Miranda Spencer

Making the Invisible Visible

"We’d like to thank the mainstream media for showing up," quipped Cheri Honkala, adjusting her baby son on her jeans-clad lap. The executive director of the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a multiracial organization of, by and for poor and homeless people, Honkala was opening a Saturday press conference last October in a claustrophobic classroom at Temple University. The occasion: "Break the Media Blackout: A Conference on Media Democracy and the Struggle to End Poverty," of which KWRU was a co-sponsor. The absence of mainstream reporters only reinforced one reason the meeting was taking place: to address and remedy what organizers saw as a lack of meaningful coverage of poverty.

Honkala, 39, a former teenage single parent who has been homeless and on welfare, is no stranger to dealing with the press. Since helping start KWRU in 1991, she’s become a local celebrity and gadfly, treated as a figurehead by the city’s press. (The Philadelphia Inquirer has called her "the queen of civil disobedience"--8/9/00.) It’s a typical problem, she told Extra!: "The press don’t talk about life-and-death issues the poor deal with every day. They don’t talk about the poor as a group, they’d rather do individual profiles to sell papers."

But while Honkala and other grassroots antipoverty activists, along with members of the independent media from coast to coast, convened in part to share techniques for working more effectively with established news outlets, that goal took a backseat to a more proactive focus: developing and expanding their own media "infrastructure" to convey the untold stories of the more than 33 million people living in poverty in the United States.

With technical training and advice from more experienced independent media makers, poor people’s groups composed of struggling citizens, immigrants and their allies are becoming reporters, video producers, radio hosts and Web spinners, using old and new media in innovative yet inexpensive ways.

Why media, why now?

The conference coincided with huge changes on the horizon for both the news media and government social services. On one hand, there’s the proposed slackening of Federal Communications Commission rules on concentration of media ownership. On the other, the question of whether Congress will reauthorize funding for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and the still unfolding effects of dropping unknown numbers from welfare rolls due to time limits.

"It’s not an option to be media savvy if you want to make social change," maintains Jay Sand, a volunteer with the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia, another conference co-sponsor. Ubiquitous as it is, mass media content "defines reality," declared Honkala. "The rich communicate across borders. We need to as well."

Participants concurred that the first hurdle to gaining a bigger voice in the public discussion is visibility. But, they say, the media monopoly and demographics-driven news values have "disappeared" the needy from the news.

Joy Butts, a mother of three who still receives some forms of public assistance, said she daily scans the papers of record, local publications, and cable news for economics and poverty-related stories. In any given week, she says, she can count them on her hands. "The board of ABC, CBS and NBC sit on other corporate boards," she adds. "They don’t want this story out because people would demand change."

The KWRU, which now claims several hundred members, has direct experience with being rebuffed. In 1996, some members met with the Inquirer’s editorial board to discuss dismissive coverage of their attempts to bring attention to the plight of the city’s poor -- which have included HUD housing takeovers and setting up a tent city at the Liberty Bell. According to Chris Caruso, a computer media skills trainer, the group was told, "We refuse to allow KWRU to manipulate the press."

Honkala maintains the incident represents a typical Catch-22: "The only way we get any coverage whatsoever is by doing actions, yet they call us media hogs!" Sometimes even demonstrations aren’t enough: A February, 2002 sit-in by KWRU and a variety of antipoverty activists at the Olympics, she recalls, "got more international coverage than local press."

When they are covered, antipoverty activists are frequently portrayed as troublemakers. In 2000, when marchers were refused a permit to march down the city’s main drag to bring attention to poverty issues during the Republican National Convention, reporters focused more on whether there would be Seattle-style trouble than on why they were marching. When the demonstration went off without incident, Honkala said, it was framed as "'both sides cooperated.’ But the real story is that our First Amendment rights were denied." Moreover, she said, the Inquirer’s pre-convention coverage sought to generate fear of economic human rights demonstrators by running her photo (12/2/99) with an article about the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. The headline: "Are We Next?"

Missing pieces

Besides limited or slanted coverage, conference attendees said they see a disconnect between their actual experiences and what is portrayed in the news.

Butts, who lost her educational funding due to welfare revision, says the "vicious cycle" of obstacles to getting on one’s feet has not been addressed. Commenting on recent articles in the New York Times on welfare and homelessness (10/6/02, 10/13/02, 10/14/02), Butts said they were "OK, but didn’t go far enough…. They need to take the case of a woman with small children and do a budget on a day-to-day basis." She added, "No one talks about women in poverty in rural areas, who are very isolated."

