Media & Democracy's Progressive Pragmatism

Putting together an egalitarian think tank-meets-hands-on workshop that brings together many of the country's most passionately independent writers and activists poses both promise and peril. Too often there's more bullshooting than brainstorming. But last weekend's landmark Media and Democracy Congress, sponsored by the San Francisco-based Institute for Alternative Journalism (IAJ) and cosponsored by dozens of other groups and publications, had the most consistently interesting lineup -- and pragmatic payoff -- of conferences in memory, heavy on the practical and light on rhetoric."This Congress has the makings of a significant historical benchmark," said IAJ executive director Don Hazen. "Never before has a broad cross section of media-makers and advocates, from more than 300 media organizations and outlets, come together for the specific purpose of strengthening independent journalism and media-making in the face of growing corporate concentration."Some 650 people came from all over the country to see speakers and panelists including authors Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, and Katha Pollitt. Journalists included Larry Bensky of Pacifica Radio and the East Bay Express, Pat Scott of KPFA, David Weir of HotWired, Dan Perkins (Tom Tomorrow), and Bay Guardian editor and publisher Bruce B. Brugmann. Panelists included representatives of YO! (Youth Outlook!), FAIR, Harvard University, the Center for Third World Organizing, the Native American Journalists Association, and Dyke TV.The conference was especially timely in an age of increasing concentration of media ownership and passage of the Telecommunications Act. Populist commentator Jim Hightower made some opening remarks, joking about how Disney booted him off the ABC Radio airwaves shortly after it bought Cap Cities/ABC. "Mickey Mouse cannot stop my mouth, and he cannot stop your mouth," he told the crowd. "The rich are not just getting richer, they're getting ridiculous. Some people think we need a third party -- I think we need a second one."Then the conference got down to the nuts and bolts of protecting an independent media. The slate of plenaries, collaboration groups, workshops, and roundtables headquartered at the Miyako Hotel from Feb. 29 through March 3 was an opportunity for independent activists and academics, journalists and policymakers, to collaborate and figure out how best to strengthen public-interest journalism and broaden the voices of modern media. A Web site carried continuing commentary on the various congressional issues involved ( congress's 32 organizational cosponsors represented a broad range of America's Left. Groups participating included the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Center for Democratic Renewal, the Center for Media Education, FAIR, Free Speech, the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Institute for Global Communications, Making Contact, Media Alliance/San Francisco, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Radio Project, the National Writers Union, Political Research Associates, the Progressive Media Project, the Public Media Center, Voyager, We Do the Work, and Working Assets.The topics were as wide-ranging as the participants. From class and gender representations in the media to how to find funding for independent media voices, the discussions combined theory and practice to battle encroaching corporatization. The congress also endorsed a series of principles, including this one: "All people have the universal right to a full range of social and political information, including that which is produced and distributed independently of commercial channels."

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