scot Nakagawa travels to communities all over the country organizing and getting out his smart, concise analysis of what's happening with the Religious Right. Working with him is communications director extraordinaire, Robert Bray. Bray takes a situation and knows how to get the show on, generate attention for the issue and spin it with skill. Both Nakagawa and Bray demonstrate that with commitment, intelligence and the ability to articulate the facts without hyperbole, progressive values can prevail -- even amidst the sea of disinformation propagated by the right. (David Mendoza)David Mendoza is the executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression4. JUAN GONZALEZ Any native can tell you a tale of two New Yorks. But one simple way to delineate the split is between the city of New York Times readers, and the one of the NY Daily News. The latter is the paper you see on the subway or bus, the reader hanging on by one hand, buffeted about by sloping turns and sudden stops. And it is in the latter that you'll find Juan Gonzalez' regular columns about the lives and experiences of those whom the media routinely overlooks, recently collected in Roll Down Your Window: Stories from a Forgotten America (Verso, 1995). Called "the most radical person in the above-it-all world of New York daily journalism" by the Village Voice, Gonzalez minces no words in his straight on portrayals of working Americans, especially African Americans and Latinos, and the impact on their lives of deteriorating economic conditions, racism and the growing gap between the rich and everyone else. Gonzalez's reporting on the social crisis stretching across the America is written not as an outsider looking in, but from the very places in our cultural and political landscape where policy meets reality, and as Gonzalez chronicles, often with tragic results. (Christine Triano)Christine Triano is program director of the Institute for Alternative Journalism5. ROBERT DOWNES AND THE NORTHERN EXPRESS In journalism, nothing is sweeter, more inspiring or as rewarding as when the little guy -- cash tight and under-staffed -- out-reports the entire country. Last year, the Detroit Metro Times received considerable attention for doing an investigative report on the Michigan militia which was published six months before the Oklahoma City bombing. What is less well known is that the Metro Times learned of the existence of the Northern Michigan militia from reading a series of stories that appeared in its sister alternative newsweekly in Traverse City, Michigan. Editor Bob Downes and the staff of Northern Express dug out the story and sounded the alarm about the growing paramilitary movement in Michigan at a time when no one else was looking. It took eight months and a shocking act of terrorism for the mainstream media to understand and begin to catch up on the importance of what Downes had uncovered. The Northern Express has proved once again the maxim that it's not how big a news organization is, it's how smart a news organization is. That's alternative journalism at its very best. (Ron Williams) 1993 Media Hero Ron Williams is the president of Alternative Media, Inc., which publishes the Detroit Metro Times, Orlando Weekly, and the Columbus Guardian.6. BARBARA EHRENREICH When a journalist as fiercely independent and furiously indignant as Barbara Ehrenreich fights her way into the mainstream it is as surprising as it is welcome. Raised and reared on the likes of Mother Jones, Social Policy, and Z Magazine, Ehrenreich remains a friend and contributor to independent media, though her words now find their way into outlets such as The New York Times, Esquire, and Time (where she has been an essayist since 1990). In the '80s, her scathing discussions of the rich in essays like "How to Help the Uptrodden," were a much-needed antidote to a decade of greed. Ehrenreich's latest collection of readings, The Snarling Citizen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), shows her at her finest: Angry, elegant, and uncompromised, once again giving voice to the voiceless using the old-fashioned weapons of excellent reporting and great writing. (Larry Smith)Larry Smith is managing editor of AlterNet7. PACIFICA RADIO -- PAT SCOTT, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AND JULIE DRIZIN, PRODUCER Pacifica Radio, with stations in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Houston and Berkeley, as well as associate stations in many other locations, is one of our country's most enduring institutions promoting social change and telling stories rarely heard on corporate-owned radio. But Pacifica is being recognized as a media hero not so much for its steady efforts of the past but its risk-taking in preparing for the future. In the world of shrinking media outlets, progressive media institutions can no longer afford the luxury of narrow audience niches and programs that only speak to the committed. Pacifica has embarked on the difficult task of reevaluating its programming, initiating new programs to attract broader audiences and providing a national perspective for its stations, most notably with its "Democracy Now," a radio show providing alternative coverage and discussion of the 1996 election season. Growth never comes easy, and Pacifica has taken plenty of heat for its attempt to meet the challenges ahead. (Don Hazen)Don Hazen is the executive director of the Institute for Alternative Journalism8. LINDA FOLEY, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL NEWSPAPER GUILD If there is one struggle taking place in the United States that exemplifies every question faced by journalists fighting media monopoly, it's the ongoing fight between the striking workers of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press and the papers' owners Gannett and Knight Ridder. It's a fight waged by six unions against corporate media power at its brutal worst. If there's one person who exemplifies the energy, commitment and leadership necessary to sustain such a long and trying ordeal it's Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild. Against incredible odds, Foley has fostered an unwavering commitment among striking workers in a fight that has resulted in the crippling of the two dailies for over nine months. Foley has generated critical awareness of the strike, drumming up support for the papers' workers and constantly traveling and speaking about the situation in Detroit and the importance of unions. And, significantly, her anecdotes give a human face to battle that few mega media corporations are interested in revealing. (Frank Joyce) Frank Joyce is director of the United Auto Workers Department of Public Relations and Publications9. YO! "Where are the kids?" It's a question being asked in alternative press circles a lot these days. Where are the young voices in the media, in activism, in our communities? Look no farther than YO! (Youth Outlook), a San Francisco-based media project , edited by Nell Bernstein and Andrea Jones, that aims to help young people develop a public voice. A project of Pacific News Service, YO! includes a bi-monthly news journal distributed to local teenagers, weekly articles in the San Francisco Examiner , which are syndicated via Pacific News Service, and a Web site (http://www.pacificnews.org/yo/). YO! offers urban youth the chance to get the word out about the state of their own communities, examining issues such as teens at work, body image and how policies like "three strikes" affect young African American males. Opinionated, relevant and, yes, hip, YO! tells it like it is in an age when being seen, heard, and respected can literally mean the difference between life and death. (Carina MacLeod) Carina MacLeod is the editorial coordinator of AlterNet10 . PAUL KLITE & THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN MEDIA WATCH There are few things in this modern world of media sadder than the state of local TV news. Paul Klite and the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Media Watch documented this reality in their report, "Pavlov's TV Dogs: A Snapshot of Local TV News In America." On the evening of September 20, 1995, Rocky Mountain analyzed 100 newscasts in 58 cities across the U.S. -- and confirmed the worst suspicions of casual and discerning TV viewers alike: Murder, mayhem, sex, and soft stories dominate local TV broadcasts, the medium by which most Americans get the majority of their news. Beyond its cutting analysis, Rocky Mountain offers a template for how others across the country can begin monitoring local news. The San Francisco Bay Guardian has already conducted one such study, "Pit Bulls, Sex, and Mayhem -- News at 11" (3/6/96) and has launched a local news monitoring project, an endeavor which hopefully will be mimicked across the land. If Paul Klite and Rocky Mountain Media Watch have their way, such grassroots media monitoring will flourish, and maybe, just maybe, the powers behind the broadcasts will begin to get the picture. (Larry Smith)

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