Glenda Adams, whose grandson died after being unable to receive medical treatment because he was on welfare, says the indigent’s struggle with health care costs also get short shrift. "The mainstream media don’t care," Adams, a member of the Atlantic City, N.J.-based Poor Voices United, told Extra!, "If a tragedy happens, they will bring [cameras], but as soon as that day is over, they’re gone."

Conference participants concurred that reporters often ask the wrong questions, based on clichés and assumptions about welfare recipients and other groups of poor people similar to those documented by FAIR (Extra!, 5-6/95; 5-6/97; 11-12/97). For example, a participant at one workshop described questions she is commonly asked when arguing for the need for a better government safety net: "You talk about your rights, but what about your responsibilities?" and "Come on, aren’t you grateful to live in a country with a standard of living so much higher than in the rest of the world?"

Honkala is convinced that "there are lots of good writers who want to do content, but they can’t," because higher-ups won’t allow it. She cited a demonstration by KWRU last fall at the local housing department, at which children spoke about what it’s like not to have safe, permanent homes. "One reporter told us he would lose his job if he went forward with the story."

The biggest critique echoed by antipoverty and media democracy activists alike was the media monopoly itself. Media giants are "like chain stores," commented Liza Dichter of Media Channel, a website focused on global media issues. "They try to take over all communication so people can’t talk to each other or speak with a collective voice." Many participants noted that Philadelphia is headquarters of ComCast Corporation, the country’s third largest provider of cable services (currently merging with AT&T, the first largest), yet also the only major U.S. city without public-access television. And participants feared that, as such companies rush to control cable, broadband and Internet portals, their voices will be completely pushed out.

Grow your own

Antipoverty activists, determined to "make the invisible visible," have turned to homegrown magazines, video, Internet sites and more. In this way, they intend to "break the isolation" and communicate directly with one another and the general public. Explained Terry Maguire, chair of KWRU’s Media Committee, "We need to take our small scattered voices and collect them into one powerful voice that people have to listen to," uniting the poor into a mass that will "force the issue" into public policy debates.

Among the most promising channels for such a project are relatively high-tech media like computers or television. "Experience is not necessary if you have vision and commitment," said Butts, who began producing and hosting Marching On, a half-hour local interview show focusing on economic human rights issues, in 1999. "Walked through" the basics by the station manager of DUTV, the Drexel University cable station that carries it, she runs the show on a budget of zero. College interns and volunteers serve as camera people and stagehands, using the university’s studio and equipment. Recent segments have ranged from healthcare for the elderly to finding employment after prison.

With technical assistance from award-winning filmmaker Peter Kinoy, about 20 KWRU-affiliated volunteers shot and edited "Copy This Tape," an 18-minute video on how mass media affect public perceptions, for about $100. The short was cobbled together from talking-head interviews and found images, from TV screen captures to book and magazine illustrations.

Kinoy works with the web-based Media College of the University of the Poor, which provides a free virtual meeting place and live training in sophisticated media techniques to antipoverty activists. He and partner Pamela Yates have made numerous documentaries through his Manhattan-based Skylight Films, which these groups in turn use as educational tools. He believes films like his--which include 1991’s Takeover, about homeless people moving into abandoned HUD housing--have helped these issues "break into the national news…. It was the first time I heard the term 'economic human rights' used by the media."

Then there’s good old print, like Survival News, a biannual Boston-area newspaper written and read by poor women. Put out by Survivors Inc., which focuses on welfare rights and economic justice, it costs about $4,000 per issue to publish, raised from grants and subscriptions. Written in both English and Spanish, issues are handed out at welfare offices. The most recent issue (Autumn/02), themed "We Are a Movement," includes "Survival Tips" for dealing with bureaucracy; "Dispatches from the Front Lines," a journal documenting people’s struggles to obtain social services; and a discussion of "What We Want from a Welfare Bill," such as childcare and access to education.

Survival News was spearheaded by Sharron Tetrault, a single mother who said she once believed it was easy to get off welfare--until she herself was forced to turn to public assistance. The paper, she told conference attendees, requires "meetings, meetings, meetings" and "never gets out on time," but is worth the effort because of reader response. Tetrault said that when women see these stories, they realize, "'Oh my god, it’s not just me!'"

