(This essay originally appeared in the second issue of Praxis, journal of the Red & Anarchist Action Network: Fall, 2003)
I watched as the older pacifist types, the open-eyed new comers, and the younger idealists of about fifteen aligned themselves with a "plus" and "minus" quadrant graph on the floor. Taped to the four sides of the wall were four "actions" that you had to align yourself with. On two opposite sides there were pieces of paper that asked if you thought that activity was violent or non-violent, and on the next set of walls, two pieces asking if you would do the action or not. I had gotten myself into another Ruckus Society style training session, and the question we were being asked to align ourselves with was whether or not we would destroy GMO (genetically-modified) crops that belonged to a large corporation. I got on the non-violent side, and then also aligned myself with "yes I would do the action", (a position that I maintained through the questions about the Boston Tea Party and property destruction).
Looking across the room, a few people had aligned themselves with the "violent, no I wouldn't do it", quadrant. The instructor asked them why they had placed themselves on that side of the room. "Well," said one older woman, "I just think that it would look really bad in the media. It would make the movement for getting rid of GMO crops look like a bunch of criminals". Thinking a bit about this statement, I then asked her, "and what if the media wasn't a factor? Would you then do the action?" She thought for a moment, "Well, yes, I guess I would".
So this person would be in favor of going into a field and destroying a whole acre - or more if possible - of someone else's things, a corporation's things, if it meant that the corporate media would not report about it on the news. This means that she also thought that the action was productive enough where she would want to be involved in it. In fact the only thing standing in her way was the anticipated reaction from corporate media, an entity that people on the left and in the post-leftist milieu have all supposedly come to the conclusion that they don't like! So why is it so important to everyone?
The Predicament as it Stands
Why are we so concerned about the transgression of the free market through mass mediums, and its perception of our various movements? People who are in favor of working with corporate media argue, "it reaches a wide audience, an audience that we don't have", something that activists, no matter what circles we work around, need to obtain. Just like public office, a lot of people think that this power and influence can work to our advantage. Many activists have come to the conclusion that a diversity of tactics must make way for forms of protesting and voicing dissent that will look good for the cameras. This will magically correlate through the mass corporate mediums to TV viewers everywhere, and then suddenly all will be well. But as capital becomes more homogenized in different forms of the neo-liberal agenda, and the state annexes more areas of our personal autonomy, we have to ask ourselves... isn't it time we ditch the corporate media that we all (with copies of Manufacturing Consent over our hearts) claim to hate so much?
Firstly you have to understand what drives the corporate media, and how that drive, its illusions, and the alienation it creates from real social interaction relates to the kind of world that we want to build. Profit-driven media survives in the marketplace based on how entertaining its programs are, or how well it can captivate an audience and keep them watching. If their program is able to get the viewers watching, then the company can sell advertising space to interested companies. To create an interesting program, programmers have to come up with stories that appear exciting to the viewer. Thus, it's not the actual threat of Laci Peterson's kidnapping and the question of whether or not kidnapping is becoming a social epidemic that drives the media to cover that case, but rather it's the market drive of the desired capital gain that Chandra Levy's disappearance created. It has got to grab the viewer for people to make money, and that's what these news companies do: they accumulate capital. Chandra Levy grabbed the attention of the nation, thus the corporate media will capture and exploit any tapering fascination with such triviality. As with most large entities in a market system, mass mediums controlled by powerful elites benefit pocketbooks, not community interests. Almost all people working on the left and post-left know this, and yet many of us believe that a key part of getting messages and ideas out to the public at large, especially at large demonstrations, will come through working with corporate mass-mediums and playing by their rules.
To give another example, at the recent Sacramento mobilization against GMO foods, many people weren't concerned with shutting down the meetings of the visiting delegates, (something that would actually have an impact on the people who were making those decisions that we disagreed with) but seemed more concerned about what message was going to go out to the corporate media. Although many organizers also created outreach programs and workshops for the public, and were able to educate a lot of people about GMO foods, the point of the demonstration for many activists still seemed to rest on media coverage. With many people's idea of a successful protest shifting from trying to destroy and dismantle power, to catering to the media, confrontations between activists that were actively trying to shut down the meetings and those with "media" goals in mind soon erupted.
What we need to know is that the corporate media isn't our friend, and doesn't work the way we want it to work. When we have these massive protests and demonstrations, when we try to disrupt business as usual, the media doesn't fucking care, and it's in their interest not to care. In the case of the Sacramento demonstrations, the corporate media spent more time covering how well prepared the police were for the protests, and if it would be "the next Seattle", then they did covering the issues at hand. Reporters referred to the activists as people who were "protesting the world food industry", in effect marginalizing the whole point of the mobilization. Some people would say that this could be blamed on protesters who were not presenting a message or image that the media could pick up on, or that "rowdiness" caused by some sections of the crowds had diverted from the cause of the mobilization. However, the fact remains that the media doesn't want to have a show on what GMO crops are, or on what BIOTECH is. It's just not on the agenda, because it isn't profitable.
