Wednesday, March 20, 2002

One Man's Alternative Media Strategy II
I realize that Sander's recent missive is a rough draft, but I wrote a response of sorts last night. It's not really a rebuttal or critique of Sander's essay, but I used his thoughts as a trigger to consider and solidify my own. This, too, is open to feedback.

Regardless of the laudable and romantic path Sander took to find himself creating and consuming what he terms "alternative media," I take issue with his contention that participating in alternative media -- if you're of the anti-war, anti-imperialist sort -- makes people part of the American Left.

The Left, while continuing to represent some valid and vibrant ideas and ideals, is no longer useful as a political determinant, much less as a productive actor on the societal stage. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Left has become a cartoon of itself, with the New Left being an oxymoron since the SDS' and SNCC's fracturing and factionalization and the end of the countercultural evolution of the late '60s -- much like the New South has lacked a solid foundation as a concept since the end of post-slavery industrialization. At the same time, many lefty -- my preferred descriptor -- activists (myself included) continue to idolize and idealize some of the more visible participants in the political and social reorganization efforts that took place in the '60s. Even if we go back even further to the initial labor organizing icons of early industrialization for inspiration and education, we are left without a current generation of heroes and leaders. Particularly in the media space.

Let's consider some of the lefty holdovers currently involved in media. Abe Peck, formerly an editor of the Chicago Seed, rests near the top of the journalism department at Northwestern University and -- at least while I was a student there in the early '90s -- was blissfully unaware of zines, arguably the heir to the throne he and his comrades once occupied. Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, a once-important (politically and philosophically) countercultural outlet, has aged badly along with his magazine, continuing to employ graying lapsed leftists such as the despicably irresponsible P.J. O'Rourke (the Dave Barry of political posturing) as he orchestrates a circle jerk for baby boomer has beens, catering just enough to the younger set to maintain popcult credibility -- and including just enough political content to be consider slightly radical.

Those are the more visible examples. To find true media heroes coming out of the Left, we need to look further afield -- to Paul Krassner and his end-of-the-line diatribes in the Realist; to Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, who had to move to the mountains of Northern California to find his political voice and position in a community; and to Fred Woodworth, whose low-tech print shop continues to crank out the Match and which lent Luddite luminescence to the ever-cranky Zine World (now the abominably named Reader's Guide to the Underground Press). These three are on the outside of the outside, often countering even the countercultures that embrace them. And I'd be surprised if any of them considered themselves part of the American Left, even if they have lefty tendencies.

But it's not just the dependence on historic and romantic figures that bothers me about the Left -- and Sander's fascination with it. It's the language and accessibility of the movement. The Left -- particularly the New Left -- has almost always been an academic, policy-oriented, and arcane clique, not speaking in a tongue understood by many working-class people -- and certainly not palatable to the masses. Even anarchy, which should be one of the most easily digestible political philosophies -- self-interested responsibility to the community -- has couched its message either in violence (the window breaking during the WTO protests) or in mumbo jumbo (John Zerzan's ongoing neo-primitive attacks on the beautifully befuddled yet cleverly critical Murray Bookchin). And it's all because of communication, right? Just like Saul Alinsky -- to name drop another oldie but goodie -- said.

Media, then, is the platform on which -- the agar in which -- communication grows and happens. Sander's right that political activists need to gain control of media production. This is how we -- if there is a unified we -- can best get our messages out. But is this access to power through production as cut and dried as Sander suggests: "taken out of the hands of the fat cats"? I don't think so. I also don't think that a unionized and state-run media is the answer, either. A media dictatorship is a media dictatorship. The fall, foibles, and follies of Communism shows just how an appealing and attractive political philosophy (Marxism, natch) can be misinterpreted and inadequately applied.

If we don't follow the traditional leftist track of class warfare, union organization, and state ownership, what are we to do? I'd like to suggest three possible courses of action.

Deprofessionalize journalism
Professional journalism is flawed in two major ways. One, the professionalization of the trade has removed the responsibility of the reporter -- remember, my experience is largely limited to print and print-modeled journalism -- placing the respect, resources, and resolve largely in the hands of the media organizations that employ us and hold our copyrights if what we do is work for hire. As respected as Daniel Pearl might be, he's respected in part because of his association with the Wall Street Journal. This doesn't apply to Pearl, per se, but with comfort comes complicity. This removal of responsibility is made manifest mainly through the myth of objectivity. Objectivity doesn't exist. Fairness and accuracy do. But instead of media pandering to the masses and business owners with a he said/she said namby-pamby waffling, I'd rather see newspapers with a political and social platform, writers with a strident and striving voice, and media with very clear biases. Readers -- media consumers -- should have a hand in creating and contesting those voices and biases.

Because, two, journalism and media production's professionalization has distanced writers and producers from the readers and consumers. I often joke that all journalists do is talk to people others can't talk to -- and then tell others what they talked about. This is true. We should all be able to gain access to our social, political, and cultural leaders. We should all be able to voice our opinions. And we should all be -- regardless of our role and status in society -- visible, accessible, and responsible for the impact we have on the world.

Mini-movements such as community journalism, self-publishing online and offline, and media-driven community organizing experiments are all solid steps toward the goal of media being a socially democratic platform on which people tell each other their own stories instead of waiting for the mainstream media powers that be to give them the nod. Journalists and media producers should help us make sense of the world -- not make cents off the world. And our first responsibility should be to the readers and media consumers, not to an abstract profession or a business's stockholders.

