Media & Democracy Congress: The Message is Medium

So, what was the second annual Media & Democracy Congress held in New York in mid-October *about*?It was about pulling together more than 1,200 journalists, producers, academics, media advocates and critics. Participants discussed moving forward progressive causes, an increasingly difficult task as independent-minded journalists get their arms twisted by conglomerate owners and pushy advertisers.But, if you're Andrey Slivka, who weighed in on the conference for the "New York Press," it was about enduring three days of "left-wing journalists, dreadlocked political activists, weedy progressive intellectuals [and] stolid middle-aged public radio staffers." In an article that was smug, self-righteous and too long, Slivka concluded that the conference was ... smug, self-righteous and too long.If you're the "San Francisco Bay Guardian's" Ron Curran, who wrote an article about the non-profit Institute for Alternative Journalism, which organized the conference, the Media & Democracy Congress was doomed from the start. Curran's article, published the week before the Congress, sets out to expose that IAJ is hamstrung from being truly independent because of the grants -- around $300,000 in 1995 -- IAJ Director Don Hazen has secured from private foundations. Curran's wind up is better than his punch, however, as he finds no smoking gun.If you're Don Hazen, naturally, you thought the Congress was swell. "It's been exhilarating to hear so much positive feedback," Hazen gushed in a recent multiple-recipient e-mail. "Congress presentations were consistently on message. Much of the discussion focused on the range of strategies for holding the media accountable -- from demonstrating in front of Disney, to learning the details of policy questions and alternatives, to developing skills for reaching people through the mainstream media." But the most important thing in this age of first-person pseudo-Gonzo journalism is, of course, what do *I* think about the second Congress. First, two confessions: 1.) I'm nobody! I'm less than nobody, an ink-stained wretch who toils away in obscurity at a Pittsburgh alternative newsweekly which, I should confess to God and everybody, earns a healthy chunk of revenue from cigarette, alcohol and sleazy sex ads. 2.) Because I was a participant in one of the Congress's panels, IAJ footed the bill for me to attend, and it has me feeling at this writing a bit warm and fuzzy toward IAJ.That said, the truth about the Congress: Yes, many of these lefties, who I consider fellow travelers ideologically, are socially inept. You cannot help but think, when many lean forward to spray spit onto the microphone, that their gripe about their message being censored has less to do with the consolidation of media ownership and more to do with the fact that they seem as if, at any moment, they may take a hostage. There also was a tendency at the Congress to snub as flawed the work of any of us in the commercial media, with participants Lydia Sargent (Z Magazine) and Amy Goodman (WBAI/Pacifica Radio) being particularly condescending in this regard.But Jim Hightower, thankfully, offered an antidote to the humorless left. "Mr. Humor is not our enemy," Hightower said at the conference-opening panel. "Indeed he is our friend. So be not afraid of Mr. Humor. He is there to open doors for us. To open hearts, and maybe even to open some minds. When he arrives in your head, do not reject Mr. Humor." Hightower, whose m.o. is to entertain and sway a broad audience with his syndicated A.M. radio program, implored Congress participants to put their leftist critiques in a more populist package, and thus preach not just to the converted left but also, as he is fond of saying, to "workaday folk." Thus we have Hightower on media conglomeration a la Disney: "Some of these exec's like Michael Eisner are making enough money that they can afford to air condition hell. And the way they're acting, they better be setting aside some money for that project."Much of the post-Congress criticism slammed IAJ for inviting mainstream journalists as panelists, yet these journalists were the most insightful there. Ken Auletta, who covers the media for the "New Yorker," framed the issue of the corporate influence in newsrooms quite nicely. "The real question for journalism is, 'If you are performing an essential role in a democracy, then what is a reasonable profit?'" Auletta began. "In book publishing, [the industry standard] was four or five percent, but now it has to be double-digit. What I worry about is the culture of companies that extol things like *teamwork*, *cooperation*, *synergy*. The culture of journalism is an adversarial culture. The more retreats we go to, the more we become the team player we're not supposed to be." Another journalist who chooses to write not only for the alternative press but for "Time," Barbara Ehrenreich, also spoke to trends in the mainstream, namely the scarcity of labor coverage in urban daily newspapers. "Labor was once a regular beat covered by regular labor reporters," Ehrenreich said. "Now what little labor coverage there is usually in the Business section, which is a little like sending a religion reporter out to a Marilyn Manson concert."Or, perhaps, sending a hipper-than-thou "New York Press" reporter to cover a lefty conference or assigning a "Bay Guardian" reporter to write a red-herring story about Don Hazen. Those who attended the Congress found neither the sham described in the "New York Press" nor the quixotic victory Hazen claims in his post-mortem.Rather, as the iconoclastic Christopher Hitchens ("The Nation," "Vanity Fair") put it on one of the panels, the truth is much more complicated: "The truth never lies, but when it does lie, it lies somewhere in between." Andy Newman is Editor of Pittsburgh City Paper (www.pghcitypaper.com).

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