Why would you waste your time having a story on farmers' plight when you could be covering Laci Peterson? The issues that we want to talk about, and the spectrum of issues we want to bring up, can't be discussed via sound bytes. During the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when (if ever) dissenting views did get onto the corporate media news and newspapers, we were either seen as hippies rehashing the 60's, or as pacifists parading around the concept of "baby killing" to frighten or guilt our view onto others. But many of the traditional protesters were so pleased when an article in the newspaper gave coverage to their marches, or showed people they mobilized standing on the corner, or in front of a billboard they had just paid to have put up, that they didn't care about how silly we seemed, how dumb and behind the times we looked to everyone; the movement was happy because we had made it in the paper. But where was the substance? We were flower children who were left out in the rain while the rest of the world went to pick up the pieces of post-September 11th. Where was our substance behind all the "No War" signs? There was none, but the usual suspects of activism were content that a "No Blood for Oil" banner had made it into the 4th page of the paper. Relying on the corporate media reduced us to the lowest common denominator, we were cut down into the easiest and most accessible (consumable) vision of what a person "working for peace" should be. Where did this get us? It got us to the point where when the war had started and suddenly the bombs were falling, there were only 10,000 of us in San Francisco who were marching in the rain, when before we had filled the streets with up to 200,000. The media marginalized us, and when they did that, all the people that were clinging to the anti-war movement because they saw it as the "give peace a chance" avenue, left when we needed numbers the most.
So then is that what we are holding back for? Holding back from really trying to shut down the things we know we have to stop? Holding back from creating real radical alternatives to the present system? Holding back from saying and acting in ways that we know we want to against the forces that are controlling us? For what? For a small bit in the 4th page, with a couple of quotes that we know we didn't really say? Is this getting us anywhere? We also have to ask ourselves, are we going to be able to build a movement to challenge power through the corporate media? The answer is obviously, no.
We understand the machinations of the media and the deterrence of dissent, but entrism in media is no different than entrance to the State. It is reformism, the participation in our own oppression. Just as much as the military and police forces, the mass media is the implicit organ of a hierarchal structure (the State) that benefits only those holding the reins.
Insurrection Without Boundaries
At an ANSWER rally in LA, the ISO Socialists started a chant of "The police work for us, the police belong to us!" However if the police truly were a channel of revolutionary power, perhaps we wouldn't have to sometimes throw Molotov cocktails at them in self-defense (or at the very least have militant wet dreams at the idea). The corporate media needs to be seen in the same light, because indifference towards mass media is possibly one of the most dangerous tendencies within the anti-authoritarian movement. Militancy is a revolutionary subjectivity to be theorized and practiced. We should decline the limits of our revolutionary scope to exclude mass media no more than we should decline our scope to exclude the State. Both are something to resist and abolish.
The channels of mass communication (IE news) are open, and have been for some time; Indymedia was the formal announcement of that much. Don't hate the media, become the media: get louder and louder, drowning out and abolishing its contradiction, the corporate media. We have created the alternatives and continue to maximize their use. It's time to sabotage capitalist media, and put in our own alternatives.
We need to be clear when we participate in large, militant demonstrations with the goal of being direct in our actions to halt, prevent, or stop something, that the corporate media is not to be worked with. As far as media goes, we need to do outreach and education in our own communities, not only on the shortcomings of corporate media, but also on the alternatives of Indymedia. Before major actions, campaigns, or other endeavors, it is important to build up a basis of community knowledge to the issues that you are working around. Teach-ins, workshops, film showings, and speakers are all good tactics, and will help you build up the base for your support. Alternative media then, like Independent Media Centers, can be used as a starting point for activists and a questioning public to come and learn and create.
...Also a Creative Urge
When it is time to hit the streets, we need to be aware of the danger in which the corporate media puts us. They can give information to the cops about what we are doing, they can misuse information to make us look bad and to get better ratings, (no matter if we are breaking windows, or dancing around naked) and they can very easily cloud or distract from the major goals of a demonstration. When one is engaged in these types of activities, don't go out of your way to talk to the corporate media. If they approach you, either direct them to someone who specializes in talking to them, or just feed them disinformation until they go away. If you are marching, demonstrating, or doing any sort of direct action, it would be wise to avoid the media - consider them to be police. The police are more concerned with protecting private property and powerful officials than they are with protecting actual people. With media, not only are they more concerned with covering the side of the story holding the power and wealth, but also the very system under which they operate is driven by free market ambitions and the race for sponsorship. Consider the media as a monolith of established capitalism, and an obstacle to its superseding.
If you are engaging in direct action, then it might be to your advantage to plan actions with your affinity group (or by yourself) that involve disconnecting cable cords, destroying news equipment, or misdirecting reporters; the less they know, they more they can't screw you over. While this is going on, we also need to be helping out Indymedia workers and alternative news providers. It is important to keep in mind that we've created something, a self-managed media, and only by destroying its opposite can we afford ourselves more room to develop this new medium.
We have to be honest with ourselves; we know we don't want their world. We don't want a society that favors competition and not cooperation; we know we don't want a society that isn't sustainable, a society where communities have lost all autonomy and wield no control over their futures. We know that we all want radical change from the established norms, but how we get there seems to be the subject of a large debate within our movement, and because of that many of us have chosen to work with the corporate media. It is often said that the master's tools will not destroy him. While this may be true, let's keep in mind the power of our own tools, and what we have to work with. What we have is a vibrant and ever-changing underground of resistance, thought, and action; what we have is an alternative. Since we know the kind of world that we want to live in, let's stop using the old and hollow artifacts of this one. It's time to stand up and show the established powers that not only do we not agree with what they are doing, but will we stop them from consolidating more power, and implement within our communities the kind of alternatives we want to see.