Media and Activism: Creating and Maintaining Effective Movement Media
By Jen Angel
(get the PDF)
I’m often asked to discuss the future of independent media. I think of this generally, on two levels, a theoretical one and a practical one. From my experience publishing a magazine of radical politics and culture, Clamor, from 1999 to 2006, in addition to many years of media activism, the practical side of things tends to focus on what it would take to build and sustain viable print media institutions, though my thoughts are often relevant to web and radio, and sometimes for non-media institutions.
I’d like to start with a discussion of the theoretical aspects of independent media. Too often we are focused on the day-to-day minutiae of creating things and making sure they don’t fall apart, and not enough on the big picture, on broad strokes and strategy and vision, or on influencing how individuals conceptualize media and social movements.
In the last two years, I have found the writing of several people to be particularly striking. I’d like to discuss four particularly thoughtful moments, the lessons I’ve drawn from them, and the connections I make between them to identify common threads around priority, power, and funding.
My work has focused on media because in the movement for social change, media plays a vital role in organizing on local, regional, and national levels. Being able to communicate with each other effectively across time and distance is a key skill that will help build a strong national movement for change.
I am writing this piece to encourage the reader to pause for a moment to consider how media interacts with social movements, and to pose a few questions and offer ideas about making movement media more effective.
The Theoretical Side
While publishing Clamor, I was very involved in the movement to create and support independent media. I still believe that working with independent media is a concrete way that individuals can become empowered through finding and refining their voices, and learning how to interact with the world around them in a positive way .
However, over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the role that media plays in advancing social change and have considered how media could more effectively support social movements.
Throughout this article, I use the word “media” broadly. “Media” ranges from traditional journals, magazines, newspapers, and radio programs primarily produced by groups of individuals, to blogs or zines usually produced by individuals. All of these types of media contribute to discussions around social movements in their own unique and valuable ways.
What I’ve come to believe can be summarized in several points:
• Media is central to how power operates
• Media is integral to advancing the work of social justice movements
• Media is a tool to be used strategically by activists
• Activists need to prioritize and fund media
• Activists need to directly connect our activism and media to struggles and communities
• We need to meet the needs and appeal to the desires of individuals and communities
Although there are many people talking about these issues, the work of four individuals has been particularly meaningful to me: Bob Ostertag, Michael Albert, Stephen Duncombe, and Sut Jhally.
Though not about media directly, INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, [They have published a remarkable book called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007). [link] This landmark work provides a radical analysis of current funding and sustainability trends within community organizations and social movements, critiquing the reliance on foundation funding and the organizational model of non-profit organizations.
Linking Media to Activism: Ostertag
Bob Ostertag’s People’s Movements, People’s Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements. (Beacon, 2006) [link] profiles four social justice movements and discusses the role of media in each one: gay liberation, women’s suffrage, GI resistance during Vietnam, and environmentalism. .
Ostertag defines “social movement press” as journalism which “seeks to promote ideas, not profits; movement journalists seek to challenge corporate control of media, not justify it. They address readers as members of communities, not individual consumers. They cover social movements as participants, not ‘observers.’ They exist to make change, not business.”  He says that movement media cannot be judged on the traditional benchmarks of publications: longevity, circulation (number of readers), and financial stability. Ostertag includes in his definition movement media created by individuals who did not set out to be journalists, whose goal is simply to promote their cause. I interpret this as supporting the “participatory media” movement that is exemplified by Independent Media Center (IMCs) [link]. The first IMC was created in Seattle 1999 to promote “citizen journalism” (a term used to describe media created by individuals who are not professional journalists) of the World Trade Organization protests [link for more info] in November and spawned a worldwide movement of participatory media in many forms, not just the IMC model.
Ostertag explains the central thesis of the work: “My main thesis—that the history of social movement journalism can be understood only in the context of the particular movements of which each journal was a part—can be abbreviated as follows: words do not make history. No argument, no matter how brilliantly reasoned or beautifully articulated, can create more democracy.” He goes on to say, “Words matter, but only when something is done with them, and the specifics of what is done matter too. It is not just a question of whether words are shared but of how they are shared. How do words make it to the page (or the screen or the microphone)? How are the pages distributed? By what means do the recipients respond? How are the resources for the whole effort marshaled? What social relationships develop as a consequence? How do these relationships dovetail with other relationships in the constitution of a social movement? How do those relationships fit into the broader culture? How can they be deployed when the movement confronts its adversaries?” 
This reinforced for me a basic concept: Media is a tool that can be used by organizers to accomplish goals, and as I and others argue, an essential tool. Although media is a tool, there are many obstacles to making it effective, including that activists are not always good journalists. There is a tension between creating a participatory product and creating aquality product—while not always mutually exclusive, movement-focused media (and IMCs) have long wrestled with this problem.