Internet as information backbone

The Internet is the format that seems to most excite these media activists. For those needing to reach a global audience on a shoestring, it’s the most accessible and efficient means of disseminating their own news and commentary. It’s also a way of correcting or augmenting the reporting of major media outlets. As Chris Caruso put it, "the Internet is an information backbone for other media."

Poverty activist-journalists at the Blackout conference told of reading web pages and other digital data at the library, then printing out useful information and stapling it into booklets. Or using donated (or discarded) computers to start a multimedia and link-filled website, purchasing Internet service from discount servers. Or "culture jamming" -- creating parody sites by copying open-source HTML code from sites like that of radio giant Clear Channel.

One popular use of websites is to chronicle ongoing activities, providing frequently updated, even daily, dispatches. That’s proving effective for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of mostly Latino and Haitian farmworkers in southwest Florida who are battling exploitative labor conditions. Working with Human Rights Tech, which trains activists in computer technology, they decided to use the Web to chronicle a "Taco Bell Truth Tour" they staged in March 2002. The goal: establish a boycott of Mexican restaurant chain Taco Bell, whose major tomato supplier is the company whose crops they pick.

CIW decided to target the fast food giant’s favorite demographic, 18-to-24-year-olds--who also happen to be the most common users of the Internet. Trainers followed Truth Tour buses with a van that became a rolling Internet and media newsroom for the farm workers, who learned web design and digital video editing software as they went along.

A new site called economichumanrights.org plans to highlight "tribunals," featuring personal accounts of economic human rights violations from activists and other citizens. "Jurists"--movement leaders, legal experts and, they hope, celebrities such as Michael Moore--will have an opportunity to weigh in on the charges and consequences. This may sound one-sided, admitted Willie Bishop, KWRU’s education director, but "it’s meant to be more of a mock trial or moot court to encourage discussion and debate."

Reframing the issues

As the invention of economichumanrights.org suggests, one of the fundamental goals in creating these new outlets is reframing poverty as a human rights violation. As conference attendees emphasized, food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare are guaranteed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the U.S. is a party. So is a right to communication--the "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." As Honkala explained, it’s important to "use those terms. A homeless child is a human rights violation!"

Such concepts are not so accessible to the public in a country that often portrays poor people as undeserving. So these activists have made it their mission to collect a critical mass of real-life stories of the effects of budget cuts and lack of services by interviewing neighbors and, say, people in shelters.

Such stories are designed to "get past people’s defenses, people’s sleepwalking" by presenting images that are as "moving, striking and outrageous" as anything broadcast on the six o’clock news, said Greg Asbed of the CIW.

Said the KWRU Media Committee's Maguire, "You can’t end poverty without winning the hearts and minds of people. It’s a battle of ideas, a battle of images and ultimately a battle of stories." Added Galen Tyler, a formerly homeless father of four, "The secret is, people don’t respond to statistics, they respond to human beings who could be them." A family that’s just been evicted from a rat-infested building. Workers stooping to pick produce in blazing heat. An exhausted but determined phalanx of marchers.

Besides using a human rights frame and vivid testimonials, another benefit activists see in homegrown media is the context omitted from the mainstream, the connections between issues typically viewed as distinct social problems: globalization, disability, and healthcare, for example. As Jay Sand of IMC told Extra!, anti-poverty efforts and the globalization movement are "inextricable." Both question the fairness of "billions in poverty simultaneous with great wealth." As Tyler put it, "Every question is summed up in the poor…. The power of these stories is in [making] the connections."

Eyeing the future

These people believe there is a demand for these stories, however harsh, especially in a tanking economy. Said Chris Caruso, "People…don’t believe Dan Rather at six o’clock anymore. They’re looking for something else."

And if they wish, mainstream news outlets can use poor people's media as reference material for their own work--if only when they stumble upon an economic human rights website while doing a keyword search for a business and technology story.

Kinoy, though a self-described "high-end filmmaker," maintains that even those who work for powerful media companies feel stymied by corporate control. He believes the economic human rights movement, through gathering support by reporting its own news, will ultimately help ignite a "cultural explosion," in much the same way the civil rights movement did some 40 years ago.

Small wonder KRWU and others have made staying "wired" a top priority. As Honkala told Extra!, "If we have to use a tent hooked up to a pole in North Philly, we will!…The last thing you really have is your voice."

Miranda Spencer is a frequent contributor to Extra! who lives in Philadelphia.