Chapter Two: Background on the Problem

2.0 Introduction

            This chapter will consider two arguments against the mass media.  The first comes from a political economy perspective while the second adds a critique of the technological structure of mass media, specifically the point-to-mass character of centralized dissemination systems.  Following these arguments, I will briefly survey several strategies that diverse groups and interests in the communicative democracy movement advocate for reforming the mass media.  A good deal more attention will be paid to strategies for creating radical alternatives to the mass media, in particular the argument by Martin that mass media must eventually be abandoned in favor of decentralized media networks.  The Independent Media Centers broadly follow this strategy, and as such, it will anchor this chapter and lead to the final section in which I will use a survey of literature on participatory media to identify some characteristics that apply to Indymedia.  The point is not to construct a model, but establish a framework for the later case studies of the IMC network at both the local and global levels.


2.1 Arguments Against the Mass Media

            People involved in movements for progressive social change have long complained about the narrow range of public debate presented through the commercial mass media, including state/corporate funded broadcasting systems (NPR and PBS in the U.S.).  Increasingly, similar complaints are coming from those who never identified themselves with social movements and those who were once staunch defenders of commercial mass media but now contend that journalism, and hence democracy, is in crisis.3  Adding to these concerns is the fact that media ownership has consolidated over the past two decades, with roughly six major companies now producing much of what the public watches, hears, and reads (Bagdikian viii).  Critics argue that the corporate, market-based media system inherently favors centralized, hierarchical management and profit over public service, both of which diminish the autonomy of artists and writers, including journalists, resulting in a glut of standardized, commercial entertainment and advertising aimed at privileged audiences.  Moreover, this model is rapidly being exported to the rest of the world.  Numerous studies indicate that the mass media provide little in the way of critical news programming, open public forums, or imaginative cultural programming produced by diverse sources (Bagdikian; McChesney Rich Media, Poor Democracy; Schiller).  Contrary to arguments that lack of diversity and depth in programming are driven by audience demands—that the mass media “give the people what they want,”—evidence suggests that advertising and corporate ownership play a bigger role than audience preferences in shaping media content (Bagdikian; Fallows; McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy). 

            Even astute observers fail to miss this point.  In describing the economics of commercial media, for example, a noted college textbook devoted to journalism ethics states, “while newspaper companies sell primarily one product (the paper), broadcasters have two kinds of products: news and entertainment programming” (Smith 270).  Though true on a superficial level, this statement is rather misleading.  Newspapers and broadcasters do produce and sell content (news and entertainment), but content is not their primary product—that is, the product they actually make money from.  Rather, most publishers and broadcasters earn the great majority of their money, and derive their profits, from advertisers who pay for access to audiences.   Put another way, commercial news outlets sell audiences—or access to audiences—to advertisers for large sums of money.  Content is clearly important, but its main purpose is to attract the eyeballs and ears of audience members.  Furthermore, most advertisers, especially those who sponsor the news, want to attract the eyeballs of fairly privileged audience members—those who have the financial means and the inclination to be frequent shoppers. 

          In addition to serving advertisers, corporate mass media also serve political elites.  As Herman and Chomsky have documented, major news outlets rely heavily on official sources, frequently avoiding any critical examination of their assertions or the presuppositions underlying them.  Occasionally news reports will expose policy differences, even deep tensions, within the political and economic elite, giving the appearance that critical public debate is taking place.  But such reports avoid questioning or challenging the fundamental justice of systems of concentrated power over which elites preside.  Rather than being aggressive watchdogs of the public interest and adversaries of large corporations and the government, Herman and Chomsky argue that dominant news outlets are “effective and powerful ideological institutions” (306), that “serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity” (xi).  Furthermore, much of what the “agenda setting” media produce is picked up by smaller regional and local newspapers, network TV affiliates, and cable channels.  This gives them enormous influence over public opinion, even in an age when the quantity of news outlets may be rather high.  In sum, the political economy of mass media “exerts a ‘conservatizing’ influence” on social movements, causing them to “to focus on single issues and specific reforms, rather than wholesale social change” (Hackett, “Taking Back the Media…”).

            Another line of argument against the mass media concerns its technological structure.  Writing about the late Canadian media theorist Harold Innis, Carey reminds us, “Innis argued that the effect of modern advances in communication was to enlarge the range of reception while narrowing the points of distribution.  Large numbers are spoken to but are precluded from vigorous and vital discussion” (168).  More recently, critics have picked up this line of thinking, arguing that the centralized “point-to-mass” model used to distribute content to large audiences is inherently anti-democratic (Uzelman 5).  As Martin puts it, “the problem is not with [corporate] media in general, but with mass media, namely those media that are produced by relatively few people compared to the number who receive them” (“Beyond Mass Media”).  Indeed, the very essence of commercial mass media is one-way monologue (dissemination) rather than two-way dialogue (participation).  Audiences are only encouraged to get involved at the point of purchase—they do not produce news and other cultural products, they consume them. 


