Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Confronting the Progressive Divide

by Kevin Gosztola

Within the drive for social change and the repudiation of a Bush Program that we have come to despise that is entrenched in a corporatization of media and society lays a people who are more divided than united.

The people recognize the need to come together but they tactically disagree on how to do it. Many struggle to find the message and are in search of a magic bullet to make everything all better. Even more forget the past divides that were not mended which exacerbate the current affliction our country is experiencing.

I noticed this divide at the heart of a panel at the National Conference for Media Reform, which was titled, “News for People: Can Black Radio Provide the News We Need?” The panel included Jared Ball from Morgan State University who recently was a Green Party presidential candidate, Bruce Dixon from Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford from Black Agenda Report, and Jeanette Foreman from WRFG Community Radio Atlanta.

The panel focused on the profound inadequacies of black radio and the disappearance of news departments at black radio stations as a result of consolidation. It also exposed a divide between them and the sponsor of this conference, Free Press, and white liberals. The points of contention were very valid.

Bruce Dixon set the parameters for the discussion by indicating the difference between this panel and the other panels is that its interest lay in mobilizing the masses while Free Press primarily wishes to get people to petition their representatives and call on the FCC to take closer looks at licenses. The choice to make the parameters different was a result of a feeling that petitioning and pressuring representatives and the FCC could work but would not get us where we need to be without the mass mobilization of a people.

Dixon also shared with us the reality that black people have more access to radio than Internet because radio is more accessible and free. Therefore, FreePress' initiatives focused on net neutrality are good but the focus is too much especially when you consider how once you fix it there will still be many people left out.

Glen Ford rose up and recounted his past in radio in Augusta, Georgia in the 1970s. He talked about changing the political landscape of a community through radio.

He described getting his job and being introduced to his equipment by the news director. Minutes later, he was directed to a big list on the wall of all the “big black folks” in the Augusta, Georgia community that could be contacted for important input on issues of the day.

He noticed that each of them had a religious title (Reverend, Bishop, etc.) and realized what passed for black leadership was heavily theocratic. Rejecting this idea that black leadership had to be religious, he tore the list down and went out to find new leadership in the community.

Ford went down to the projects and found a woman who was one of the largest voices in the community and picked her to be a voice on all things involving housing. And then he found somebody to address all things related to black economic development to address unfair zoning laws. And he continued onto finding somebody who closely followed police brutality and named that person the expert on criminal justice.

This exercise, which he continued until he reached ten to twelve people, upon completion helped him change the political complexion of the community. It resulted in the religious black leaders asking when they were going to be asked for their opinion by Ford.

Radio became a tool for empowerment and one that made over a community as a result of treating airwaves as if they belonged to the black people of Augusta.

This transformation of the black polity is what Glen Ford came here to call on people to recreate in their communities again three decades later.

But, how? How do you get a “news for the people” movement going where you approach entities like Radio One and Clear Channel saying that you have an organization that will threaten their advertisers if you don’t put real news on the airwaves? How do you manifest that power?

Jared Ball expressed the frustration of organizing for media reform by introducing himself with a quick explanation of why he was reluctant to come to the conference but agreed to anyway.

Free Press does not seem to author policy to establish new structures for media reform although it does not oppose the establishment thereof. They do not operate under the assumption that we are not going to democratize media in an undemocratic society.

Jared Ball, who works for Pacifica Radio, mentioned that Pacifica does not have a news department. This is a problem that plagues many radio stations across the country. And because of this so much of the news is reading New York Times and Washington Post articles on the airwaves as news for the day.

In response, Ball developed a mixtape radio structure where a mix of music and news is put together for people to listen to. The mixtape is something that can be circulated on the streets in a guerrilla fashion to take on the corporate media structures in America.

That doesn’t mean everything is good though. Democracy Now!, CounterSpin, Robert McChesney do not focus on black folks, Latinos, or white working class, which is immensely frustrating.

Attendees of the Free Press get a lot of their news from alternative sources like these. But, these sources rarely have black voices on to talk about black issues.

Jared Ball highlighted how McChesney mentioned Glen Ford in discussions of race but was not inviting him to appear on his radio show. Instead of inviting Ford, McChesney had white people on as experts on issues of race.

This would not be such a bad thing except that black issues in America have become so exacerbated lately. The necessity of representation in radio is necessary and especially among white liberal progressive media outlets that are sympathetic to the struggles of black people. And is it really too much to ask that on issues of racism, black people be the experts and not whites who live under a system that grants them white privilege on a daily basis?

Even worse, a greater dialogue between white liberal progressives and black thinkers has not been had so that all the theory and research on democratic society, current events, etc. can be better.

Ball pointed out that Frantz Fanon once identified the “Shock Doctrine” with another term or description yet now people are approaching her work as newfound. That’s not to diminish the comprehensive history, but it is indicative of the divide between a people that should be working together.

What's most upsetting is that Free Pres might actually be making the media worse by aiding media's role as a psychic violent entity. Jared Ball illuminated this point

Media is psychic violence. It is the fragmentation of a people to make them compliant, make them confused, and make it impossible for them to communicate with one another. Media is targeted to demographic groups to keep them separate. Often, this media comes from the same company so the company knows what they are doing. The is keeping people cognitively separate. It's establishing and reinforcing a system where people have no dialogue and have no idea what is going on in each other’s communities. They are subjecting us to media torture or media terrorism.

As the panel was wrapping up, a young brother in the back of the room stood up and delivered a remonstrating question to the panel asking why they are not going to the Free Press board to today to raise some of Ball’s objections with supposed allies. The panel was not willing to engage and had not thought about confronting the white liberal board of Free Press. The young man was praised, however, for his logical conclusion that what was needed was a struggle with them possibly before struggling with Clear Channel or Radio One.

The agenda of Free Press definitely does not reflect a diversification of voices even if Free Press went out of its way to offer scholarships to many different people who do not normally attend. I see a lot of non-white people, but the topics remain based on subjects where lower income and diverse voices are often ignored.

In closing, what does it mean if the Free Press conference continues to misquote James Madison? Just think about that. This isn't ludicrous. Pick up your copy of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

Think about what it means to say Madison was championing a free press when he really as a slave owner was suggesting that a free press needed to be controlled to prevent ruling class people like him from being threatened.

The burden is on us white liberal/progressives to reach out to a black people (and Latin and other ethnicities that are marginalized deeply) and stand together. Represent these silenced voices and if we can amplify them, let us aid in doing so.

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