Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mixed Up Media

Beyond corporate journalism: Tools to create a more democratic media.

I first became interested in journalism as a boy when I read All the President's Men and thought how cool it was that a couple of shrewd reporters, guardians of truth, could bring down a corrupt, paranoid, and vindictive president. And so off I went to a Midwestern J-school and put in my time as an editor at my university's student newspaper. I soon found that jobs out of college didn't exactly lead straight to the work of busting bad guys in news columns - instead it was stringing high school sports scores for some local paper out far away in the cornfields. I ended up meandering into other passions and careers, such as music, and eventually an entrance into the expansive world of design.

But in the spring of 2003 my media roots suddenly sprouted back. With our country still sobering from the country's adrenalin shock after 9/11, an opportunistic neocon president unfortunately pulled out a Nixon-like series of dirty tricks and started a horrifying drumbeat to a war that became one of the more misguided military entanglements in recent US history. My friends and cohorts all saw through the guise. "Why this war now?" was the question most prevalently pursed on their lips. War should always be the last step a nation takes in resolving conflict. But those questions and concerns seemed appallingly unchallenged by the sacred guardians of truth - at least not challenged in the way I expected of my idols. Where were the new Woodwards and Bernsteins? The new generation of fearless journalists?

When the Iraq War was launched that March, I decided to attend an impromptu evening protest in Chicago's Daley Plaza. I recall being at work and carefully pulling out the flier I'd found earlier at a subway stop, then slipping out the door of our South Loop design office a few minutes early to make sure I didn't miss any of the speakers. Instinctively, I brought a camera and recorder along to document the gathering, which at the time seemed so gravely wedged in a historical timeline.

All the President's Men
That night a riot ensued, and Chicago police were back to the sort of behaviors of a reputation known round the world: Batons flew wildly in the dark night along the lakefront, their horses constantly trotted and trampled amidst a walled-in group of gatherers, and after a ferocious period of violence and arrests, a whole bunch of folks ended up with bloodied heads, including some of us bystanders.

The moment was transformational. And in the days that followed I found myself drawn to a struggle of which I had not originally anticipated. I met a core group of protesters who asked what skills I could offer. I said "I can write a decent press release." Clearly that struck a chord, because everyone knew that the mainstream media was lost, and the anti-war movement needed to get out the right message. I was sped off to a North-side bunker-like brownstone headquarters, a place busy with blazing TV monitors and computer screens, phones ringing, and people constantly coming and going and working on all sorts of tasks. It was the underground of the protest movement, and, in essence, it was my first role as citizen journalist.

Fast forward to May Day 2012. I was not on the front lines documenting events of protesters. This time I watched. Not really the occupiers, I know their message and I'm in solidarity. Almost all of us really are, whether you know that or not. A recent Gallup poll said that nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that people in excess of a million dollars of income should pay a greater share of taxes than what they are paying now. That sort of paradigm shift in thinking would still be light years away if it weren't for the Occupy movement. We'd still all be buried in the same old tired Horatio Alger clichés about Ragged Dick pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. Face it, Ragged Dick is dead.

Instead, on May Day, I watched the media. Watched as in observed, which is an increasingly important thing to do these days. CNN led the morning with an interview of an Occupy spokesperson who iterated that on this day the movement was attempting to spread out and diversify its message to reach more Americans. The CNN anchorwoman concluded the piece by saying "Well there you have it, it seems that Occupy Wall Street is going mass market." I don't think her fumbling of concepts was intended to be offensive. She likely meant to say that they were trying to go "mainstream." It was clumsy, nonetheless.

New OWS documentary outlines the failures of msm reporting and the rise of citizen journalism.

On the web, a CNBC report highlighted how the protests weren't really living up to their billing. Since I've never seen in my lifetime a worldwide May Day protest make headline news like it was now, I wasn't sure what precedent they were following. The reporter's tone was one of belittlement, noting that the march "took a wrong turn" when they came across a group of construction workers who offered some career advice by saying "get a job" and "you can occupy my butt." (Again, a flashback to Nixon with the hard hat riot). But I don't think the CNBC reporter meant true malice with the story, simply tried to be funny. It just wasn't funny material. It was sophomoric, cliche, and not true to the realities of the events.

To emphasize what's transpiring with our mixed up media world, a new documentary called While We Watch highlights how the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times, was at first so confused by the Occupy Wall Street citizen journalist protesters that they ridiculed them. Then when the movement exploded they wanted all their stories. One Occupy media interviewee contends that the Times was essentially responsible for propagating many of the notions that led to our financial collapse, that they championed bad practices leading straight to economic chaos.

So then why do we put up with such dimwitted, misconstrued, failed corporate journalism? We don't have to: Twenty-five of the top independent news sources, including media outlets such as Mother Jones and The Nation, have formed a coalition called where you can find in-depth curated media reporting of events crucial to movements of social justice, environment, peace, labor, and human rights - an important factor as we advance into what appears to be a potentially active season of protests and nonviolent civil disobedient actions.

A Citizen Journalist Toolbox

But if you simply want to go it alone and be your own citizen journalist, there are tools available for that. Beyond the standard Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr methods, offers an online service and mobile app that allows you to photograph, film, and write a news story on the fly. You can compose it all on your smartphone and have it uploaded into the social media sphere within minutes. Likewise, has a platform to stream and view live video events from an iPhone. And for the local television beat in Philadelphia, we now have the resources of, a cable TV group that strongly advocates people powered public media storytelling, and offers on-air programing access, equipment rentals, and related video training all at a nominal cost. is a twitter based tool that gives the ability to harvest tweets in a unique way that helps build an aggregated news story. is a crowd sourcing hub for people trying to fund and collaborate with independent media projects, and is a social media document sharing resource.

What's more, there are new groups evolving such as Occupy Data that consist of networks of data-mining researchers from universities and such that are using many of the tools big corporations have used to understand, unravel, and sometimes exploit the behavior of consumers - consumers like you and me. But with this, the idea is flipped around to track the curious behaviors of big corporations and or their governments. Hence little brother is now watching big brother.

Other data research tools worth looking into are and Wolfram is especially useful because it helps with visualizing data and comes with a free mobile app. Many Eyes and are additional compelling research and data reporting websites. Many of these more advanced tools are on the cutting edge of investigative journalism and research, and they have a bit of a learning curve to get them up and running in any reporter's routine.

And finally, if you feel the urge to delve deeper into journalism and media as a profession, it's a good idea to visit the Poynter Institute at, where you can take online classes to sharpen skills. Poynter is an epicenter of all things journalism these days, and they have a dynamic, user-friendly new website. Their courses and training cover topics ranging from basic writing skills to entrepreneurial journalism and evolving new media careers. The cost per course is anywhere from free to about $35, with extended seminars a bit more.

All of these tools can be used for a myriad of purposes, from revolutionary research for the innovation of industry, to innovative research for revolutionaries. Much of it is employed by scientists and environmentalists to analyze and study models for sustainable living. Perhaps the real point is that we have tools at hand to build a new, more democratic media. That thought can be daunting in some ways. A quote from D. Boon of the 80's legendary idealist punk band The Minutemen comes to mind when he said something to this effect in describing the fall of corporate rock and the burgeoning ethos of independent music: "The good news is that there's a new band forming now on every block. The bad news is we might actually get what we wish for."

A true democratic society can be a bit messy sometimes, but it's still the best form of society I can think of.
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  1. That is one awesome article! Lots of great info and very well written!

  2. Very true and I hope you keep fighting the good fight. we need more people like you in the world.

  3. Late reply, but thanks for the kind words.