What I find insightful in Ostertag’s work is not the emphasis on the media itself, but on the effect of the media: media is made with a purpose in mind and should be evaluated on whether or not it contributed to that goal.
I also drew from Ostertag’s work the concept of needing media that is unafraid to align itself directly with activism and movements for change, that doesn’t seek to objectively report the news, or to be a passive observer. We need media that advocates (strongly, passionately, convincingly) for justice and for action, not for reform or staying the course, that doesn’t water down its politics for fear of alienating a mass readership. What I am advocating here is not simply the creation of movement media, but the creation of movement media that is directly connected to communities and struggles, providing entry points for the general public and allowing space for debate on strategy, tactics, and objectives—space to advance the movement, where the priority is strategy and not just keeping the publication afloat.
How does this concept apply to current organizing? By pushing ourselves, as activists, to view media as central to our work. Also, as the “movement of movements” grows, the idea that each issue or cause is integrally linked with others becomes more imbedded in our culture. How will media serve this new and diverse world? For example, on May 1, 2008 in San Francisco, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) [link] held a work stoppage, shutting down all West Coast ports for the day to protest the war in Iraq. In the afternoon, the immigrant community held rallies and marches in support of the rights of individuals. Speakers and participants at both rallies linked issues of immigration and labor—putting forth an understanding that the two are integrally related. This is a step forward for organizing, – how does the media keep up? Is there a journal, magazine, or website that serves both communities? Should there be? How do these groups communicate with each other?
I advocate not for one central newspaper, website, or magazine that will serve as the virtual meeting ground for the movement of movements, but rather that each movement create and sustain a diverse and vibrant media and that activists make a concerted effort to find and read media outside of their focus: that the makers of these media understand and draw out the connections with other movements, focusing on the common root causes of their issues. Each movement has the capability to reach and engage its constituency in ways that broad cross-movement publications can’t. The argument here is not for one centralized media that tries to be all things to all people, but a media landscape that is rich and diverse, reflecting and strengthening all parts of the movement of movements.
How much does the recent wave of independent magazine closures have to do with a decomposition of movements? These closures have largely been mid-sized publications like Clamor [link], Punk Planet [link], and LiP [link], or the hard-news website the NewStandard [www.newstandardnews.net]. These are general-interest, cross-movement publications, meant to appeal to wide audiences, and not intended to support or nurture a specific movement. While in some ways there was strength in their ability to draw out common threads between many movements this also meant that they didn’t effectively establish a base. Because these publications were not tied to specific movements, their closures don’t indicate a decomposition of movements as much as a logistical challenge in attempting to appeal to the entirety of the multi-faceted social justice movement at once.
Connecting Media and Activism to Communities: Albert
I first began to think seriously about the connection between media and communities after attending the U.S. Social Forum [link] in June 2007. There, I spoke on a panel about the future of independent media with Michael Albert (co-founder of Z Magazine [link] and South End Press [link]) and representatives from other media outlets. In my presentation, I spoke about the end of Clamor, and complained about the lack of financial support of media by radicals in the U.S, contrasting it with other movements in which individuals felt a financial responsibility to media outlets. In the past this has included a culture of “tithing,” where people give a portion of their income to support a project or organization—often associated with churches or religious groups. Why doesn’t that culture exist here and now? Though there is a move toward an emphasis on base-building and community-rooted organizations advanced in part by the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, for the most part this idea has not taken hold in current grassroots activist culture.
After my talk on the Social Forum panel, it was Michael Albert’s turn to speak. He said a lot about Left media related to my complaints about Left communities not supporting media institutions. In Albert’s opinion, and I’m paraphrasing, is that we can’t get money from our movements in the same way as churches because churches make good on their promises by providing community and support. When we (leftists/radicals/whatever) start addressing community needs, we’ll get money from those communities.
That was a light-bulb moment for me, influencing the way I think about the connection between community and media. Media made for its own sake is a totally different beast than media made for the express purpose of advancing social justice. Yes, there are specific subcultures that have media that offers things, but on the whole, Left media is not offering a cohesive vision for a better world or a plan to get there.
One interpretation of Albert’s comments is that the Left media doesn’t appeal to regular working people. In his memoir, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism (Seven Stories, 2006), [link] Albert characterizes preaching to the choir (or, not appealing to non-Progressives) as a “megaphone problem”: “Of course we don’t want to be insular. It is just that most of the time we have no better option. We can talk to each other, the choir. Or we can talk to no one. The main explanation I offer for why leftists infrequently reach out to new people is that we don’t have a megaphone loud enough to be heard by folks who aren’t already searching for our messages. It isn’t that we only want to reach the choir. It is that only the choir is reachable.” 