2.2 Media Reform

            In response to consolidation and commercialization, numerous groups and constituencies attempt to democratize mass media through one, or a combination of several, strategies including: telecommunications policy reform; exposing censorship, distortions, and media biases; cultivating critical consumers through media literacy programs; gaining increased support for public broadcasting; and strengthening unions for journalists and other media workers.  Though the current political and economic environment presents a formidable obstacle—often short-circuiting media movements much like the mass media short-circuits other social movements—some of these strategies appear to have had scored some very modest successes recently (McChesney, “Media Democracy’s Moment”).

            While being generally supportive of these efforts, Herman argues that tinkering with the corporate model isn’t enough.  “Without a democratic structure,” he contends, “the media will never serve a democratic function, even if, voluntarily or under pressure, they make concessions and gestures in that direction” (46).  On a more critical note, Martin suggests that mass media cannot be democratized through regulatory or reform processes.  He contends that governments in liberal democracies are unlikely to make significant changes to commercial media systems that tend to serve them quite well.  As for public broadcasting services, Martin argues that, here too, governments aren’t likely to allocate more resources (“Beyond Mass Media”). In fact, the trend has been going in the opposite direction. Increasingly, PBS and NPR in the U.S. and the BBC in the UK are being commercialized, with support often coming from corporate “underwriters” who also happen to be the biggest advertisers in commercial media (Aufderheide 92-94; McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy 226-256).  Despite this position, Martin doesn’t think activists should give up completely on attempts to expose mass media defects or promote a more equitable distribution of mass communication resources—as these strategies do create some small openings for progressive views and public discourse.  Movements for social change should try to exploit these openings in an effort to challenge mainstream perceptions and inject new ideas.

            Though he’s not as skeptical as Martin, Downing does refer to the “tiresome and daunting problems of trying to democratize actually existing mainstream media,” suggesting that achieving genuine structural reform is much easier said than done (42).  Atton warns that progressive media activism focused on attaining broadcast resources, or placing independently produced programs on public broadcast channels, requires resource sharing and networking among producers, activists, and public bureaucracies.  As a result, “[p]olitical dependence may also be added to the list of constraints that limit many current radio and television initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic” (142).  Even those struggling to gain access to low power FM radio frequencies in the U.S. must slog through a confusing application process and agree to comply with a long list of rules, which lead to more filtered, sanitized content—the mainstreaming of radical or progressive media.


2.3 Creating Alternatives

            Another major approach has been to create and support progressive, even politically radical, alternatives to corporate/state mass media such as: independent, community newspapers and radio stations; issue-focused magazines; national and regional magazines; journals of opinion and critical analysis; and independent publishing houses.  Many of these outlets follow a “counter-information” model, as Downing calls it, producing content that “challenges dominant ideological frameworks” and attempts to “supplant them with a radical alternative vision” (15).  Atton has documented numerous grassroots alternatives, from anarchist ‘zines to advocacy papers for the homeless, that serve underrepresented constituencies by offering a platform for critical views and involving audiences in the production and/or distribution of the product.  However, many of these projects are small and isolated, leaving them resource poor and almost always on the verge of extinction. 

            Other outlets in the alternative press seem to be caught in the trap of competing with the mass media on the mass media’s terms.  Fearful of being relegated to the alternative “ghetto” (Atton 33), they tend to reproduce hierarchical corporate management structures, refuse to share resources with other progressive projects, and fail to advance a program of structural political and economic transformation.  Some, including The Nation, also distance themselves from movements for social change, preferring to influence elites who tilt towards the progressive side (Buffa,  “National Progressive Media…”).  These outlets may produce noteworthy content, but they do not appear to be democratically organized on the administrative level, nor does their technological structure seem to encourage participation or much interaction between content producers and audiences. 

            Martin argues that mass media technology, like hierarchical workplaces, may be appropriate for large, centrally managed institutions, i.e., corporate or state-run media, but not for media intent on facilitating participatory communication.  No matter how progressive the media producers might be, Martin argues, editorial power will be in the hands of a select few.   He contends that so long as media adhere to a point-to-mass model, and centralized management, they will be biased against participatory communication.  Thus, he concludes, the primary aim of media activists “should be to replace mass media by communication systems which are much more participatory” and are organized as decentralized networks.  As an example of such a network, Martin cites the concept of “information routing groups” (IRGs), first proposed by Andrews in 1984.  This idea anticipates Indymedia’s digital architecture and I will explore it more fully in the next chapter.


2.4 Participatory Media

            Writing nearly a decade earlier, Christians’ line of thinking anticipated Martin’s.  He is critical of market-based systems, arguing, “For those committed to a two-way information system, disseminated equally to all, the free market is insufficient.”  As an antidote to mass media, which are operated by “monologic, centralized oligopolies,” he supports “media organized in different structures and used for nontraditional purposes” (332).  As an example, he points to the use of videocassettes by labor and other grassroots movements who were marginalized by Brazil’s TV monopoly during the 1980s.  Videotapes, Christians explains,  “provided an alternative communication system from below, allowing the users themselves to devise their own production and distribution” (333).        

