CRITICAL SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND MEDIA REFORM

Democracy has never been a gift handed down from elites.  It is a hard-won prize, perennially threatened by attempts at economic, cultural and political enclosure, as in the commodification of biogenetic knowledge, the concentration of media ownership and control and the securitization of the state (McNally 2002).   Whether defined around gendered, ethnic, national, class, environmental or other interests, social movements have long been the carriers of liberatory social change. Critical social movements (CSMs) – movements committed to empowerment of the marginalized, movements that challenge the hegemonies of dominant groups and institutions – are key to revitalizing democracy today.  The work of CSMs benefits millions of citizens, who are not members and may not even be aware of the work of the labor movement or of various NGOs active on human rights issues.   Without doubt, the struggle for communication rights is one of the most important democratizing struggles of the current era.  Given the pivotal role mass media play in shaping public issues and consciousness, the struggle to democratize communication influences the outcome of a wide range of political, social and economic issues – from local urban development to war.

Indeed, the fate of CSMs is intertwined with, and partly determined by, the institutions and practices of public communication that constitute so much of our cultural environment.  As Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993) point out, CSMs need access to public communication for at least three reasons:

  • To mobilize politically – to attract wide support –  CSMs must gainstanding  — visibility – in the public domain.  They must define issues, name problems, and offer solutions in ways that connect personal experience and public discourse.  “Media discourse remains indispensable for most movements because most of the people they wish to reach are part of the mass media gallery, while many are missed by movement-oriented outlets”  (Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993: 116).
  • Beyond getting coverage, CSMs need to achieve some measure ofvalidation within mainstream news discourse.  This means establishing that the movement is a relevant and influential actor, and implies that the content of coverage is not so negative as to trivialize or otherwise torpedo the movement’s political project.  With validation, a movement’s framing of political reality gains credibility; the movement comes to influence public consciousness.
  • Finally, CSMs need mainstream media as a vehicle forbroadening the scope of conflict, in their efforts to alter the balance of power by bringing in sympathetic third parties.  Such potential allies are often accessed through the increasingly global communicative networks that mass media subtend.  For example, in the 1990s Greenpeace waged a struggle against forest practices in British Columbia, largely through attracting sympathetic coverage in European media, which helped build a consumer boycott in Europe that pressured for change in the far west reaches of Canada.

Media, of course, are more than conduits for the messages of movements. They are major forces in constituting the broad contours of political culture (e.g. consumerism, spectatorship and celebrity vs. civic engagement) which is the context for the democratizing efforts of CSMs  (Hackett, 1991). Media and movements enter into a relationship which influences the trajectory of CSMs at every stage, from emergence through maintenance (or dissipation), to possible success or failure (however that is defined).  But the relationship is asymmetrical. Because CSMs greatly need media to help them mobilize, and to validate their standing, while news organizations are less dependent on movements for the stories they feature, media have the upper hand (Gamson and Wolfsfeld, 1993).  CSMs may make good copy; but media have a choice of many alternative story providers.  Few media beats focus on social movement organizations (SMOs), and the gap is widened by subcultural differences: journalists are not infrequently politically cynical, activists are often righteous.  The fall of the righteous is a favorite media story.

Although the term “information society” is by now several decades old, in the last 10-15 years media ecology has shifted in ways that are transforming the relationship between media and movements, giving CSMs new resources and incentives to engage in media democratization.  By media democratization we mean media-oriented activism that expands the range of voices accessed through the media, builds an egalitarian and participatory public sphere, promotes the values and practices of sustainable democracy outside the media, and/or within the media, and offsets the political and economic inequalities found elsewhere in the social system.

