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  For Flacks' essay, "Reflections on Strategy in a Dark Time," click here.

Democratic Media

Charlotte Ryan and William A. Gamson We are often told these days that to become serious political players we should disassociate ourselves from the left. In this climate, Richard Flacks' recognition of the "tradition of the left" as the foundation on which to build progressive strategies for the 21st century is especially timely and welcome. Today, Flacks stresses, the expansion of transnational capital requires mobilization strategies that transcend national boundaries. But developing organizing strategies that can create structural change in a global economic and political system is daunting. "Think globally, act locally" works well as a bumper sticker but the connection is hard to make. To shift power, we must identify local actions that expand organizing possibilities and encourage actions that will explode outward to new constituencies.

We bring these concerns to bear on the arena of struggle in which we are personally most active: mainstream mass media.
Left theorists -- Bagdikian, Chomsky, Gerbner, Herman, Hoynes, Schiller -- have documented the consolidation of corporate control of mass media. Progressive activists accept the left critique on a theoretical level but they operate in split screen: thinking globally and acting locally has often meant understanding corporate hegemony in theory while struggling to be cited on page 44 of the local press. Can such a blip on the screen be worth struggling for when publics are deluged by heavily funded massive media campaigns from the new right media apparatus? Given the resource gap between "them" and "us," is the media arena worth the time? Doesn't it simply detract from building alternative left media?

We write as co-directors of the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP), a media institute whose mission is to broaden democratic discourse by strengthening the ability of community, labor, and non-profit progressive groups to present their views in the media. We have no blueprint but we know who our teachers are, where to begin, and where we want to go. Left critiques, far from being closeted, are the bedrock on which we build. The alternative and opposition media are homebases where we can test our ideas and try our voices. But as Bernice Johnson Reagon points out in "Turning the Century," politics isn't about feeling at home; it's about making space for ourselves in unfamiliar and even hostile environs. So we must turn to mass media and direct organizing to reach those who don't already agree with us.

We have three lessons to share from our decade's work:

* Media strategies must develop with and serve social movements.

* The democratization of public discourse must place collective citizen action in the center of the media organizing equation. Organized popular voices must be legitimized as valid citizen contributions to democratic discourse, not discredited as "special interests."

* Inside and outside, top-down and bottom-up strategies must be combined.

Concrete micro-reforms that move mass media toward being more democratic become more imaginable in the context of specific issues. Take health care, which Flacks highlights as a critical issue. The Massachusetts-based Health Care for All has become a regular source of health care commentary for mainstream media. Health Care for All's success results from hard work and a multi-faceted strategy in which media efforts are given careful attention but put in the service of a broader political organizing strategy. Health Care for All integrates its direct organizing (which creates public pressure for change and provides news hooks for the media) with supporting efforts that include scholarly research, popularization of health organizing through in-house newsletters and alternative media such as Boston's Labor Page, and referral hotlines that gather cases which match journalists' story needs as well as building membership base.

With its combined strategies, Health Care for All has managed to intervene regularly in health care reporting on a regional and national level. Media coverage validates the hard work of the group's activists and, synergistically, the energized base increases group credibility in the media as well as other arenas of struggle.

For one progressive organization to be recognized as a regular source for health news in the mass media is a start, but only a start, toward democratizing mass media. The next step could involve Health Care for All working with other health activists to open regular space in health reporting for progressive ways of framing the news. Health activists working with media activists could monitor media coverage of health news, exposing how often health reports are thinly disguised corporate advertisements for new products. They could document and critique the tendency of health reporters to cover wonder drugs, diets, and fitness routines while ignoring social dimensions of disease causation and treatment. And, most importantly, they could systematically offer alternative frames on health care in mass media forums that now regularly exclude them.

In this period of strategy development, we reflect on both successful and unsuccessful media activism efforts in the last decade. We conclude that the media component of a broader mobilizing strategy must aim at increasing our collective
ability to reframe public discourse on the
problems that affect our lives and that there are promising current efforts that are
succeeding on specific issues.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review

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