            Following on the Brazil example, it is important to note that Gumucio has compiled an impressive volume of  “case stories” about participatory communication in the global South.4  He reveals that many communities have had great success integrating democratic decision-making processes with communications technology.  First and foremost, he reports, the emphasis has been on utilizing technologies that are most available and affordable to people in the community.  In poor Latin American communities, the medium of choice has historically been radio.  Secondly, the most successful projects have avoided mass media approaches, preferring localization, networking, and a size that is appropriate for the community’s needs.  As Gumucio asks rhetorically,

Which is better? One radio programme that reaches one million people with one standard message and language, or one hundred radio programmes that reach ten thousand each, with messages tailored to the local culture and traditions, in the local language and possibly made through a participatory process that involves each community (“Call Me Impure…”)?


One example of a project tailored specifically to a community can be found in a pirate radio station in Guatemala that purposely placed its transmitter at a low elevation so as to reach only a few slums along the nearby slopes. Finally, Gumucio observes, “media for social change and development that separates itself from the community to compete with commercial media usually does a poor job” (“Call Me Impure…”).

            Judging by the strengths and weaknesses of the preceding strategies and considering the contributions of Gumucio, Christians, and Martin, it would appear that democratic, participatory media requires economic, organizational, and technological structures that run counter to those of the mass media.  But more than that, the structures—and any processes within those structures—must also be appropriate for the communities they are designed to serve.  This may be necessary not just for political or philosophical reasons, but for reasons of survival as well. 


2.5 Conclusion

            It would appear that communities in the global South, especially Latin America, have created vibrant community media spaces that facilitate dialogue and provide important cultural programming.  Much of this was out of necessity as citizens were governed by authoritarian regimes, which controlled the mass media.  To have any public voice at all, the poor had to create their own community media.  Clearly the North American experience has been different, with the media being run not directly by the state, but by private corporations.  Still though, the system is far from democratic, due to both the political economy and the technological structure of mass media, and it appears as though a growing number of North Americans want serious reforms.

            Others are even turning away from strategies to reform mass media towards strategies that call for the development of democratically organized media networks that allow the many to speak to the many through as many channels with as little filtering as possible.  O’Connor (“Media, Inside Out…”) and Martin both agree that the emergence of relatively inexpensive and accessible digital audio-visual gear, cell phones, and the Internet puts the means of production and distribution in more hands than ever before, making it possible to move away from the mass media model and begin developing new, multi-point communication networks that could advance the struggle for communicative democracy.

            The Independent Media Center Movement takes this approach to media organizing, creating a decentralized network of community-based media centers that now reaches every continent.  Based on principles of solidarity, trust, democratic decision-making, and open communication, the network has revolutionized the way independent journalists and media activists use the Web.  Perhaps most importantly, the Indymedia movement has developed alongside the global justice movement, springing to life actually out of the need to provide a democratic alternative to mass media coverage of movement activities.5  Though organizers may not have had any specific knowledge of the South American radio projects discussed above, or the many publishing collectives studied by Atton, there are threads connecting them.  These will become apparent in the next two chapters as I present two case studies of Indymedia: the first focusing on the history, structure, processes, and content of the global movement; and the second focused on a much smaller scale, the Indymedia center in Cleveland, Ohio.

It is worth noting that several themes running through Indymedia’s “Principles of Unity” are consistent with characteristics in Downing’s (1984) original model of radical media and Atton’s typology of alternative media.  The IMC commitment to “allowing individuals, groups and organizations to express their views” through open publishing is quite similar to Downing’s emphasis on “encouraging contributions from as many interested parties as possible” (17).  Likewise, the non-hierarchical, non-profit structure, and commitment to participatory democracy through consensus decision-making embodies Downing’s last characteristic: the emphasis on “pre-figurative politics” (17).  Rather than simply imagining what anti-capitalist democratic structures and processes might look like in the future, IMCs attempt to create them in the present.  Indymedia’s open publishing system, as well as its overall political structure, conforms to Atton’s argument that genuinely alternative media seek to transform social relations between media producers and consumers through participatory production routines, “anti-copyright” distribution models, and unconventional aesthetic forms (27).

Finally, there are also tenuous points of contact, philosophically, between Indymedia and several of the community-based radio and video projects in Gumucio’s studies, which illustrate the importance of local culture and decentralized technology.  Particularly noteworthy is the quote about the power of having 100 local stations transmitting content for the local cultures in the local languages produced by people in the community.  As we shall see, a network of similarly structured local media centers is the ideal to which many IMC organizers consciously aspire.  

With this conceptual framework in hand, it is now time to move on to an examination of the history, structure, process, and media content of the Indymedia network.


3 For two recent examples, see Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism: What Journalists Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Crown, 2001; and Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser, The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril. New York: Knopf, 2002.

4 I’m referring to Central and South America, Africa, much of Asia, and various island states. I prefer this geographical designation to terms such as the “developing” world, or “third world.” This term is also commonly used by IMC activists and others in the global justice movement.

5 Results of a study published in the Columbia Journalism Review (see John Guiffo, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” September/October 2001) indicate that mainstream mass media coverage of major protests was consistently weak, missing critical aspects of the story and failing to provide necessary context. The author of the study concludes, “since Seattle, in fact, most of the U.S. press seems in a state of befuddlement, failing to explain to news consumers what these large global protests and the underlying issues that fuel them are all about.”