Smash the media state from inside
Another admittedly cartoony corpse of the counterculture, Hunter Thompson, who now writes for but failed to weigh in on 911 for Rolling Stone, put it best: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." If you're at all interested in the ideas and ideals that Sander -- and I -- espouse, get a "real" media job. We saw this happen quite often during the zine boom of the '90s. Mike Gunderloy, who founded Factsheet Five and ran a publishing imprint named after Civil War-era abolitionist and anarchist attorney Lysander Spooner, got a book contract. As did kitcschy popcult commentator Pagan Kennedy. Noel Ignatiev, publisher of Race Traitor, taught briefly at Harvard. Jim Romenesko got a gig at the Poynter Institute. Lookout! and Epitaph records continue to walk the fine line between commercial credibility and punk-rock positivity. Geeky zine maven Chip Rowe holds forth as the Playboy Advisor. And Might alumni David Moodie and Dave Eggers innovatively influenced Spin and Esquire before the McSweeney's phenomenon. (I, not to enroll myself in the same school as the above, work full time for Fast Company magazine, which is published by Gruner & Jahr, a division of Bertlesmann. Please enjoy the irony of that with me.)

Let's infect mainstream media. Let's create workplaces and media that reflect our collective value and values. Let's hold our managers and owners accountable to the needs of the readers, viewers, and other media consumers. Let's use mainstream media to create communities and affinity groups sinilar to those we support with our alternative media activity. Let's show people that they can do what we do, too. As people involved in media production, no matter to what extent, we come from a place of privilege. Let's use that power to help kids living in housing projects publish poetry chapbooks, give radio shows to the homeless and the elderly, and produce records by the developmentally disabled. doesn't need to be outsider art, but we do need to consider and tap into outside voices.

But let's do all of the above paying heed to some of the lessons learned by mainstream media -- the practice of our trade; the importance of active, well-reasoned, and fair editing and filtering; the possibilities offered by professional presentation (delightful design); and the need to meet people's -- the market's -- needs. The market isn't the problem. The abuse and manipulation of the market is.

Offer viable parallel options
This is where we are now and where we've been since the '20s if not earlier -- and we're still not very good at it. We don't need a counterculture, an under-the-counter culture, or an underground. What we need is a parallel media space that's more exciting, important, and useful than the mainstream.

In creating this, we face two major challenges. One, the problem isn't access to production. As Sander demonstrates, the production tools are available. Through photocopying, desktop publishing, home recording, microbroadcasting (the only aspect of this that's still illegal or -- on the Web -- soon to be), blogging, web printing, and Web publishing, we can already make our own media. The hurdles we face are more deeply rooted in distribution and promotion. I'll address this in a minute. Two, Sturgeon's Law -- that 90% of everything is crud -- is even more true for alternative and independent media. There's a reason why some poets have to self-publish. There's a reason why some bands, including mine, can't get shows. The reason? They're not very good. Viable alternative media needs to move beyond democracy in the sense that anyone can do anything. Oh, they can. I know. I used to review 400 personal Web pages every month. And they should. It's just that the rest of us might not need to know.

My solutions for these two challenges? First, a more collaborative and cooperative approach to distribution and promotion. There's little thanks, money, or glory in it, but it's necessary. Remember Blacklist Mailorder, the record distro MRR ran out of the back room of Epicenter in San Francisco? Hella better and more personal that Remember the grassroots minicomics distros Spit-and-a-Half, Puppy Toss, and Wow Cool? More direct than Diamond. Remember Hello Records, They Might Be Giants' CD subscription service? Gone. Luckily, projects like Free Speech TV are still around. We need more affinity groups cross-promoting participants' media products and services. We need more music collectives like Elephant Six and Handstand Command, in which my band, the Anchormen, is active, cross-promoting shows, cooperatively releasing records, and building something larger than its parts -- but still with art and heart.

Secondly, we need to encourage quality and ongoing improvement -- of effort, of production, and of response. Since my exposure to independent and micromedia in 1988, I've seen a hesitancy to criticize just because it's an alternative. "Support the scene!" people wail. Yes, support the scene. But constructively criticize your compatriots' books, records, zines, comics, Web sites, radio shows, and public-access TV shows. Independence isn't an excuse for being immature, impolite, or incompetent. Instead, it gives us more dire reasons to be ballsier, better, and bigger than our mainstream counterparts. Of course, I think everyone should be supported for doing it themselves, but I think lacks a culture of constructive criticism. Let's collectively help each other improve -- and hold up the quality creators and positive projects as viable alternatives to the loathsome noise of the mainstream.

You'll notice that none of the above potential solutions mentions the Left, unions, state ownership, or class conflict. I agree with Sander in that my thinking is informed by such elements of what we do. But I think that a true alternative media will be built on collaboration, cooperation, creativity, and criticism much more than it will be bolstered by the ideologies of the Left, old, new, or now.

End note
Riffing on my comments on the flaws of objectivity, I'd like to touch on Sander's consideration of the Right. One, the Right is a construct just like the Left, and it has little currency as such. We need to move beyond bipartisan and bipolar categorization -- past a three-party system in which Ralph Nader is repeatedly held up to represent the Greens -- and toward a society in which multiple viewpoints can be held personally, responsibly, and transparently. The reason why the Right is evil is because they try to hide their evils -- just as the Left is tempted to hide its shortcomings (H. Rapp Brown, anyone?). If held personally responsible, do you think business executives would have let Andersen, Enron, or Global Crossing happen? Two, this comes down again at root to the myth of objectivity. I'm not calling for a fence-sitting subjectivity in which all opinions are equally valid, but a subjectivity in which all opinions and biases are open and clear. Despite the need for media literacy work, people aren't stupid. Increased accountability will increase honesty, and vice versa. If media organizations and journalists take the first step and model positive behavior by putting down their masks and shields -- acting like people instead of institutions -- we'd all be the better off for it. And, perhaps, the rest of the world will follow.

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