Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Media Notes #2: Alternative media are rooted in a critique of the mainstream," June 18, 2007.

If alternative media are rooted in a critique of the mainstream, what is our critique? I can try to verbalize my own critique. I can note criticisms that have been made by others. To quote Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism," persistent verbalizing may even enable me to speak “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.” But that's about it.

Last week, Bill Metcalfe and I launched an appeal for discussion of Canadian public affairs reporting as a follow-up to the Forum on Independent Media during the week of our membership drive.

An individual can contribute meaningfully to the public discourse, but the depth and breadth of our critique is multiplied when like-minded people work together.

My hope, and the hope of an increasing number of us at Kootenay Co-op Radio, is that this will be a start and others will come along who add their own narrative and viewpoint--their own ideas and abilities to create a picture that will become increasingly complete, balanced, and accurate.

As I touched upon last week, it is no simple matter to decide what we call ourselves or for that matter what we call them. Is it possible—or even desirable—to avoid the us-and-them mentality without setting ourselves up to be appropriated?

Where can we find out what is really going on? Gave rise first to opposition publications of which the best, in my opinion, was "IF Stone's Weekly." The New Republic, The Nation, eventually Ramparts Magazine, and later in that period, the New York Review of Books proved to be good sources of reliable information critical of the American administration running the Vietnam War.

Using a different business model, and more radical content, the Village Voice was a free weekly started in 1955 during the beatnik era. Today, it generally takes the adjective “alternative,” which I continue to use as one of the live options for what we do here at KCR. But my sense of it is that it no longer fits the needs of the day.

In 1965, as the Vietnam war continued to escalate its way into public consciousness, the Los Angeles Free Press (aka “the Freep”) and the East Village Other (or EVO), established themselves as pillars of the so-called underground newspaper movement. The best known Canadian example is Vancouver's Georgia Straight. These embraced content that was simply outside the range of conventional corporate media: the anti-Vietnam protest movement, Black Power, satire, revolutionary politics including the sexual revolution, popular music, police brutality, drugs, and adult cartoons.

A style of journalism known as The New Journalism used literary techniques and challenged conventional ideas about objectivity. By and by, what you are calling new ages and the epithet no longer fits. New journalism evolved into what today is known as “creative non-fiction” and is more often used in the writing of books than in journalism. Rita Moir and Don Gayton are both award-winning Kootenay residents in this genre.

Probably, creative non-fiction would no longer be described as “alternative.” In the 500 channel universe, in fact, what would not qualify as “alternative?” Newsworld is an alternative to CBC main channel. CPAC is an alternative to Much Music or TSN. What about Bravo Channel? Or APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network?

One KCR listener suggested after hearing last week's segment that “aggressive” journalism would be a good description for what we should aspire to. More than once it has crossed my mind that the real news--information with credibility and weight--is most often brought to us by people who are either not journalists at all or by journalists whose method is to discover gaps in the wall of PR that prevents us from learning the truth.

How then do we describe the news organizations that have let us down? Corporate concentration is more of a problem in Canada than it is in the US because of the much smaller audience and the competition from the US. But to address only the corporate media would seem to leave out the CBC which is probably the most important feature of the Canadian newsscape.

Commercial is an appealing epithet that would allow us to distinguish between CBC Radio and Radio Canada which operate without advertising and CBC-TV does not. But KCR has its sponsorships and yet we operate according to a model that is clearly different from that of commercial radio and TV, to say nothing of the print media. Are they mainstream? Or establishment?

I hope in the days to come that we will hear more from KCR programmers, volunteers, members, and listeners from stations where our programming is syndicated like Prince George, Nanaimo, San Diego, and Wasau, Wisconsin. I hope you're still out there Mike.

This morning, I want to continue a critique of the Canadian mainstream by beginning to identifying stories that signify a media failure of some kind. But first, to clarify what I am not talking about--I am not talking just about spin or bias or balance.

Spin is a metaphor which implies that while everyone has thrown the ball, each pitcher has a different style, i.e., tells the story a different way. Say Condoleeza Rice visits Ottawa. The National Post will emphasize different quotations and values than the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star or CBC's The National. But they will all report on it. They all throw the ball.

Media failure suggests a less optimistic view. Take for example the story we might call “Canada Abandons Peacekeeping.” Back in the spring of 2006, World Report did a two part series called “Should Canada return to peacekeeping?”

This was a ball that those I will for the time being call the Canadian mainstream simply didn't pitch. Forget about spin. Forget about balance. Forget about slant. There was no national debate. There was no opportunity created by our national media to educate us about what was happening or why. There was a blip of a story and it was gone.

The World Report series explaining Canada's drift away from peacekeeping may provide a clue to this behaviour—or lack of it. Part one was about the Somalia affair, an incident so distressing to Canadians that the squeaky clean establishment wants passionately to put it as far out of sight as simple denial will allow. Part two was about the Rwandan genocide.

What an emotionally laden story!

Some events are so intense, troubling and sensitively positioned within the way we describe our world that the corporate media is poorly adapted to tell the whole story. The assassination of John F Kennedy and the events of September 11, 2001 come to mind. In Israel, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has given rise to what we colloquially call conspiracy theories expressing a substantial feeling that the official version is incomplete or wrong. Litvenenko's recent theories about Putin and the Russian Federation appear to fall in this class. Where the media fails, vigilante research and popular mythmaking take over to fill the gap.

It may be that the story about Canada's withdrawal from traditional Pearsonian peacekeeping simply contained too much Canadian shame and humiliation for the press corps to handle. But no conspiracy theory that I know of has emerged to compensate.

Canada did participate in international efforts to learn the lessons of those painful events. One result was a document called “The responsibility to protect” which articulates a doctrine the Americans, among others, reject. Discussion of the difficult events took place unreported in high-level international meetings, if at all.

Another aspect of the media failure associated with the end of Canada's commitment to peacekeeping is suggested by this excerpt from World Report's story on January 3, 2005. See if you can get the feel of those days.

This week, the Sumatra earthquake and the mayhem wrought by tsunamis in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia and half a dozen other countries in the region dominated the news.

We are mesmerized by it.

The South Asian Tsunami bumped Darfur and Haiti off the news at just the time when Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo were about to find their way onto our crowded information agenda.

Before that what we still call the Iraq war put some earlier concerns onto the back burner. Those events, still on the back burner, include the ongoing distemper in Israel and Palestine and what with the 20/20 of hindsight looks more and more like repeated attempts by United States government-funded NGOs to bring down the democratically elected government of Venezuela.

Some of these stories faded to backpage insignificance; others were not reported in the Canadian newsplace to begin with.

And before that just as the African continent was about to emerge from nearly a decade of neglect--AIDS, malaria, crushing debt, child soldiers, human trafficking, rapacious neo-colonial exploitation of coltan and blood diamonds and deep-sea oil, long-running conflicts in Angola, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and the one called at the time the world's worst war in the Democratic Republic of Congo--then 911 came along and suddenly all the news was about Afghanistan.

Remember Afghanistan?

In those days Canadians just barely did remember Afghanistan. It had been replaced by the war in Iraq. Our troops were still in Kabul on a mission that looked a lot like peacekeeping. When the deployment to Kandahar Province came a year later, there was a flood of Canadian media coverage. But in 2005, Peter Mansbridge did one interview with General Rick Hillier just to get ready. Peacekeeping was not news. Never was. Still isn't. War is news.

For our critique, file “Canada Abandons Peacekeeping” under the heading called “the definition of news.”

So this critique begins with the very foundations. An inadequate definition of news. As we continue we'll see more of the foundation is weak or rotten or non-existent.

Digg This

Recommend this Post

Sphere: Related Content