Friday, July 3, 2009

Independent Media: Anatomy of a Panel Discussion

At the panel discussion I attended on the evening of April 24, 2009, there was a sense of enthusiastic and heartfelt revolution in the air. I arrived at the panel discussion expecting a series of short lectures that were mainly academic in nature. However, the panel digressed rather quickly from objectively discussing the "Socio-Economics of Media Culture" (as it was advertised to be) to a more activist approach, promoting and advocating independent media as a tool to combat corporate greed and mainstream media deception.

Independent media is certainly a worthy and helpful effort that is readily conducive to protecting a democracy. I applaud the efforts of the Rogue Valley Independent Media Center for working to place the tools of communication and influence in the hands of ordinary people, and thereby strengthen healthy democracy and stimulate free speech in our public arenas. However, the solution to the social problem the media has become is not simply to create an alternative media. Without the introduction of an adequate method of accountability into the equation, "independent media" is vulnerable to the production of false information, sensationalistic stories, conspiracy theories, and the like.

The panel discussion was commenced with a hearty introduction by Wes Brain. After thanking everyone present for "being classy enough to spend a Friday evening in this way," his introduction consisted primarily of a reverent discussion of the legacy of the late Hal Jamison, a local media critic who had called for a media truly independent of mass manufactured deceit on the part of the corporates. Rogue Valley's Independent Media Center seeks to make Jamison's vision a reality, and they have certainly come a long way in realizing it. After speaking of Hal Jamison's activist legacy and their efforts to perpetuate them, Brain proceeded to introduce the three panelists, two of whom were to speak very briefly while the third was to be the keynote speaker.

The first panelist was Jason Houk, the editor of the Rogue Independent Media Center as well as the Station Manager for Ashland Community Radio (popularly known as KSKQ). In his brief lecture, Houk spoke of the importance of an independent media outlet as a means of surviving in what he called "the belly of the beast." By this he referred to the corporate world's manipulation of of public sentiment by stifling innovation. This is a cause for great concern, Houk says, because sustainability is weakened in the absence of innovation.

Carol Voisin, the second speaker on the panel, followed closely on the heels of Houk's short speech with a great discussion of the indispensable role critical thinking plays in a democracy. Voisin is an Ashland City Council member who recently challenged the mainstream media at Southern Oregon University's recent "First Amendment Forum." She is also a faculty member at SOU where she teaches ethics, critical thinking, and writing. To tell it in her own words, she teaches first-year students "how to think." Although to me that remark sounded antithetical to critical thinking, the remainder of her short lecture contained several redeeming points. Her speech consisted of a simple deductive syllogism: A). Critical thinking is the backbone of democracy. B). Independent media is an indispensable tool in the hands of a critical thinker. C). Therefore, independent media is the voice of democracy. She closed by encouraging the audience to use independent media to "give a voice to the incumbents." This statement strikes me as something of a discrepancy on her part. Just last month at SOU's aforementioned First Amendment Forum, she had complained that in her race for Congress two years ago, newspapers would put the incumbent on the front page while placing her on Page 10. However, her apparent change of sentiment at this panel discussion may have been due to the rebuttal of Medford Mail Tribune managing editor Bob Hunter, who challenged her claim and said he remembered the Mail Tribune doing many prominently featured stories on her.

The third and final panelist, Peter Phillips, was the keynote speaker and seemed to be generally regarded by all present as the main celebrity of the evening. Phillips is a Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and the director of Project Censored. According to their website, Project Censored was founded in 1976 by Carl Jensen and "has as its principal objective the advocacy for and protection of First Amendment rights and the freedom of information in the United States." Project Censored conducts research on national news stories that they perceive to be underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored by the corporate media. Project Censored publishes a ranking of the "most censored nationally important news stories" each year in the yearbook, Censored: Media Democracy in Action.

The heart of Mr. Phillips' argument was that corporate media is no longer relevant to democracy. His argument consisted of a series of examples of recent media censorship and misinformation. His discussion of problems with the corporate media was complemented with common-sense solutions. He argued that grassroots efforts are the only way to combat corporate greed, strongly emphasizing that solutions do not come from the top down. He also spoke of universities as playing a vital role in the push for a truly democratic society. I agreed with many of his ideas and points, including his take on the recent Somalian "pirate" incident. Another side of this pirate story, he pointed out, involved the collapse of the government in Somalia, a nation that saw many barrels of waste being dumped into their seas by foreign fishing boats intruding on their fish industry. The origin of the "pirates" story, Phillips says, is to be found in Somalian fishing families who are calling for help from the Coast Gaurd. He also called attention to the problems in the United States healthcare system, summing up the problem in four words: "deny, delay, diminish, blame." He brought up the millions of civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of our unjustified war in that country, as well as the loss of habeas corpus under President Bush in America.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Phillips' assessment of these current events issues. But it was not long before he allowed himself to entertain notions that bordered on conspiracy-theory status. He made mention of the Trilateral Commission and how they were going about integrating Barack Obama into their plan. The Trilateral Commission has been a favorite subject among conspiracy theorists for some time now. It does possess a grain of truth, in that organizations such as the CFR does hold strong influence over U.S. foreign policy. But this is all too obvious, and is hardly indicative of a conspiracy. The Trilateral Commission theorists grasp onto such obvious kernels of truth and run with it, adding misinformation that is elusive and subtle precisely because it is unverifiable. What Phillips seems to be overlooking is that the elite have a unity of interests that often gives the false impression that they are conspiring. Phillips apparently has fallen for this false impression.

On more than one occasion in his lecture, Phillips also mentioned his involvement on the steering committee and advisory board for "911Truth.org." 911Truth is a nonprofit corporation in the state of Missouri that seeks to educate the public about the "truth" behind the September 11 terrorist attacks and inspire a "political transformation" among the American people. He infused this part of his speech with highly technical information, citing an article released on April 6 by Salt Lake City's Deseret News, which claimed that traces of nano-thermite, an aluminum-based explosive, were discovered in the dust from the fallen towers. What was not mentioned is that uses of nano-thermite (which is still in its research stage) fall far short of being capable of weakening massive columns. But what really caused me to raise an eyebrow was when he stated that "Everybody wants to ignore it [the truth behind 9-11] and hope it goes away." That is a very interesting (not to mention carelessly broad) accusation, and one that warrants clarification.

I found opportunity to seek just that during the Question & Answer session. I asked Mr. Phillips what role skepticism can play in the information provided by independent media itself. I also expressed my skepticism of notions associated with the Trilateral Commission and 9-11 conspiracy theorists, and my concern that independent media has the potential to lapse into unfounded claims merely because they challenge corporate agendas.

His response did not answer my question. Rather, he responded by saying he "didn't know what books you've read" but that the information is readily available for me to delve into. He also stated that he did not claim to know whether 9-11 was a domestic government plot or not. According to him, he simply did not know and was not willing as of yet to arrive at a conclusion on the matter. This struck me immediately as odd. If he is uncertain concerning the nature of the September 11 attacks and whether or not it was an inside job, what was the point of his discussion of nano-thermite? If he was truly agnostic concerning the matter, would he not have presented the counter-argument? And what is he doing serving on the steering committee for "911Truth"? According to the Mission Statement on the 911Truth website, their mission is "to expose the official lies and cover-up surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001 in a way that inspires the people to overcome denial and understand the truth; namely, that elements within the US government and covert policy apparatus must have orchestrated or participated in the execution of the attacks for these to have happened in the way that they did. Why Phillips felt inclined to misrepresent himself is beyond me.

Not long after my questions, a young, bearded man in the audience wearing a tie-dyed shirt stood up. He began by expressing how supportive he was of Project Censored and how passionate he was about independent media. He proceeded to say, "I completely agree with you that 9-11 was a U.S. government cover-up and that we need to get that word out." Peter Phillips interjected at that moment, saying he wanted to make it clear that he "never said that" and was unsure either way. Apparently this gentleman in the tie-dyed shirt came uncomfortably close to blowing his cover.

Following the closing of the panel meeting, I made my way out into the foyer, where this same tie-dyed man (I never caught his name) stood at a table enthusiastically endorsing Alex Jones films, copies of which he was distributing for free. Alex Jones is an outspoken conspiracy theorist who believes in a wide array of far-fetched paranoia and proliferates these ideas from his radio show. Through films such as Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement and The Obama Deception, Alex Jones is outspoken in his warnings of a coming New World Order which, so he claims, seeks to eliminate the vast majority of mankind and enslave the rest. He is acutely obssessed with government cover-ups and plots, which he happens to see around every corner. On his radio program, which I listen to regularly for research purposes (and perhaps for entertainment), Jones is in the habit of promoting himself as a prophet who "has rarely if ever been proven wrong" about his predictions. In fact, his ego is blown far out of proportion. In one of his promotional advertisements, he shows himself to hold no qualms about comparing himself to some of the greatest minds in history. To quote directly from this promo, "Einstein failed math, quit school, and his rebel ideas led to some of the world's most amazing discoveries. Edison rebelled against the dark, failed over a thousand times, then invented the light bulb. George Washington rebelled against an entire country, and led the creation of a new one. Now, Alex Jones is working to save that very country." Alex Jones is a midget kicking at the shins of giants.

His radio program is also replete with countless advertisements promoting self-defense devices, organic food supplies, resources on switching to the gold standard, and atmospheric water generators that provide its users with a way to avoid the "government-poisoned water supply." All these resources and more are advertised to prepare people to survive what Jones calls the imminent government takeover.

Upon being asked my opinion of Alex Jones by this man, I related all of this background and what I understood to be his fringe beliefs, beliefs that depended on its fringe status in order for Jones to remain in his niche (after all, if there ever came a time when Jones was satisfied with the government and relieved of all fears and alarms, he would no longer have a platform. As it is, paranoia is what is perpetuating and sustaining his career). Upon hearing this, the man handed me a copy of Endgame and informed me that Jones's platform and views only seemed preposterous because people have been deceived by the "illusion of the left-right paradigm." The fact of the matter is, he told me, Alex Jones is "spot-on."

I have been keenly aware that independent media does, by definition, represent an exercise in skepticism toward mainstream media's constructions of social problems. But I also argue that skepticism should not stop with independent media. In other words, the mere presence or success of independent media does not constitute complete objectivity. The agendas it harbors, however benign and well-meaning it may be, should be critically studied to verify the standards it claims for itself. Independent media is a cultural movement that deserves the same amount of critical scrutiny as the mainstream media. Independent media has the potential to depend on its "independent" status in order to maintain its core principals and ideals. This is what the 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan intended to convey when he famously theorized, "The medium is the message." This was confirmed for me at the IMC panel meeting and is what I came away with more than anything else, not least of all because there I encountered some misinformation and a little dis-ingenuousness. But for the most part, there were well-intentioned common sense solutions presented that fortunately were not as misguided as some of the actual problems presented.