The Task of Activist Media

by Ellen Andors, Ph.D.

Alternative Media: an Activist Approach

Alternative media has several meanings. In one sense, it refers to presenting points of view and information that offer alternatives to corporate media indoctrination. It also refers to presenting people with real alternatives to the way things are in this society and alternatives to how people perceive and conduct their own personal lives. We live in a critical time. If people do not radically change prevailing social processes, the world will be uninhabitable in the not so distant future.

Many of the worlds problems, like famine, war, poverty and ecological disaster, are inevitable outcomes of the ever increasing competition for profits generated by capitalism. In a recent book, When Corporations Rules the World , David Korten notes, "...we are experiencing accelerating social and environmental disintegration in nearly every country of the world--as revealed by a rise in poverty, unemployment, inequality, violent crime, failing families and environmental degradation."(1) Manning Marable, in the series, "Along the Color Line", comments on the vastly increasing "polarization of classes, the unprecedented rise in personal incomes and profits among a small minority of American households and the expansion of social misery, falling incomes and inequality for the majority of the population of the country."(2)

According to Executive Pay Watch,(3) in 1995, the pay for top corporate executives went up 30%, while those of factory workers went up 1%, lagging behind the 2.8% inflation rate. In 1965, CEOs made 44 times the average factory workers salary. Today, CEOs make 212 times the average workers pay.(4) Also, while hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off in 1995, the CEOs of the 20 companies with the largest announced layoffs saw their salaries and bonuses increase by 25%. (5)

None of these accelerating and significant trends are given much exposure in the mainstream media precisely because the corporations that own and control the media control whats presented there. It is urgent that an alternative media not only expose these problems, but offer a means for people to organize and radically alter the direction in which things are going. because every day, the corporate media's control over information intensifies.

As for the possibilities for living in a peaceful society in the future, this is probably the most dangerous time in human history. As this profit-driven logic of capitalist evolution moves along at an ever accelerating rate, corporate mergers, mass layoffs and huge cuts in social programs also raise the potential for massive discontent and unrest. It is not a coincidence that the repressive apparatus of the state--the incarceration rate, the so-called anti-terrorist bills, the return of the death penalty, attacks on affirmative action, welfare and immigrants--are increasing.

As Manning Marable has described, when the top 1% of U.S. households has more net wealth than the bottom 95% of Americans, it is no accident that prisons are the largest growth industry in the country.(6) Nor is it a coincidence that the death penalty has returned, and that the number of offenses that warrant the death penalty has been expanded from 2 to 58. According to recent crime statistics, the number of prison inmates is doubling every 7 years. In 1983 there were 650,000 people in jail compared to the present figure of over 1.5 million.. They are building 200 cells every day.(7) Prisons have become "vast warehouses for the poor and unemployed."(8)

At the same time as many industries are laying off thousands of workers, they are increasingly turning to prison labor to increase their profit margins. "private businesses have contracted with at least 25 states to set up business inside prison walls to take advantage of state-supplied facilities and low-wage non-union workers." Companies like Boeing, buy aircraft components, and clothing chains like Eddie Bauer and Planet Hollywood buy clothes, all subcontracted out to prison labor where wages are much lower than on the outside, and there is no overhead as the prisons (c/o taxpayers) provide the factory space and equipment. In addition, they dont have to pay pesky benefits or worry about strikes.(9)

Noting all these developments, one might justifiably assume that the corporate elite are very well organized, and that they plan ahead. Even though members of this ruling elite may have ideological disagreements about certain issues, they cooperate as a class--in terms of their attitudes and decisions, not to mention through their organizations, lobbies, and financial influence-- for their own survival. It is imperative for our own survival that an activist alternative media take on the job of mobilizing people to organize against these processes. As the history of fascism has shown, increasing social instability and state repression go together. The danger is, that if people feel they have no real alternatives to their deteriorating social and economic conditions, fear can push them to accept extreme authoritarian-type solutions.(10) If we dont organize ourselves, extreme authoritarian-type solutions will organize us.

Transcending Ethnocentrism in order to Change Things

As an anthropologist, teacher and activist, I use a lot of visual media. I have always made abundant use of film and video to show students things they themselves do not experience directly and often find hard to conceptualize, such as the variations in marriage customs, and in religious or economic practices in other cultures. My underlying motivation is to show my students that they are not limited to behaving according to their own ethnocentric socialization, that there are many different paths other than the ones their own lives have taken. In order to figure out alternatives to the way human society is going, they have to step outside of themselves and their cultures. That is, one cannot derive 'human nature' by looking at the way people tend to behave in ones own culture.

That there is a range of human possibilities of thinking, feeling and acting, very different from the societal assumptions we live by, is demonstrated by the diversity of cultures that have been around much longer than ours. In fact, the types of societies that represent the bulk of human history are small-scale classless societies that "obviously [have] a long history of satisfying human needs in a very egalitarian way that provides great security."(11) These types of societies flourished even after the development of agriculture, starting around 10,000 years ago, and the rise of class (state) societies. They were numerous, even up until 250 years ago with the transformation of the global economy brought about by the industrial revolution.(12)

Moreover, these cultures were quite aware of civilized societies and thus had the opportunity to reject their own egalitarian values in favor of progress. Most resisted, and were forcibly taken over. If not exterminated, they often became the most exploited and marginalized portions of the population. The successful longevity of these types of cultures strongly suggest that we are not condemned to the competitive dog eat dog class structured materialistic societies dictated by what some would have us believe are inherent human propensities.(13) Because the type of capitalist society that we live in today represents a fraction of human history, it is extremely na´ve, ethnocentric and in many cases, demented, to claim, (as we are endlessly told since the disintegration of the Soviet Union) that we have reached the end of history. Perhaps if we do not radically alter the direction in which the global economy is going, it may indeed be the end of history in terms of life on this planet.(14)

Challenging the Status Quo

For Anthropologists, it is a given that most people within any society have been socialized to take their own cultural norms for granted. People don't have much of a perspective on why they do most of the things they do in their lives. This may include the norms that surround 'love and marriage', religion or gender roles. In our case, it is also the acceptance of a class structure that generates extreme racial discrimination and enormous differences between rich and poor. One would think, however, that the injustices of the society should be painfully obvious to everyone but the most insulated individuals every day of their lives. But many people who may or may not experience the brunt of these injustices directly, don't necessarily perceive the society as unjust. Or if they do, they don't always experience the outrage that would prompt them to mobilize to change things. Many do not possess the skills or knowledge of how they might channel their outrage into effective action.

What keeps the majority of people from getting together and changing things in the direction of making their lives better? How do people become compliant in their own and other's oppression? Much of the problem lies in the way people are socialized by the popular culture through the media, by historical misinformation through the educational system, and by the familys understandable emphasis upon economic survival and conformity to social norms. These institutions bombard people with messages that serve to immobilize them.

Out of a similar need to present alternatives to current political developments, I am also a member of an activist video collective, the People's Video Network, which documents events and topics such as labor, local community and international struggles. We produce programs that give people information that is often censored, and with a perspective the mainstream media systematically ignores. These deal with cases and issues surrounding the numerous political prisoners in the United States, such as the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an outspoken radio-journalist who has been on death-row since 1982 . We produce behind the news coverage and analysis of ongoing struggles such as strikes, and demonstrations held by unions, students, welfare workers, and parents against police brutality. We analyze and expose the effects of U.S. foreign policy and wars. A recent documentary deals with the use of radioactive weapons (which used depleted uranium) in the Gulf War and its tragic health consequences for people in the Gulf region as well as U.S. military personnel and their families. We travel to, and cover important events and issues in Cuba, Russia, Chiapas, South Africa, and Iraq. These programs are broadcast nationally on a weekly basis on public access stations and sometimes by satellite, and many of them are increasingly available over the Internet as well.(15)

Corporate Media Misinformation

A large part of the corporate media's job is to misinform people, and to cover up the nature of the power structure that rules peoples lives. The job includes obfuscating the real reasons for unemployment, budget cuts, invasions and wars, and 'blaming the victims' like 'welfare mothers', immigrants, and youth for all the ills of society. The corporate media slant has been brilliantly analyzed and exposed by many media critics.(16) Besides outright distortions, boldfaced lies and cover-ups of facts, the corporate media promotes the following less obvious but important underlying messages that function to produce in people an apolitical obedience to the status quo.

One message they promote is that it's not necessary to make radical changes in society. Whatever the problems are can be fixed piecemeal. After all, they reason, as bad as this society is, it represents the pinnacle of thousands of years of social and technological evolution. Every other society, past and present, has had worse problems. Another message hammered into people's brains is the following: "Capitalism is the only workable economic system. Socialism doesn't work. Look what happened to the Soviet Union. Every experiment with socialism has failed. They are all dictatorships. A socialist society can't work, because it 'goes against human nature'. Only a Free Enterprise system represents the true expression of human nature."

The Myth of Individual Responsibility

The corporate media also pushes the illusion that the individual, not groups of people, is the source of power in society. It places the focus of blame for social problems on the individual: If people are poor it's their own fault. If they just applied themselves, they could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This analysis makes the individual the locus of power and responsibility in society and has the effect of making individuals feel powerless.

The promotion of this myth of individual responsibility outside of a social or historical context pervades every aspect of the culture. The educational system promotes individual competitiveness over group cooperation. In our society education is not a right. Since access to higher education is so limited, the many have to compete for grades and honors in order to proceed with their education. Resources are unequally allocated. In New York State for example, public school students in poorer areas receive substantially less money per year than students in wealthier areas. Moreover, getting a higher education, even a Ph.D., is no longer a guarantee of employment.(17)

Another way the educational system promotes elitism and the myths of individual importance is by glorifying the so called heroic leaders of the past, e.g., the kings, the queens, the presidents and the Generals. They distort what these 'leaders' really did, as well as the class they represented. Left out are the historical contributions of people not in positions of wealth and power, especially women and minorities. Also ignored is the truth that any social change benefiting the majority of people was not beneficently handed down from on high. These changes came about only when mass struggles for better working and living conditions became strong enough to threaten ruling class power. [See Howard Zinn's The Peoples History of the United States as an antidote to the mainstream presentation of U.S. history.(18)]

Corporate advertising and the popular culture push the notion that if you are not rich and famous, youre worth nothing. It holds out unattainable goals of beauty, power and material wealth as the ultimate goal in life, in order to get people to consume more and more. As a huge neon sign in the now Disneyfied Times Square area of New York loudly proclaims, "TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH." The popular Hollywood culture pushes the notion of heroes and heroines single-handedly taking on all the bad guys. This even happens with more socially conscious mainstream films like Norma Rae, which tells of a textile worker's union struggle from the view of a heroine who fights all odds and wins a victory against the bad guys. The other workers are in the background. The fact is, that all social struggles have been fought and won not by one person leading the rest to victory, but by organizing many people together, by meeting, talking, strategizing and by many individuals often times risking their lives. This process of how things are won is left out of the corporate media.

Natural Human Development Denied

There seem to be so many obstacles to change, not the least of which is the way people are socialized from a very early age. In addition to whatever economic deprivation and injustice they endure, people put up with a fairly low level of interpersonal satisfaction. Some basic human needs, which should optimally develop and expand throughout one's life-span are curiosity, creativity and the capacity to care about others and to be cared about in return. Many people learn through their experience within the family and the wider culture to expect very little fulfillment of these basic human needs. Curiosity about other people, especially those from other economic and ethnic backgrounds or other cultures, is not generally encouraged. Creativity is often channeled into training to get a job or just learning how to survive in this society. A high degree of isolation, alienation and loneliness is considered normal, while participation in many group activities such as unions or political organizations is denigrated by the media and wider culture.

Apathy Reinforced

Low interpersonal expectations dovetail with political oppression and the tolerance of it. The cynicism and apathy, the rationalizing that you can't really change things' is a cover for this personal depression. To challenge this depression one would have to become more curious about others and less isolated. One would have to open one's mind to a range of hopes and possibilities long denied. My students reactions are testimony to the brainwashing, carried out by the corporate media, the educational system and the family. When I show students films or give them articles on a diversity of issues, such as U.S. invasions, corporations polluting the planet, or the history of the Black Panther party, the following comments are typical:

In other words, I don't have to do anything because it's really not so bad and nothing you do makes a difference anyway. Besides I might get into a lot of trouble and people might think I'm weird. Maybe if I dont look at the problem, it will go away by itself . These are usually initial reactions people have when they become aware of something they didn't know before. However, with repeated exposure to the problems, peoples curiosity and concern are stimulated. Then they get hungry for more information about the problems and what they can do about them. This hunger is what an activist media must stimulate and feed.

Activism and Getting Through the Day

Of course it is true that many people are trying to survive under increasingly difficult situations. They are often juggling jobs, school, kids, and personal problems, and do not have a lot of time left over to become socially and politically active. It is hard enough getting by from day to day for a majority of people. It's a Catch-22. As people spend more time just trying to survive, they feel like they have less time to devote to activities that would result in lives that were less survival oriented.

But the real dilemma is that in order to become less depressed about your own interpersonal needs, and to change, you have to become less isolated from other people. The moods and attitudes about what one can expect from life are hard to shake because they are inculcated from an early age and reinforced daily. The courage to change comes from identifying with others who are different, yet, in many ways like you. Many people are scared of what it would mean to their daily life if they got involved in bringing about social change. This includes being assertive and public about having legitimate human needs. Many people find it frightening to meet and talk to strangers, work in a group, speak their mind, or even admit they have a mind to speak. However, despite a great deal of despair, depression and cynicism, everyone consciously or unconsciously holds out the hope that their life could be more satisfying. An activist media must speak to the hopefulness in people. One way to do this is to present examples of alternative ways to live, to document past and current struggles, and to offer visions of what a future society could be.

The Major Obstacle: The Corporate Media Consolidates its Power

In the last several years the media industry has become unimaginably concentrated. According to Edward Herman, "In 1989 Time Inc. and Warner Communications merged, creating the worlds largest media complex. The cable TV power Viacom acquired Paramount Communications in 1994 and Blockbuster Video in 1995." Disney followed soon after by acquiring Capital Cities/ABC and Westinghouse bought CBS. Then TCI (the largest cable company bought Viacoms 1.1 million subscriber cable system and Time Warner bought Turner Broadcasting Systems. As Herman points out,(19) the biggest recent mergers involve firms that are not "media companies in a strict sense." Disney and Time Warner are pop culture giants. Westinghouse and GE (CBS and NBC) are in the nuclear power and weapons industries. "These developments threaten the survival of independent and critical programming, which have become merely appendages to entertainment and weapons-seller complexes. " (20)

The collapse of political and regulatory opposition to increased media concentration has been facilitated by the 1996 Telecommunication Reform Act signed by President Clinton, which removes many limits to how many radio, TV and print media outlets an individual can own. These recent mergers will definitely elicit further defensive mergers,- an eat or be eaten attitude. Because entertainment, sports, toys and theme parks, are more profitable than real news or other programming in the public interest (i.e., advertisers dictate the programming), there have been sharp cutbacks in news bureau staff.(21) Entertainment companies selling movies, books, magazines, theme park amusements and toys are not oriented to providing information about real life, especially information that might hurt their profits. Advertisers prefer light entertainment, not only to make more money but also to take peoples minds away from real events. They say they cannot make money selling informative programming. A further terrifying aspect to this corporate media monster growth is the rapid spread of this fast-food type of entertainment, theme-park culture to virtually every country of the world.

In addition, as Herman points out, "The entertainment-media complexes are generally run by men of exceedingly conservative bentNBC is controlled by GE, which sponsors the right-wing oriented McLaughlin group on PBS, and has long supported conservative thinktanks and causes. ...John Malone, president of TCI, the largest cable company and a fan of Rush Limbaugh, has joined with Rupert Murdoch (FOX TV) in sponsoring a new news channel to offset an alleged "left bias in the rest of the news media." (22) Disney has become a huge media player. It is notorious for exploiting third world child labor who work in sweat-shop conditions for wages as low as 11 cents an hour to make items such as Lion King and Pocahontas paraphernalia, while Disney head, Michael Eisner pays himself $102,000 an hour.(23) Now that Disney owns ABC, it is busy attacking its own ABC workers in the US, replacing full-time employees with part-time workers who get no benefits. Disney is currently trying to force its ABC workers to give back many of the benefits they have fought for and won over the years, citing a need to be competitive with market forces (one worker at a demonstration outside of Disney/ABC noted the irony of how rapidly Disneys competition is disappearing ).(24) And Disney is certainly not the only one.(25)

Moreover, the major networks have been awarded more control over the airwaves in the ongoing move over to the new technology of digital TV. The FCC has allocated digital spectrum slots to existing broadcasters at no extra cost, ( in addition to the portion of the spectrum now used for analog transmission) This would enable them to use the same spectrum to broadcast 4-6 more channels. If a community now receives 4-7 stations, they may get 20-50 stations in the future, but all owned by the same people who own the existing stations. McChesney describes the Telecommunications Act of 1996: "Arguably among the most important laws of this generation, the Telecom Act was prepared in nearly complete secrecy and a virtual blackout in popular press coverage. It was a bill written by big business for big business. to pave the way for eventual deregulation of all communications industry." (26) This digital giveaway at the present time also has no stringent public service requirements. In other words, the general public are merely shoppers; they have no other needs.

The market value of these airwaves that are being given away for free is estimated to be as high as one hundred billion.(27) These revenues could certainly be used by the government to amply fund public broadcasting stations, which would serve the community, not just the corporations. The general public, meanwhile, whose minds have been busily taken up with such momentous events as the O.J. Simpson trial, have practically no knowledge of these vital decisions affecting their basic access to information that they so desperately need. And, who among the politicians voting on this legislation has the nerve to challenge this monopoly of corporate media. Any public official who even meekly suggests that corporations have a responsibility to the public could easily see the end of their career through media smear campaigns.(28)

The Corporate Media Declares War on Alternative Voices

In short, the corporate media has taken huge strides in the last couple of years to consolidate power and further limit access to alternative voices. Struggles are going on now to see whether any type of public access TV will survive, given the merger-mania of cable companies and the communication industry in general, which have no interest in preserving public access. The proposed 500 cable TV channels will offer 500 opportunities to see basically the same mind-numbing thing; but if you are an alternative voice, you probably don't have the millions of dollars it takes to buy (public) airspace to be heard.

We also see the onslaught of the mega-bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders, which offer quantity but not diversity. These two bookstore chains now control about half of all the bookselling market. (29) They move into neighborhoods and put small bookstores, which do offer more variety, out of business. In these huge stores the large publishing monopolies 'rent space' to promote their latest 'picks', hardly material that threatens the status quo. Similarly, where there used to be an abundance of newspapers in any particular city, many have folded up or have been taken over.

This process of monopolization is not accidental or technologically inevitable. It is basically a declaration of war. As the majority of people find it harder to survive, escapist entertainment will increasingly replace information, and access to the truth will be even more controlled in an effort to atomize and immobilize an increasingly dissatisfied population.

Collective Struggle

Many people are struggling collectively to challenge injustices and fight against the widespread decline in living conditions, both in this country and around the world. The mainstream media systematically censors collective struggle because it is a very threatening topic. How many times have there been massive demonstrations held in Washington or in other countries against U.S. foreign policy or some other issues which barely, if ever, get mentioned in the mainstream news? Perhaps a small picture is shown, with the blurb, 'thousands demonstrate', or they may, instead, only show a picture of the handful of counter-demonstrators. Massive general strikes held in France and the former Soviet Union against deteriorating social and economic conditions go unreported or are portrayed as 'inconvenient' to citizens trying to get to work. This anti-labor stance permeates the mainstream media.(30)

An example of how the corporate media deals with the struggles of ordinary people is the following: A recent memorial held for William Kunstler, noted civil rights attorney, was attended by several thousand people. Across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where the memorial was taking place, was a lone demonstrator from the Jewish Defense League protesting what he called Kunstler's 'anti-Semitism'. Of course the media totally focused on covering this one demonstrator. Barely mentioned was the memorial itself, which was moving and inspiring--a huge cathedral overflowing with people paying homage to someone who had integrity and stood up for ordinary people against the power structure. Wouldn't it have been more interesting for people watching the news or reading the papers, to find out why so many people were there to pay tribute to a person like Kunstler? Of course! But that's not their job.

Repetition: the Corporate Media Knows About It

An activist media must not be afraid to repeat the information and analysis that would lead to people making real social changes. After all, the majority of people didn't get whatever ideas they do have by hearing it one time in school or from their parents or on TV. These are attitudes that have to be repeated constantly or else people may forget and think independently. Why else would corporations spend billions in advertising and Public Relations? As Noam Chomsky ironically explains, "The bewildered herd never gets properly tamed, so this is a constant battle."(31) In fact, when something big is about to happen like a U.S. invasion, or plans to cut welfare, the corporate elite use their vast media networks to orchestrate a huge bombardment of disinformation, filling the airwaves with their message.

As an educator and as someone who is involved in producing alternative video, I have often worried needlessly that my students or the viewing audience might think: "Oh I heard that before; this is boring." However, like any new way of thinking that contradicts what you have been taught all your life, hearing or seeing something new just one time may not have very lasting effects, especially when same old stuff keeps bombarding you every day. My experience, at least in teaching, is that students don't have an epiphany the first time they are presented with something new. It is usually after many such presentations that they begin to make connections between many of the things they've seen and heard. Don't worry about repetition. The new ideas need reinforcement.

The Need to Organize: Activist Media Essential in the Struggle

An activist media has to be connected to groups that are actively organizing so that they are well informed about political events and know what to go out and document. These events are usually ignored by the mainstream media, so that we are in fact providing an accurate and invaluable record of social history. An activist media must know how to hook people up with one another and be able to mobilize people to get out on the streets. The corporate media is not going to run advertisements about demonstrations or meetings that might connect people up with each other and help them to organize. Even if they were to suddenly decide to inform their audiences about local activism, media concentration and emerging technologies means that newspapers and TV are becoming more centralized and run from media centers such as in Atlanta or the west coast so that the news is more centrally canned, making it more difficult to have any local input. The producers of information are dangerously removed from the majority of people.

A job of the alternative media is to show people that it is in their own immediate interest to change things. The daily increases in the repressive apparatus of the state, the building of more and more prisons, the increase in police brutality in poor neighborhoods, the attacks on immigrants, the deterioration of health and educational systems, and the decline in wages are already affecting the vast majority of people. As Wall St. profits soar, tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs, their apartments, and their health care.

But How do People Get Organized?

Many people are fearful of getting involved. But you do not have to be a politically outspoken person to get in trouble. In addition, if you live in certain neighborhoods or look a certain way, you can just be walking down the street minding your own business and get into a confrontation with the police. In a recent article discussing the increase in police brutality, Bruce Shapiro points out, "The public order philosophy and neighborhood crackdowns now in vogue seem to make violent police-civilian conflict more likely." (32) The increasing number of these types of incidents are not accidental. They are happening because the economy is in decline and the rich and powerful have been gearing up to control what they rightly expect will be widespread discontent and potential uprisings. So "getting in trouble" is not the issue. People are getting into even more trouble by not collectively speaking out.

Even if people have more of the truth, it doesn't mean that they're going to automatically get up and do something about it. In addition to being fearful of getting involved, most people don't have a lot of experience organizing in groups to carry out collective action. How do you go about it? Where do you start? Who do you organize with? What are your goals and strategies? Alternative media has to be part of the struggle to organize people. It has to present visions of alternatives and examples of real struggles.There certainly is no shortage of inspiring examples, historically and currently, of ordinary people heroically fighting injustices against overwhelming odds. We must show not just successful struggles but the mistakes that many struggles have made so that people can learn from them.

People hunger to see these struggles. They hunger to see things that make sense to them, and to see that what they are experiencing is similar to what other people are experiencing, that they are not alone in their problems. That's why so many day time talk shows that discuss the problems people have with their children, or their love-life are so popular. Of course these shows do not analyze the underlying reasons for the multitude of emotional problems people have in this society. And they do not present any alternatives. People really do need and want a vision of a kind of society that would make sense for the majority, not just for the few wealthy individuals.

Historical Precedents

In the early 1930s the Film and Photo League was the first activist news organizations in the U.S. to emerge after the invention of the motion picture camera. Their efforts created vivid and enduring images of the Great Depression. In a period where the press denied the reality of the suffering around them--it was not known as the the depression until after it was over, the Film and Photo League documented the desperate conditions and heroic struggles the Depression was known for: evictions, breadlines, strikes, hunger and unemployment marches, the Hoovervilles, the demonstrations and protests and the everyday life of the people.

When the Peoples Video Network interviewed Leo Seltzer, one of the surviving veterans of this pioneering peoples news organization, he delineated the parallels between the situation of the 1930s and today: the homelessness, the decline in living standards, growing unemployment and economic desperation. Then as now, the mainstream media did not speak to these issues. The Film and Photo League could not get their newsreels into the theaters, which at the time were owned by Hollywood studios. These movie theaters would show newsreels that would deny the widespread economic problems of the Depression, or they would show fluff, flagpole sitters and the like.

In order to show their documentaries, the Film and Photo League members would take their newsreels to union halls, farms, one room school houses, and churches, frequently in places with no electricity. They would hook the hand cranked projector bulb to a car battery, pin a sheet between two trees and run their films. Seltzer described the reaction of their audiences to seeing these documentaries. Their jaws would drop open. People were amazed to see that their troubles were not unique, that other people were suffering and also organizing to fight for their rights all over the country and the world. These documentaries galvanized many people and contributed to the organization of the many peoples movements of that era. (33)

People Like to See the Truth

A current example of how people respond to seeing more of the truth on TV is the following: In the Spring of 1995, the National Peoples Campaign, a political group based in New York, held a huge rally in New York City against the then recently declared 'Contract With America', with speakers from community and other activist organizations. Although C-Span does not usually cover such events, it took up NPCs challenge to cover reaction to the establishments move to the right. They broadcast the rally several times, nationwide. Each time it was broadcast, the NPC phones rang off the hook with thousands of phone calls from all over the country. People wanted to know what they could do, how they could join or organize NPC branches in their own cities. For once, what they saw on TV actually spoke to the deteriorating reality of their own lives and they saw other people organizing against these forces. As a result, many NPC branches were formed nationwide and several months later large demonstrations against the 'Contract' were held in 42 cities around the country. C-Span did not come back to cover any subsequent events.

Our Peoples Video Network office gets many calls from people watching our shows, reacting to seeing the reality that documents their lives, not the lives of artificial, well-off sitcom characters. In watching these shows they find out that there are organizations out there that are fighting the conditions facing them and others, such as the massive cuts in social services and the increase in racist and repressive legislative policies. They call to get more information about how they can get involved.

It takes bravery to change one's life and to bring about social change. But to bring about either personal or political change, the barriers of isolation have to be broken down between people. Any type of change takes interacting more with people. This puts a lot of demands on one's curiosity about new experiences and other people. In finding out how different people are, you also find out how similar you are to other people. You can identify with them, and that makes it possible for you to be different. Isolating people is a key way to keep them from fighting back. There are growing attempts to isolate people from one another even more than they already are and to cut the possibilities of collective action. This is happening through government attacks on public housing, the purposeful introduction of drugs.(34) and guns, especially into the poor communities, the increase in incarceration rates, particularly of young people and the increase in police harassment to terrorize these communities and keep them passive.(35)

Fighting Back

The alternative media has to expose that there is a planned and coordinated repression in anticipation of a growing resistance to increasing exploitation and deprivation. An activist media must illuminate the underlying structural reasons for the need for repression. It must respond to "Oh that can't happen here" with media that shows the historical precedents and current parallels of the development of fascism. It must show that "It can happen here. It does happen here. It is happening here." And it must help give people the tools to organize resistance to these ongoing repressive processes.

Unfortunately, most don't know even where to begin to find alternative sources of information or activist groups. Even though these sources exist in relative abundance, they may be difficult for many people to find. The corporate media is well organized and omnipresent. The alternative media, is as yet unorganized, scattered and divided into many different factions that don't cooperate with one another. Overcoming this lack of coordination, is a task the alternative media must take on seriously. There are many people, here and there, engaged in activist or alternative media without knowing what anyone else is doing. There is also a lack of centralized sources of what is available so that people can easily access up-to-date news or alternative media sources. Media activists need to start organizing together to get true alternative radio and TV networks that broadcast 24 hours a day, forging national and international links.

The job of the alternative media is to make people angry and hopeful at the same time. It should make them angry at all of the deprivation and injustices they and countless other peoples have experienced in their lives and hopeful that it is possible to really build a different kind of society where human needs can be met. People are used to believing that they don't deserve what they really need. The experience of seeing other people bringing about changes through struggles can have the effect of giving someone a feeling of membership with a larger group. It is not enough to be outraged in the privacy of your own living room or your own mind. The job of the activist media is to turn these thoughts into action and to connect people up with others who are similarly outraged.

Reaching the People

Alternative media activists must not be lured into devoting every bit of their energies just fighting the erosion of free speech through corporate media concentration. That fight is useful and urgent, but it's not enough. They also must not be lured into thinking they are making major headway if they win concessions from the corporate media. They have to become part of the struggle in organizing grassroots movements to radically alter the direction in which the global economy is going. A real alternative media has to be really alternative, not just content with getting a foot in the mainstream door. There's a war going on.

To do this, the alternative activist media must address the issue of mass distribution. This requires creativity, and audacity. It may mean taking videos to the streets, union halls, community centers, high schools and eliciting public discussions. It may mean projecting videos on the sides of buildings. It may mean crashing public events that are tightly limited to only the 'right' kind of people. Alternative media needs to be used in public settings as an organizing tool to give people information, to elicit discussion about the issues, and formulate actions. We must also take advantage of developments in telecommunications and become educated in the possibilities of using the Internet to communicate with even more people.

Alternative media must serve as an organizer for change, for bringing people together, for shedding light on the processes that create the world we live in and what it takes to change that world for the better. We as alternative media people need to coordinate our collective efforts in that direction.

(c) Ellen Andors, 1996

by Ellen Andors, Ph.D. (1946-2000) Dr. Andors was an anthropologist, adjunct professor at The Borough of Manhattan College, The City University of New York, and an activist videographer with Peoples Video Network. She edited The Prison Industrial Complex, New Age Slavery: an Interview on Death Row with Mumia Abu-Jamal and co-produced the Mumia Organizers Tape, which activists used as organizing/teaching tools in the effort to save Mumia's life. She also edited the Working Women's Struggle Series (on public access cable), and the documentary on the Gulf War and the use of Depleted Uranium called: Metal of Dishonor: the Pentagon's Secret Radioactive Weapon. Footage from that documentary was used for the updated dvd on depleted uranium, Poison DUst.  She died in August 2000 from complications due to endometrial cancer.


(1) David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, Kumarian Press (West Hartford, CT, 1995.

(2) Manning Marable, Along the Color Line November 1995 (

(3) "Runaway CEO Pay", Executive Pay Watch, 1997 (

(4) Pearl Meyer and Partners, in the Wall Street Journal, as cited in "Runaway CEO Pay", op cit.

(5) Business Week, op cit.

(6) Manning Marable, from a Forum on the Death Penalty at New York University, 1996

(7) ibid.

(8) ibid.

(9) (Paul Wright, "Captive Labor: US business Goes to Jail", Covert Action Quarterly, Spring 1997, number 60.

(10) See, for example, Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes Pantheon Books, NY 1994.

(11) John H. Bodley, Tribal Peoples and Developmental Issues, Mayfield Publishing Company (California, 1988), p. 10.

(12) ibid, p. iii.

(13) John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, Mayfield Publishing Company (California, 1990), Chapter 1.

(14) One example of this demented thinking is NASAs plan to launch the Cassini Saturn Space probe in October 1997, which will carry 72 pounds of plutonium as a power supply. This is part of the growing militarization of outer space. If there is an accident or miscalculation, this could drastically affect the health of billions of people, not to mention everything living on the planet . See Karl Grossman, Nukes in Space: the Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heaven, video produced by EnviroVideo, 1995.


(16) See, for examples the periodical EXTRA published by Fairness and Asccuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and books by Noam Chomsky such asManufacturing Consent, and Michael Parenti (Inventing Reality).

(17)Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, New York University Press (New York, 1997), Chapter 12.

(18) Howard Zinn, A Peoples History of the United States, Harper Perennial (New York, 1995). See also, Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, Labors Untold Story, United Electrical Workers (New York, 1955).

(19) Edward Herman, "The Media Mega-Mergers" in Dollars & Sense, as posted on

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Research done by National Labor Committee.

(24) Peoples Video Network interview of ABC workers at a demonstration in front of one of the many new Disney mega-stores, raw footage, April, 1997.

(25) Other media conglomerates like newspaper chains Gannett and Knight Ridder, two of the largest publishers, are busy trying to destroy the unions that work for them and return to a labor situation that existed at the beginning of the Great Depression.

(26) Robert W. McChesney, "The Great Digital TV Heist", In These Times, Volume 21, no. 13.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Robert McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, the Open Media Pamphlet Series, Seven Stories Press, New York 1997, page 27.

(30) See, for example, EXTRA, and other publications by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Also see Michael Parenti, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, St. Martins Press (New York, 1986), in particular, the chapter, "Giving Labor the Business".

(31) Noam Chomsky, "Media Control," in Open Fire, edited by Greg Ruggiero and Stuart Sahulka, The New Press (New York, 1993), p. 277.

(32) Bruce Shapiro "When Justice Kills" The Nation June 9, 1997.

(33) Informal discussion with Leo Seltzer, member of the Film and Photo League, at the office of Peoples Video Network.

(34) See coverage about CIA connection to the crack epidemic, story by Gary Webb, in the San Jose Mercury News, August, 1996.

(35) Viz. the murders of Anthony Baez, Anthony Rosario, Manuel Mayi, and Keshawn Watson, and the beating of Rodney King, to name only a few.


Ellen Andors, Ph.D., ( 1946-2000) was a founding member of Peoples Video Network.

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