Many forms of politically engaged journalism have arisen to fight social injustices in the course of U.S. history: the radical pamphlets by Thomas Paine that helped incite a revolutionary uprising against British rule; the muckraking reporting of Upton Sinclair that exposed inhumane conditions in the Chicago stockyards; the investigation of the Standard Oil Company by Ida Tarbell; Dorothy Day’s prophetic reporting on the injustice of poverty in her groundbreaking Catholic Worker newspaper; the attacks on municipal corruption by Lincoln Steffens; the exposé of the profiteering funeral industry by Jessica Mitford; the no-holds-barred struggle with the war machine waged by the underground press of the 1960s. These and other crusading journalists have left us an inspiring historic legacy of morally charged, politically engaged reporting. They were all socially conscious writers who, in varying ways, practiced “justice journalism.”
As the editor of The Liberator from 1831-1865, William Lloyd Garrison was one of the most inspiring figures in the history of American journalism. (See sidebar.) But today, this celebrated journalist would be considered beyond the pale for his countless violations of the prevailing ethos of so-called objective reporting, which has declared that participatory journalism and radical activism are entirely off limits to journalists.
Garrison, a fiery abolitionist editor, was a radical, a rebel, an agitator, an enemy of the state, and a jailed subversive. Garrison declared uncompromising war on the American system of slavery decades earlier than his contemporaries; for his foresight, he was condemned as seditious by government officials, locked up in jail, sued by slave-ship owners, targeted by assassination threats, and assaulted by lynch mobs enraged at his uncompromising demands for immediate freedom for all those enslaved in a supposedly free land.
|An indymedia journalist documents a July 28, 2001 protest against the San Francisco Chronicle.
In contrast to Garrison’s vision of the journalist as the agent of social change, today’s major publishers and editors have imposed a narrow code of conformity and neutrality that has stilled the social consciences of all too many journalists and turned them into mere stenographers for the powers that be. The voices of dissent and outspoken critique have largely been silenced, in favor of so-called objective reporting that, for all its avowed neutrality, seems always to uphold the established order. Journalism schools, by and large, are in lockstep with the corporate vision of safe, sanitized, sideline-sitting reporting and rarely teach the justice journalism of the past with an eye towards inspiring students.
The increasingly homogenized world view packaged by the corporate press has triggered an upsurge in new, independent forms of journalism and has forced maverick media groups to take the news into their own hands. The quenched spirit of muckraking journalism has been reborn at the barricades of anti-globalization protests, and has reappeared on street corners and in homeless shelters across the country. Today, an outspoken brand of justice journalism lives on in the passionate experiments in media activism by the Independent Media Centers, and in the insurgent reporting on poverty and economic inequality carried out by a coast-to-coast network of homeless newspapers.
Going Against the Grain
“There’s room and there’s enormous need for independent, committed, idealistic journalism,” says media critic Norman Solomon, the author of The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media, adding that it has “never been easy to go against the grain” for journalists who engage in advocacy or participatory reporting.
“It’s a challenge to get an alternative voice in the media,” Solomon says. “The obstacles are there, and the closer to home the stories are, the greater the obstacles. If we’re to deal with the real-estate interests of San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, the daily newspapers are very respectful of large real-estate interests, and the drive to maximize profit tends to be much more important to newspaper owners and top editors than human rights for everyone at home.”
As one important example of journalists “who are breaking down the dichotomies between media and social activism,” Solomon points to the Independent Media Centers which began sprouting up in Seattle and Washington, D.C. to provide independent, grass-roots coverage of the growing movement to resist the global power of undemocratic corporations. “It’s in contrast to the prevalent mainstream media’s tacit assumption that if you believe in corporate power–or don’t believe in anything–that makes you a reliable journalist,” he says.
The violent police attacks on independent journalists covering the July protests of globalization in Genoa, Italy, show that radical journalists who confront the injustices of the dominant order sometimes suffer the same persecution meted out to activists. “I think it’s very significant, because both activists and independent journalists can really threaten the corporate power structure,” Solomon says.
Lisa Sousa, a volunteer for San Francisco’s Independent Media Center (IMC) and former staff person at Media Alliance, agrees with Solomon’s assessment of the significance of police attacks on IMC journalists. “The brutality against independent journalists in Genoa, Italy, shows how dangerous it is to get the truth out there,” she says. Sousa journeyed to Quebec to cover the protests surrounding the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in April 2001. “When the police are beating you and shooting bullets at you while you are reporting, and trashing your office and confiscating your vidoetapes, it becomes clear that independent journalism is activism, no doubt about it.”
For their part, IMC media activists often see themselves as an integral part of the broader movement for social change and are quite consciously and deliberately “blurring the line between activism and news,” she says.
Sousa agrees with many of today’s younger generation of media democracy activists who have challenged the corporate definitions of objective journalism. The watchwords of this younger generation might be: The Emperor has no objectivity. Objective journalism is a “huge myth,” Sousa says. “Big corporations are definitely not objective; they have too many financial interests at stake. At least money doesn’t drive what indymedia reports.”
Jeff Perlstein, now a Bay Area social justice organizer, co-founded the original Independent Media Center in Seattle in the weeks preceding the World Trade Organization protests in November 1999. “I think the most vital aspect of the IMC is that it reclaims media for the general population,” Perlstein says.