So the question becomes, what can media offer to individuals and communities that is valuable? For too long, independent media makers, have not prioritized the needs of the communities we serve. As Albert argues telling the truth is not enough. Many of the people to which independent media is attempting to appeal already know that the world is fucked up. They don’t necessarily need to be convinced. What they DO need is analysis, solutions, connections, and ideas.
Linking Activism and Media to Needs and Desires: Duncombe
Stephen Duncombe furthers the argument that truth is not enough by discussing not only the importance of what is presented but the importance of how things are presented in his new book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New Press, 2006). [link] Dream is about how progressive politics fail to appeal to the base needs and desires of individuals and that progressives rely too much on empiricism, or exposing the truth. This, however, is not enough, and anyone who sticks with this will “be doomed to insignificance” . What “the truth” is, however, is controversial and open to interpretation. And, if truth were all we needed, then Democracy Now! and media like it would have changed the world in a significant way. But, they haven’t. Duncombe urges us to look past “framing,” an idea popularized by George Lakoff and others, saying that it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of just teaching people how to critique messages, we need to create our own powerful messages.
Duncombe’s central thesis is that we live in an age of “manufactured consent” (a term first coined by Walter Lippman), where spectacles that appeal to our needs and desires win our hearts and minds. Appealing to “needs and desires” here does not mean advancing progressive consumerism (i.e., purchasing the right products will make everything OK), but refers to more basic needs, e.g. security, stability, growth, autonomy, and love. As progressives and radicals, we’ve failed to learn how to “manufacture dissent” because we think that “manufacturing” consent or dissent can only be done in a way that is manipulative and exploitative.
We need to package our messages in persuasive and compelling ways, which Duncombe calls “spectacle.” Duncombe, arguing that an ethical spectacle is not only possible but necessary, sets out parameters for spectacles that are neither manipulative nor exploitative. Duncombe outlines what he considers to be the criteria for creating “ethical spectacles”:
“Our spectacles will be participatory: dreams the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire” he says. “And finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it.” These criteria will allow us to meet people where they are, he says, drawing on pre-existing desires and redirecting them toward a positive, more just world.
These lessons can easily be applied to media, and can serve as guidelines to activists as we to create media that is more compelling and effective. Some activists are already doing it. Duncombe cites innovative groups like Billionaires for Bush [link] and Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping [link] which package progressive ideas in satire and comedy. I would add to that other groups who integrate art and culture into their messaging, because culture has an innate ability to draw people in and to deepen our understanding of complex concepts. In terms of media, there are two lessons here. First, that visual art, poetry, and skillfully crafted prose belong right next to straightforward analysis in our journals and on our websites. Combining culture and politics was something that we prioritized with Clamor, and it set the magazine apart. And second, that we include interactive, participatory, and fun tools such as film, theater, or forums when developing our media and messaging strategies.
On Power; and Supporting Independent Media: Jhally
At the 2006 Rethinking Marxism conference in Massachusetts, activist and scholar Sut Jhally gave a brilliant talk on media and the Left. I first heard the speech on the KPFA Radio program Against the Grain [link]. One of the key points from the beginning of his talk is about power: “We believe that media issues are secondary to the real places where power operates… the Right of course, has learned this lesson very well. And the uses of media are central to their thinking about how to get and maintain power.” It’s an important prompt for me to remember to think about power when thinking about strategy.
Even as I think the words “taking power,” I feel a bit uncomfortable, because as radicals power is something bad that the government has and wields over people. This connects to Duncombe, who in Dream says: “Progressives worry about abuse of power before we have it, this is a sign of our reluctance to pursue it.”  When I asked Duncombe to expand on this point, he replied:
Power is scary. With it comes responsibility. As with leadership, if you don’t acknowledge that power is necessary then you won’t do anything about re-imagining it. I think leftists have gotten very comfortable being critics of power. Criticism on the road to power may be useful, but criticism by itself, in our day and age, is actually an attendant to dominant power. “Look,” the powers that be argue, “we have critics, that means you have freedom and democracy, right?” Criticism, by itself, is just self-serving politics: it makes the critic feel better about their non-compliance but changes nothing. Therefore I’m interested in moving past criticism and really thinking about what is necessary to win power. For without power you can’t change things. And I’m in this game to change the world, not just comment about how bad it all is.
A People Power analysis [link] however, asserts that power rests with people when they act to make change on their own behalf, instead of petitioning policymakers or elected officials to make change for them. So, how can media assist people and groups and movements in asserting their power?