The rise of the Internet has been a boon to CSM mobilizing, enabling movements to reach existing constituencies, and perhaps to reach out to new potential supporters, without having to depend on corporate mass media.  The Net has also made more activists in various CSMs media-savvy, at least in terms of technological skills.  There is now less of a gap than in the 1970s, between alternative media producers, and (other) political activists (Downing et al., 2002, p. 206).  However, while the digital revolution makes it easier and cheaper for CSMs to produce their own media, it is doubtful that the Net has shifted the balance of power between the forces of neo-liberal globalization and the popular resistance offered by CSMs.   Communications infrastructure, after all, has helped make the current drive of corporate globalization possible.  Today the dominant media corporations are arguably more cohesive, as influential over public agendas, and more resistant to progressive social movements that challenge core corporate interests, than they were during the 1960s era .  Media institutions have become bulwarks of global capitalism not only ideologically, but also economically.  The growth of transnational multi-media conglomerates through mergers and global joint ventures, the technological convergence between once-separate media sectors, the development of global markets in most media industries, the spread and intensification of commercialization and the decline of public broadcasting, the erosion of the ‘public service’ ethos in journalism, the growth and consolidation of the advertising industry, the development of communication technology spurred by business demand for the best global communications networks possible all confirm a consolidation of corporate power in the field of mass communication (Herman and McChesney, 1997, chap. 1).

In short, CSMs challenging the environmental, military, social or economic consequences of global corporatization have a dual reason for taking on the project of media democratization.  For each movement, democratization of mass media is a means of getting the message out, a way of improving standing while enabling the movement to have its own definition of the situation featured rather than marginalized.  But beyond this immediately pragmatic impact, media democratization must be seen as integral to any radically democratic politics. This is so because media corporations are part of the system that CSMs are challenging.

In our research on activism around media democratization in North America and Britain, we have found it useful to distinguish four major strands of praxis, each with distinct forms of action, organization, and sites of intervention (Hackett, 2000, pp. 70-71).

  • influencingcontent and practices of mainstream media —  e.g., finding openings for oppositional voices, media monitoring, campaigns to change specific aspects of representation;
  • advocating forreform of government policy/regulation of media in order to change the very structure of media institutions — e.g., media reform coalitions;
  • buildingindependent, democratic and participatory media — alternative media and support services to give voice to the marginalized, thereby opening new channels of communication independent of state and corporate control;
  • changing therelationship between audiences and media, chiefly by empowering audiences to be more critical of hegemonic media — e.g., media education and culture jamming.

The first two approaches are broadly directed at existing hegemonic institutions; the latter two seek to build or nurture counter-hegemonic media practices and sensibilities.  It has been striking how many of our respondents seem to priorize either the first two or last two of these.  This suggests a certain division of labor, and perhaps of political style, within the field of media activism (See Carroll and Hackett, 2003).

Although the Left has engaged in several of these forms of media democratization as a by-product of its politics, unlike the neoliberal Right it has not identified the media as such as a site of political struggle.  The situation appears to be changing, but to date the North American Left has not taken the question of structural media reform seriously.  In our estimation, there are several reasons for this blind spot.  Since the 1970s some on the Left have accepted a naive McLuhanism: a reduction of media to the communications technologies that are supposedly creating an electronic global village.  In this perspective, media automatically carry positive transformative potential, and their nondemocratic institutional structuring is not considered.  At the other end of the spectrum has been a revolutionary rejectionism, grounded in the notion that media (or any other) reform implies some inherently cooptative engagement with the existing political system.  There have also been the strength of the libertarian and do-it-yourself traditions (and a near total absence of social democratic currents) in US Left politics, and in Canada a complacency about the need for structural reform – so long as the CBC remained a viable state-funded public broadcaster, cultural producers received meaningful public subsidies, and some degree of diversity“competition” could be said to exist among the corporate media.  Finally, some organizations on the Left have been able, by narrowing their focus and focusing on specific reforms, to do well for themselves in existing media, gaining an advantageous profile for themselves.  As one media activist pointed out to us, relatively well-resourced groups such as labor unions pour millions of dollars into their advertising campaigns, and thus into the coffers of the corporate media, while projects for media democracy remain chronically under-financed and barely visible in the public eye.

To be sure, CSMs have engaged with media as a by-product of their political activity, typically in one of two ways:

  1. a)    by reducing the asymmetry of their relationship with dominant media – by developing the organization, professionalism and strategic communication planning that increases the chances of favorable media coverage; and
  2. b)   by reducing the dependency on dominant media, by creating their own alternative media. Both of these approaches take considerable resources, and may divert SMOs from their original primary objectives.  More generally, as Gitlin has noted,

an oppositional movement is caught in a fundamental and inescapable dilemma.  If it stands outside the dominant realm of discourse, it is liable to be consigned to marginality and political irrelevance; its issues are domesticated, its deeper challenge to the social order sealed off, trivialized and contained.  If, on the other hand, it plays by conventional political rules in order to acquire…credibility…it is liable to be assimilated into the hegemonic political world view (1980, pp. 290-1).

But in posing the dilemma this way, Gitlin, and CSMMSs up to now, have simply accepted the structure of media as an obdurate part of the environment of social activism.  Democratic media activism raises another possibility – the transformation of media themselves as an alternative to each CSM’s lonely struggle to adapt itself to an inherently unfavorable media terrain.  To realize this possibility, democratic media reform needs to be recast as an end in itself –a public good – not simply a means by which each movement can get its message out.  We can distinguish three basic layers of a constituency for such a movement:

  1. Specialized groups working with media technologies and/or within media industries – e.g. journalists, producers of alternative media, librarians.  Their work may lead to experiences of alienation or exploitation as they live the contradiction between profit and creativity, and/or to resentment against their marginal status and the devaluation of their claims to professionalism.
  2. Subordinate social groups outside media, whose lack of economic or cultural capital is paralleled in the media’s ‘machinery of representation’, media representations which excludes their issues, identities and standpoints.
  3. More diffuse social interests that may mobilize around media sporadically, when hyper-commercialized or centralized communications processes poset a threat to humane and democratic values – e.g. parents concerned about media’s impact on socialization of the young; progressive religious groups concerned with media undermining values of solidarity, respect for the Other, and inclusion of the poor and disenfranchised.

Although at a given time the second and third layers of the constituency may have grievances more pressing than those having to do with media per se, Robert McChesney’s strategic advice is in our view worth heeding: “regardless of what a progressive group’s first issue of importance is, its second issue should be media and communication, because so long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible, across the board”  (1997, p. 71).

There are definite signs that since 1996 the momentum for democratic media reform has been picking up.  In the U.S., that year marked the launching of the Cultural Environment Movement (CEM) by communications scholar George Gerbner and his associates, and the first of two national Media & Democracy Congresses. [[ M&D Congresses convention. NEED A SENTENCE HERE ]]  These groupings did not endure as organizations, but they graphically demonstrated the wide potential constituency for media reform – independent media producers, media workers, unions, parents, educators and researchers, environmentalists, feminists and gay rights activists, faith communities, ethnic minorities.  More recent evidence of qualitative upturn in momentum in the US can be seen in the grassroots campaign by a coalition of left and right to reverse the FCC’s liberalization of media ownership ceilings.  In September 2003, hundreds of thousands of people from across the political spectrum flooded the FCC and Congress with phone calls and petitions, making media concentration reportedly the second most active issue on Capitol Hill, behind only the Iraq war (Beckerman 2003).

Behind this upsurge are several factors –amongst millions of progressively-minded Americans, outrage at the perceived collusion of corporate media with the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign leading up to the Iraq invasion; and across the political spectrum, dismay at the loss of local programming in radio particularly, as a result of the rapid expansion of chain ownership since the 1996 Communications Act.  The national Media Reform conference held in Madison, Wisconsin on Nov. 7-9, 2003 /03 offers a window on what seems to be happening on the ground.  Organized by Free Press (whose founders include McChesney and journalist John Nichols), the conference far exceeded its predecessors (CEM, Media and DemocracyD Congress) in terms of numbers and positive, if angry, energy.  Based on Hackett’s attendance, hHere are some observations on what went on:

As we emphasized above, constructing a collective action frame, and a collective identity, has proven to be a more difficult challenge for media reformers, compared to other CSMs.  This may be because ‘media reformer’ does not itself constitute a deeply held or resonant identity (by contrast with, say, environmentalism, which for many exudes a philosophical outlook and way of life).  Backed apparently by strategic, focus-group research, which showed that concepts focusing on media accountability (e.g. “taking back the airwaves”) had little resonance with the broad public, organizers of the Media Reform evidently conference recognized the need for collective-action frames that connect with deeply held values and identities in American political culture.  Three such frames seemed in play at the conference:

  1. amainstream frame, apparently intended to appeal to Americans in general, linking media reform to the foundational American value of freedom – the First Amendment; the founding fathers; suspicion of government, and the need for an independent, diverse press to act as a watchdog on the abuse of government power. This frame frame was articulated by some of the ‘star’ speakers such as Bill Moyers of PBS.

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