The IMC seeks to create a vibrant space for public outcry, akin to the Democracy Wall created by China’s dissidents; in Seattle, it was a democracy wall in cyberspace with links to activist resources. Media activists have placed the IMCs right at the center of mass protests, to foster engagement and cross-fertilization between activist movements and independent journalists.
Perlstein likens advocacy journalism to Bertolt Brecht’s adage that art is not just the mirror that reflects reality, but the hammer with which to shape it. “The best of advocacy journalism substitutes media for art as a tool for changing reality and influencing opinion,” he says. “But this cuts both ways. [Advocacy journalism] is not just something the left does. This is also what the corporate media do. They’re advocating a world view based on corporate dominance and hegemony.”
Noting that a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting showed that Fox TV news had several Republican commentators for every one Democrat, Perlstein comments, “This is advocacy reporting from the right wing. It’s ‘objective’ if it’s from the center or the right, but it’s ‘advocacy journalism’ if it’s anything left of center.”
As the IMCs attempt to foster media democracy in cyberspace, a parallel democracy movement in newsprint has given rise to grass-roots homeless newspapers in scores of major cities throughout America, Canada, and Europe. This street newspaper movement has embraced the legacy of participatory journalism by encouraging homeless people and activists to write first-hand news accounts of the nearly invisible world of poverty and human rights violations that go largely unreported in the corporate-controlled press.
Reporters for street publications now author front-line dispatches from the little-known waystations of poverty seldom visited by mainstream journalists–slum hotels, homeless shelters, welfare offices, and the rough streets where police criminalize the very poor. While the mainstream media stereotype and editorially attack homeless people as a detriment to downtown commerce and tourism, homeless advocates speak up and fight back through a coast-to-coast network of grass-roots, populist newspapers.
Chance Martin, the editor of the Coalition on Homelessness publication Street Sheet, deplores the current state of objective journalism. “I think it’s an intentional effort to maintain the status quo,” says Martin. “I think that the thing that frightens the mainstream media most in this country right now is any opinion or voice that is outside the norm.” As a working journalist who studies the coverage of homeless issues by San Francisco’s major newspapers and television stations, Martin disputes their objectivity: “There’s a definite bias there,” he says. “It’s definitely slanted.
“We see people with real legitimate causes, like Act Up activists trying to get more money for AIDS research, or homeless activists trying to get more money for housing, or antiwar activists fighting against Star Wars, and the mainstream media categorizes them as fringe, as dangerous, as violent, and as people that the younger generation shouldn’t emulate or even associate with. One thing coming out of this anti-capitalist movement that’s really encouraging is that there’s a generation creating a new media. And it’s needed, because the commercial media has mortgaged its soul to the bottom line.”
Martin defends the practice of advocacy and participatory journalism, saying it comes down to the fundamental question of whether a person must forsake his or her conscience in order to be a reporter. “I don’t think that being a journalist means I have to suspend my knowledge of the difference between right and wrong,” he says.
Ken Moshesh, a street journalist for Poor Magazine, has leapt over more of the barriers between journalism and activism than perhaps any other reporter. A homeless resident of Berkeley, Moshesh was arrested repeatedly by University of California police for illegal lodging. A skilled journalist, Moshesh reported on his arrests and subsequent court trials for Poor News Network, but also played a leading role in a protest campaign at Berkeley City Hall and waged a court fight that overturned the lodging law.
Moshesh publicized his court fight in the major media, but he decided it was vital to report in his own voice in the homeless press. Moshesh says that because homeless people’s experiences are not considered newsworthy, they are not invited by the mainstream press to report on what happens to their lives as a direct result of repressive laws set in motion by government officials to criminalize poverty. Moshesh points to the lack of media democracy as causing a blindness that perpetuates homelessness. “This is supposed to be a democracy for all of the people,” he says. “In order for that to happen, representatives from all of the people have to have a voice, so that some of the people won’t be able to monopolize the news in such a way that other people are completely left without a voice.”
Tim Redmond, executive editor of the Bay Guardian, told MediaFile that participatory journalism is “a part of the history of American journalism, and a very noble part.”
Redmond says that the Guardian’s editor and publisher are very active in freedom of information act issues and the campaign for public power. For reporters, however, the rules on participatory journalism do not seem as clear. “It’s always a gray line,” Redmond says. “Our reporters are also citizens and members of society. We don’t tell them that they can’t be active. However, we do say that people should not be involved in organizations or political campaigns that would appear to be a conflict of interest.”
In Redmond’s analysis, a lot of the excitement and life in journalism today is coming up from the grass roots–from the alternative media, ethnic media, and street newspaper movement. “Today the major news outlets of monopoly organizations are so moribund, you are going to see a lot more [activist journalism]. The web outlets of news, opinion, and analysis published by activist political organizations are growing. There has always been a role for that in this country.”
Despite the social controls imposed by the corporate media, there are today, just as there were in the times of Paine and Garrison, justice-seeking journalists who refuse to sit on the sidelines, refuse to accept the sleep of conscience, refuse to accept a neutered role transcribing the utterances of those in power. Justice journalism still lives, springing from the grass-roots and emanating from oppressed communities, where it has always had a home.
Terry Messman is Media Alliance board member and editor of Street Spirit, a street newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee.