Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Journalism: from above or from below?

marjorie says...

In my most recent post I commented on an excerpt from a Zapatista communiqué back in 1994, that I ran across while reading an essay on the Narco News website. Now, let me backtrack to the actual article that I was reading. The Narco News Bulletin is the brainchild of Al Giordano, a highly verbose, intelligent and funny man who holds high the banner of what he calls ‘authentic journalism’, and what many of us call independent or alternative media. The article by Giordano that I was reading yesterday was about the launch of Telesur, the new Latin American Television Network located in Caracas, which is publicly funded by 4 Countries: Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina, and Cuba. Telesur is historic - a regional television network totally funded by public dollars, that has great potential for democratizing media in Latin America.

Giordano places Telesur in the context of ‘authentic journalism’, that is, journalism from the people, or ‘from below’. He leads into a discussion about the relationship between Venezuelan private media and Hugo Chavez with these incredibly insightful words about media for profit:

“Part of the Commercial Media’s self-perpetuating and profitable mission is to mask how powerful it really is. The rise of media as the seat of power was a silent coup, unspoken, unseen. In place of reporting that story – indeed the most significant story of the late 20th century in terms of its impact on people’s daily lives – its “journalists” kept telling us that we had governments, elections, that we could choose the men in power. After all, election campaigns are very profitable for media companies, the primary beneficiaries of all that advertising. It’s the perfect con. It maintains the public illusion that we live in “democracies” and can choose who makes decisions for us.

“And since things often go awry, the media provides a never-ending list of scapegoats to point the finger at, including elected officials, who simply get replaced by another elected official, who promises “change,” and only those who can raise buckets of money (that is to say, who serve the interests of those who have it) can get near the microphone and have a chance at competing. The golden rule of this con is that presidents can come and go, governments can change hands from one party to another, as long as none of these cowards confront the economic powers of which Commercial Media is gatekeeper.”

He goes on to deliver a concise description of how Hugo Chavez just didn’t play the media game as usual in Venezuela, leading to the active participation of big media in the coup of April 2002. It was incredibly obvious at the time. I remember it clearly because I was receiving a detailed play by play in my living room as the action unfolded.

Giordano is interested in definitions, he wants to know how we define ‘authentic journalism’ - and he wants the conversation to be taken up on Telesur, so that it is out on the table. Will it be journalism from above, or journalism from below? He orients this question in the context of social movements:

The heat generated from Telesur’s opponents (that is to say, from Hugo Chávez’s and Fidel Castro’s opponents), like much of what the Commercial Media focuses upon, can be blinding. Usually, that is its intent. The story below the surface, though, in the Bolivarian project of Latin American unity that marks Telesur and that Chávez has long advocated, is that there is a thriving discussion going on among and between social movements (including the Authentic Journalism movement) about whether the future of the hemisphere is a matter to be settled by seizing existing power (from above) or by constructing it anew (from below). It is a debate that rages everywhere… in Bolivia, in Ecuador, and currently with particular passion in Mexico…”

“The Commercial Media does not televise (or even write about) the debate between “from above” and “from below.” And it never will. Better said, it cannot, because the debate cuts too close to home. For this is the dialectic at the core of Journalism’s Civil War: do we seize “media from above” by trying to land a job at the New York Times or CNN? In order to do that, there are so many compromises to make, especially “the bottom line” in which those media exist to make profits for its owners. And that rule alone brings an entire swathe of priorities – the targeting of consumers with expendable cash, which is to say, not the majority of the people – because that’s what advertisers pay to reach. When Media is commercial, the game is fixed.”

This discussion brings to mind the concept of the Guerilla in the Bureaucracy -- that person who chooses to work from within existing structures to affect social change. For myself, I am really glad there are such folks. But I worry that the system can’t be changed from within, and that eventually these fine folks will be ground down by it so much, or so caught up in it, even co-opted by it, that they will lose sight of the real goal, which is justice for all people -- social, economic, and environmental. Similarly, a relentless focus on the electoral arena as the path to power can create myopia, limiting our ability to see how we can build broad social justice movements in the states.

Anyhow, Giordano's essay is lengthy but worth the read. In addition to media analysis in the context of Venezuela, he provides extensive commentary about how successful Zapatista media efforts have been, through radio as well as their famous communiqués.