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Wed

18

Jun

2008

Taking Back The (Local) Media: The Carbuncles Under Our Noses
Wednesday, 18 June 2008 13:35
by Gary Corseri

Between May 22 and May 25 of 2008, some two hundred fifty citizens from all parts of the U.S., joined by many from other countries, convened at Radford University in the town of Radford, Virginia, to participate in the “Building a New World Conference.” With a keynote speaker like Attorney Lynne Stewart, and session leaders and panelists like Cindy Sheehan, Father Roy Bourgeois, Kathy Kelly, David Swanson, William Blum, Clark Webb and Danny Schechter (to pick a few out of scores of worthies), the conference provided excellent opportunities to learn, to network, to inspire and be inspired; to strategize and to build.

One of the chief disappointments was the local coverage. Before this conference, I might have simply let the Roanoke Times’ hatchet job pass, remove the axes from my and others’ gory heads, and chalk matters up to provincial fear and ignorance. But, among the conference lessons was the need to identify and resist evil promptly. One of the panels was entitled “Taking Back the Media.” I was on it. If I knew then what I know now, I would have sharpened my wits and claws and advised re-directing some of our energy to taking back local media.

Many of us are painfully aware of the sordid state of mainstream media: the slanted, corporate coverage of national politics; the non-coverage of international events that impinge on all our lives: wars; the financialization of basic goods and services; the privatization of the commons; food and energy price manipulations; geocide. But sometimes we miss the trees for the forest. While dozens of websites correct the intentional “errors” of our mass media, few focus on the carbuncles under our noses.

I mean the following as a primer for action. It’s by no means a complete analysis. I’d need a book for that.

Four days before the conference was scheduled to begin, the Roanoke Times unleashed its cannonade in the form of one of its regular, “freelance” columnists, one Michael Miller. The RT blared its non-news with the following headline:
“Organization touts new theory for economy”
“Grab your hammers and carpenter's pants.” Mr. Miller began. Then, correctly identifying the dates and location of the Conference, he proceeded to lambaste the World Prout Organization.

Now, let’s back up. The “Building a Better World Conference” was the brainchild of Garda Ghista, who happens to host the World Prout Assembly website (wpa.org). It’s a fascinating site—unabashedly eclectic, featuring the work of excellent progressive writers, and generously quoting the work of Srii Sarkar, an economist and mystical poet with whom Ms. Ghista studied during her many years in India. There’s an array of photos that capture our multifarious world now: children’s bodies torn by war in Iraq; fishing boats leaning against a Goa sunset; hyacinths in full bloom. In other words, Ms. Ghista covers the range!

Ms. Ghista also financed the “Building a Better World Conference.” There was no Prout money behind her—zilch. She’s an impecunious grad student in Kentucky—with a big heart and a big vision. I’ve known her for two or three years since she started posting some of my articles and poems on her site. In the past year, I got to know her a lot better, assisting her with the conference, never meeting her until the conference began, but exchanging e-mails and phone calls.

NEVER did Ms. Ghista propose using the conference to propagate the theories of Prout or Srii Sarkar. Had Mr. Miller done a little homework, he would have understood that. Instead, Mr. Miller took a whirlwind tour of the Prout website and told his readers the following about the conference:
“Prout is the world's worst acronym, standing for PROgressive UTilization Theory, which, according to its Web site, worldproutassembly.org, is some sort of theory about progressive utilization. It's also about "nuclear revolution," which is not defined, and there are more references to the "collective" than a Star Trek episode about the BURG (sorry, I meant 'Borg.' Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.)”
This is supposed to be humorous, in case you missed the tang in the writing. The fact that it is irrelevant to the conference does not impede Mr. Miller’s flow. He continues:
“This looks to be a very entertaining conference, potentially worth the $350 that it costs to register.”
Actually, the conference cost $110 for 4 days. I immediately wrote the Roanoke Times correcting Mr. Miller’s mis-statement about the cost, and rebutting his insouciant use of facts. Here’s what the RT printed in full from my letter:
“Radford conference offered a lot”

“It was disappointing to read Michael Miller's commentary, "Organization touts new theory for economy" (May 18), about the Building a New World Conference being held at Radford University (wpaconference.org).

“Among many inaccuracies was the citation of a $350 conference registration fee. In fact, at $110 for four days, this conference provided a splendid opportunity to hear venerable thinkers and artists (writers, musicians, etc.) inspire one another and their listeners as they seek to resolve some of the great political and economic issues facing our nation.

“With a recent Washington Post-ABC poll finding that 82 percent of Americans believe our country is ‘on the wrong track,’ this conference has nothing to do with Miller's dismissive charge about ‘touting’ a new economic theory and everything to do with smart, caring citizens addressing mutual concerns.

“If Miller would resist a priori condemnations and strive for balance and objectivity — to actually interview conference organizers and participants, for example — his readers would be pleasantly surprised to discover the seriousness in which we hold our Bill of Rights and the moral commitments we have made to understand and assist those who are suffering.”
The sharp reader will immediately note that my letter is presented in the past tense! (Not consistently, alas, confounding the grievance!) In fact, although I received a note from the Roanoke Times on the 19th of May approving my letter for publication, it did not appear until the 22nd of May—the day the conference ended, and obviously too late to correct the damage Mr. Miller had inflicted by mis-representing the cost and purpose. (I can only imagine the editing that took place the tenses with the facts and dates!)

For better or worse, I might have let this go. The conference tilled rich soil and really did “provide” much to contemplate, many opportunities to grow and build upon. In addition to the wisdom of the speakers, there were poets and musicians like Alice Lovelace, Fareed Bitar, Brant Lyon and Leonard McGann. Kathy Kelly shared a story about being under siege in a refugee camp in the Middle East—how the children had behaved, what they wanted “Am-ree-kah” to know. Cindy Sheehan shared her life experiences. (Those of us who have seen her up close over the past three years have observed a metamorphosis in her appearance and confidence. She has emerged from the cocoon of grief. The grief has strengthened her. It is in the marrow of her bones, and she is radiant now with even greater courage and determination to preclude needless suffering.)

There was much for me to think about, and then I picked up a bug and was out of commission for a week with flu-like symptoms. Just as I began to recover, I was surprised to find an e-mail from Michael Miller in my mailbox! It began auspiciously:
“Mr. Corseri, Thank you for responding to my column on the Radford conference...”
Then the roof collapsed:
“Just as a point of reference, I am a columnist, not a reporter, and furthermore I do not work for the Roanoke Times. I am a freelance writer. Thus, your plea for more balance and objectivity on my part is misguided. I am a satirist and so balance and objectivity in my opinion pieces is not relevant.”
I began a brief correspondence with Mr. Miller. I pointed out that nowhere in the article had he been identified as a “satirist.” (I mentioned, in passing, that the best satirists tended to work better with scalpels than with sledgehammers.) I expressed the opinion that if the editors of the Roanoke Times had assigned a known satirist (someone their regular readers would know as such) to cover a major conference in their area, then the editors had been extremely “misguided” and “prejudiced,” and I would have to conclude that the lack of balance started there.

Mr. Miller seemed to strike a less defensive posture with his next paragraph:
“As to the factual nature (or lack thereof) in my column, I will have to admit that I got the price of the conference wrong. In doing my research, I ran across the $350 number someplace, and mistakenly took it as the cost of attending the Radford event. That was a mistake on my part but not an intentional misrepresentation.”
I responded that "intentional misrepresentation" is certainly more offensive than carelessness, and is so recognized legally (murder being worse than manslaughter, for example).

Mr. Miller then zinged with:
“Had I realized the cost was only $110, I would certainly have used that in my column to better effect.”
I am not sure how to interpret that. Perhaps he would have made another allusion to “Star Trek.” He did admit, though, that “the editors probably should have caught this error in their fact checking.” To which I could not demur.

Then another zinger:
“I stand behind the statements in my column, which were lifted verbatim with appropriate quotation indications. True, I selected those which made my point for me, but they are all direct quotes.”
I responded that I did not care if there were "appropriate quotation indications" [sic]. The problem lay in the selection: first, the Roanoke Times' selection of the wrong person to cover a conference! In fact, it was clear that there had been no real intention to cover it — that would have required a professional journalist to ask questions, make phone calls, interview participants, attend a couple of sessions for him/herself. Second: rightly or wrongly, Mr. Miller had perceived his assignment to be a hatchet job. Why else would the RT assign a "satirist"?
Mr. Miller continued:
“In each response to my column, I have found the respondents straining to explain how they are focused on all the good work being done or envisioned, and not really associated with the political philosophy of the mother organization.”
I explained that I did not know about other responses to his column. I had not felt “strained” in my response. I had read his column with interest and in fairness and had responded after reflection. I pointed out that it was he who had made Prout the issue. I asked him to compare the dearth of discussions about Prout at the Conference, with what one was likely to find at a conference—or convention—of one of our ordained political parties; or at a conference of religious leaders, etc. We really were dealing with bigger issues. We had no ideology to impose. We were questioning, seeking, building bridges. You know—like democracy is supposed to work!

But, Mr. Miller was on a tear:
“When you wrap yourself in the mantle of the WPA [Prout], you have to take it all. And the WPA philosophy, as apparent from its own website materials, is clearly preaching socialism. It cannot be disputed. It's right there in black and white from the founder's and many supporters' lips.”
“Ah, now I see what this is all about!” I proclaimed to my worthy correspondent. “You wrap yourself in anti-socialism, or the free-market, or patriotism or whatever else — and then you justify an attack on people who were not essentially Proutists because of the association [loose] of Prout to the convening of this onference! [That old McCarthyite guilt by association game!]

Furthermore, neither I nor anyone associated with the conference were "wrapping" ourselves in any mantles! Nobody had done any "preaching" at this conference!

Mr. Miller acknowledged that “a minor apology regarding the cost mistake” might be in order, but he wanted me to know he felt the conference had been “more than compensated by the amount of free publicity the event garnered” from his column.

I responded that he thought too highly of himself, and that a “minor apology” was not the issue. Nor did I think he had made a “minor mistake”—and that if I had made such a “careless” mistake as a journalist, I would have been man enough to correct it in public. (Okay, my testosterone was kicking in about here.) I averred that we were not "compensated by the amount of free publicity the event garnered." That, in fact, we weren't looking for "free publicity" — and certainly not from a satirist! Again, I asserted that the issue was balance and objectivity.

In the age of Hamilton, our “duel” might have ended here, but Mr. Miller succeeded in getting one more slap in the face in the form of a postscript: “I must confess that I am totally clueless as to the relevance of your reference to the Bill of Rights. I'm sure you meant something important; it just escapes me as to what that might have been.”

To which I responded that the problem was that much “escaped” him. And, I exhorted him to open his mind. I then professed that I could no longer offer free “tutorials” at my age.

I thought this would be the end of the matter, but over the next couple of days, I heard from another Michael Miller. The second Michael Miller was far less confrontational. He explained that he had tried to get more info about the conference, but hadn’t gotten through. That was important information I could use to facilitate better conferences, smoother working in the future. Further, the second Mr. Miller expressed his surprise that nobody had been assigned to at least interview Cindy Sheehan while she was in town since she “has celebrity status.”

I began to like this second Mr. Miller. He had taken the time to think through my critique of his work and had responded with some ratiocination.

But there were still problems. Why had the Roanoke Times hired a free-lance columnist, a self-professed “satirist” to cover a conference that was bringing some 250 participants to that small metro area? (Not incidentally, the conference boosted the local economy by some $50,000.)