Jhally goes on to talk not just about power, but about money, another difficult topic within radical communities. Here’s a transcription of a short portion of his talk:
Unfortunately there is little such commitment to media issues either institutionally or individually on the Left. For example, take a look at foundation funding and philanthropic funding. The endowments of Liberal foundations (I’ve got a very broad term of Liberal) such as the Ford Foundation far outweigh the resources of conservative foundations. Those resources are literally in the billions of dollars. But their funding of independent media is pitiful, partly because of the fetishism of wanting measurable short-term results. In fact, some Liberal foundations explicitly say that they will not fund media projects. When I see those words written, I say… How can we possibly think about social change if we in fact refuse to struggle around one of the central aspects where power is manifested which is in the symbolic realm. And before you agree with me too readily – this is the part that people are not going to like—let’s examine our individual media consumption as well. Independent media have been severely under-funded relative to how much individuals give to the corporate media. If you have cable, and I include myself in this when I think about where I spend my money, my media money, if you have cable or satellite TV or a connection to the internet, you are directly funding corporate media. People think nothing of spending $100 or more a month on cable and the internet. And yet independent media has to beg to get a few scraps. I just did the math on this. It’s sometimes really good to fantasize—fantasy is always a prerequisite for social change—Let’s presume you could get a million people on the Left to take media issues seriously. That’s actually, given that MoveOn has three and a half million members and a lot of other sites have membership in the millions, that is not an unreasonable thing. Let’s say you could get a million people to rethink their media consumption and their media expenditures. Let’s say you could get a million people to spend $100 a month on independent media. If you don’t have a calculator, I’ll do the math for you. That is 1.2 billion dollars. If we act together and if we make the media something that is central to how we think about politics, think of what that would make possible, and how we would aid progressive forces in this country. Why don’t we do that? Because media issues are still seen as secondary.”
I could spend some time dissecting the problems with foundation funding of media, and indeed I have done so in the past, calling attention to not only the record-keeping and reporting burden placed on grant recipients, but the nature of how grantmakers come to push and establish their own priorities instead of the priorities of social movements.. George Lakoff also criticizes foundations in Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (Chelsea Green, 2004) [link] by saying that progressive foundations give money with strings attached, focus on providing services and not duplicating what others are doing, while not prioritizing infrastructure or intellectual development .
Here, Jhally places the responsibility on individuals. One huge step toward creating and maintaining effective movement media is giving it our support, and the single most important action that we as individuals can take is to fund it with our hard-earned dollars, and fund it at the highest level we can. We need to see the media as ours, and not take for granted that it will always be there.
The Practical Level
Independent media in the U.S, particularly print media, has been in a state of flux for the past few years, moving out of a time of general growth and abundance between 1996-2005. Currently, several challenges face print magazines and newspapers, from rising paper and postage costs to the influence of the Internet and the changing habits of media consumers as well as the growing complexity of social movements within the U.S. While this could be viewed as a time of great hardship, it is also a time of great opportunity.
In 2007 I wrote a long analysis of my experience of working on Clamor Magazine, later released as a pamphlet by PM Press [link] in March 2008. In the pamphlet, I wrote about what specific things helped and hurt our organization. Since then, I have continued to be involved with independent publishing and have done a lot of writing about and talking with other media activists about what could help the movement grow.
Here, the most important question is: What can media producers do to strengthen the movement? Several ideas have emerged, and they vary from building infrastructure to developing leadership. What would really make a difference? This is a moment of true opportunity with the potential for innovation. Is there a new idea out there?
When I began writing this article, I called several independent publishers to ask about the challenges they are facing. What I discovered was that the one thing that would make the most difference is not a new idea at all. One of the conversations was with Debbie Rasmussen, publisher of Bitch Magazine [link]. We concluded that the most important step that the radical publishing community can take at this time is to create a formal organization that can pool people, knowledge, efforts, and money to solve these problems.
What would this look like? At once the answer is simple and it is not. The quick answer is that this would be the Independent Press Association. The IPA existed from 1996 to 2006, when it went out of business, pulling a lot of magazines down with it. But for the first several years of its existence, the IPA served to incubate many independent press titles, including Clamor and Bitch through their technical assistance, revolving loan fund, and fostering of community among publishers (a listserv, conferences, trainings, mentorship). These types of services are still desperately needed in the independent press community.
For a “new IPA” to work, it would need to focus on mission-driven magazines and publications, a characteristic of the original IPA that eroded over the years. This is an important criteria because the needs of mission-driven (or “movement”) media are completely different from those of capitalist or for-profit media.
A more formal association would help facilitate filling some of the needs, and provide impetus and space for media producers to come together in a focused and strategic way. Many producers already do come together at annual conferences like the Allied Media Conference or engage in informal mentorship or discussion, but this is not enough.
There are many reasons why a new association has not been formed. In part, this is due to many people getting burned when the IPA went out of business. Also, in a climate of scarcity, people hoard resources, from funding opportunities to technical and organizational innovations. This is a difficult climate in which to organize in the media world. However creating a new association would be a concrete step toward creating and maintaining stronger movement media.
- May 2008
Contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org