I called the editorial department at the Roanoke Times. I represented myself as a “journalist.” I have enough credits online and in print so I can do this without flinching. But, of course, anyone can call him/herself a journalist—just seek the facts; just seek the truth. Then get it “out there”—online, or in print, or shouting it from rooftops.

I was finally directed to one Mark Morrison, head of the New River Bureau of the RT. I left him an e-note, requesting a quick chat about the conference, and he had the courtesy to respond the next day.

I explained that I was upset because Mr. Miller’s column had overstated the fee for the conference by more than 200%, and that I had sent a letter online immediately correcting that information; further, that I had received a notice of intention to publish/post my letter the next day, but that my letter had not appeared until after the conference was over! Mr. Morrison expressed his regrets. He told me I should have called the paper. How was I to know that? I wondered. I could almost hear him shrug through the phone.

I pressed my points: Why had the New River Bureau of the Roanoke Times hired a columnist, a “satirist,” to cover a four-day conference by writing a hatchet-job column four-days in advance of the conference? In the interests of fairness, balance and objectivity, how did that make sense?

Mr. Morrison used that tired old argument about “allocation of resources.” I reminded him that the conference had sent news releases to the RT for months in advance. There seemed to be plenty of resources available for “cat-in-tree” stories during the conference, but no interest in attempting to know why 250 concerned citizens were gathering at the local university, exercising their “right of assembly” and their “right of free speech” to discuss the nation’s politics and economy and moral degradation. Had the citizens of Radford no interest in hearing the musicians and writers who were in their small city? Why had no one been sent to interview a national figure like Cindy Sheehan?

Mr. Morrison asked me if there was “anything else.” Apparently, I had exhausted the 2-3 minutes he’d allocated for our chat!

There was a lot more to ask, but not then; I knew it was futile then.

But here is a key point: While resistance may be “futile” in the short-term, it is never futile in the long run. Every act of resistance to overweening authority, illegitamate power, petty bureaucrats and ignorant or officious gate-keepers, strengthens our backbone, clarifies the mind and lets the next such act occur with greater ease—naturally and with more import.

All over this country there are these little fiefdoms of media power. They take a proprietary interest in their readers. They think they know what’s best for them, what the citizens within their borders need to know and don’t need to know. The proprietors do not disseminate news. They are gate-keepers who “kill” troublesome, complex stories. They bury pertinent facts—just as the national media bury the facts about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on back pages, or simply don’t convey them and disdain to print pictures of coffins off-loaded at Dover Air Force base, etc.

In recent years, courageous “New Journalists” have been setting the record straight. They take on the mainstream media with facts and tough opinion pieces that don’t cower before the proprietors—not Murdoch, or GE, or Clear Channel, et. al. They are making slow, but steady progress. There’s a great deal of sewage to wade through.

It’s different in the provinces. Except for some special places—Berkeley, Cambridge, Boulder—the little cities and towns are overlooked and neglected. We need websites for alternative news in the provinces. We need young journalists—and people’s journalists—developing those websites so those who are seeking can find the real news in their own communities. That is another way to build a new world. That is a grass-roots movement to transform this country. Circumvent the gate-keepers; ask the tough questions; investigate, and report the truth.

The headwaters of the Ganges, India’s “mother” of rivers, begin in trickling streams from bubbling springs and snow-melts in the Himalayas, then gather force to irrigate the Indo-Gangetic plain, bringing life to hundreds of millions. So it has been since the time of the Vedas—and in eons long before. So truths build on truths until they are irresistable and inseparable — one leading to another: a string-theory for the cosmos. There is no such thing as a small truth.

Gary Corseri has published novels and poetry collections, edited the Manifestations anthology, had his dramas produced on Atlanta-PBS and elsewhere. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum, and has published/posted his work at hundreds of venues, including AtlanticFreePress, CounterPunch, CounterCurrents, AfterDowningStreet, DissidentVoice, The New York Times and Village Voice. He can be contacted at gary_corseri@comcast.net.
 
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