I was soaking wet and sitting near the back of a bright yellow school bus when another round of spirited singing broke out. Though I was not wearing my IMC press badge (nor any other ID), I had been filing daily stories for the Independent Media Center (IMC)—a Web publication in which coverage of news events emphasized issues and included voices not featured in mainstream reporting—during the week leading up to the April protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.
Now I couldn’t reach the ballpoint pen and soggy notepad that were tucked in my inside jacket pocket. So I tried to memorize the scene around me—how it felt, what people were saying and doing, the uncertainty about what lay ahead. As the singing subsided, a discussion broke out about Monsanto’s genetically engineered foods and the privatization of the world’s water supplies. Police looked on indulgently as a scruffy young man calling himself “Dionysius Gonorrhea” periodically filled the bus with his indignant rage. “24,000 children in this world are going to die of hunger today!” he’d yell. “24,000 children in this world are going to die of hunger tomorrow! 24,000 children in this world are going to die of hunger on Wednesday….”
He was on his way to jail. And so were the rest of us.
Launching a People’s Newsroom
The IMC (www.indymedia.org) emerged in the fall of 1999, midwifed into existence by a core group of half a dozen media activists in the Seattle area. The rationale for its emergence was the globalization and centralization of media organizations. By then, six huge media conglomerates held control of the majority of the news and information outlets in this country, and the mergers of major companies made the advertisers who paid the publishing bills equally powerful entities. What concerned the IMC organizers was that the upcoming World Trade Organization protests in Seattle would be poorly covered (if at all) by the mainstream, corporate media. Their goal was not to create one more alternative lefty publication but to lay the infrastructure for a multimedia peoples’ newsroom that would enable activists to come together and disseminate their own stories to a global audience without having to go through the corporate filter.
With $30,000 in donations (including a hefty amount from an ex-Microsoft employee) and lots of borrowed equipment, the Seattle IMC was able to occupy a small storefront office in downtown Seattle. Our news might not be televised, but now it was ready to be downloaded.
The IMC was an end-run around the information gatekeepers, made possible by the technology of the Internet. The IMC Web site uses open-source software that allows people to instantly upload stories and clips onto the site. And the news that was uploaded was evidently what a lot of people wanted to read. During its coverage of the weeklong “Battle of Seattle,” indymedia.org received 1.5 million hits, and its audio and video clips were rebroadcast on community radio stations and cable public access channels. While tens of thousands of protesters disrupted the WTO meetings, hundreds of IMC volunteers braved the tear gas and rubber bullets to record history in the making with pens, notebooks, tape recorders, and video cameras. Images of police assaults (which began several hours before the sporadic window smashing that erupted on the fringe of the protest) and festive but determined protesters moved swiftly around the planet.
Back on the Beat
Another IMC Web site opened up in early April. Based out of Washington, D.C., it was created to cover the A16 Mobilization for Global Justice. A16, which targeted the IMF and the World Bank, was the sequel to Seattle. Our work area was in a small art gallery in northwest Washington. Striking Pacifica Radio stringers and other seasoned journalists such as Eric Galatas (program director of Free Speech TV), Michael Eisenmenger (of Paper Tiger TV) and Eddy Becker (formerly with the National Security Archive) worked side by side with those who had little or no experience.
It was my first time working in a newsroom since I’d left my job as a news reporter at the Ottumwa (Iowa) Courier a decade earlier. I ran all over town doing stories on “puppetistas” and Lesbian Avengers and high school kids who were banned from putting up A16 posters because school authorities thought “politics shouldn’t be in the schools.” I followed a squad of Pennsylvania Teamsters through the halls of Congress as they lobbied against the China Free Trade Bill, and I was in front of the protesters’ headquarters when more than 100 police raided it and shut it down for alleged fire code violations. Later, I ended up on the bus with Dionysius Gonorrhea.
It has been a long time since young people have filled this country’s jails in the name of justice. There were 1,353 arrests in Washington. The best way to cover the story, I felt, was to be right in the middle of it. I was in custody for 24 hours before I unexpectedly found myself released at arraignment with all charges dismissed. However, 155 of the protesters stayed in jail another four days—singing, hunger striking, refusing to give their names, stripping off their clothes en masse and going limp or tying themselves to their cots—until they were able to collectively bargain the terms of their release.
It was a helluva story. And I ended up telling it (“Adora’s Story: 19-Year- Old Protester Arrested for First Time at IMF Demonstrations; Does 5 Days in Jail”) through the eyes of a talkative young woman who was in for the full ride. The insights I gained while in custody were invaluable.
An Expanding Network
The IMC continues growing as it both covers and helps to create the movement against corporate globalization. It is now, in the lingo of our times, “a diversified global media group.” It has thousands of workers/participants, a catchy logo, and 37 sites scattered in cities across the United States and Canada and in countries including Mexico, France, Italy, Israel and India. Dozens more are in the queue. At this fall’s IMF/World Bank demonstrations, 500 people from 32 countries participated in the Prague IMC. And discussions are well underway about everything from whether to adopt 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to how to best set up a global IMC “spokescouncil,” with each local IMC represented by an empowered representative.
As a product of the anticorporate globalization movement, the IMC shares both its strengths and weaknesses. It is defiant, angry, hopeful, chaotic, creative, generous and, at times, painfully naive. It is a voluntocracy that operates mostly on youthful enthusiasm. And in true anarchist fashion, it is decentralized and highly participatory. All decisions are made by consensus.
The heart of each IMC site is the newswire that runs down the right-hand side of the screen. The best stories are culled from the newswire by editorial collectives and placed in the center column of the page. Links to other IMC sites appear in the left-hand column. Since anyone can upload a story onto the newswire, what arrives makes for an interesting brew. Here is a sampling of headlines from stories that appeared on the main newswire one day in late October:
- “Breaking News! Major Coal Sludge Spill Threatens Kentucky”
- “Nader LEADS in Time Poll…VOTE!”
- “Call to Action on N7—Everywhere in the U$”
- “Ichetucknee Earth First! Road Blocks Removed by Police After 16+ Hours”
- “N16—Protest the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue in Cincinnati, USA”
- “2,000 Protest in NYC Against Police Brutality”
- “U.S. Cannot Be Honest Broker in Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks”
- “A Global Call for Freedom of Speech Everywhere—Everybody’s Box!”
Is this a bulletin board for the far left or a robust annex to the marketplace of ideas? Some will question whether IMC journalism is real journalism since it is not “objective,” in the traditional sense of that word, and it doesn’t pretend to be. After all, can those of us who are politically motivated have the objective distance to question our own assumptions? Time will tell. Yet we would argue that many corporate journalists have their own deeply ingrained bias toward retaining the status quo.
Relying heavily on official sources within government and business, corporate journalism sets the narrow parameters that actually are put forth for public debate. Every notion that falls outside of those parameters, such as the possibility of having universal health care as every other Western industrial democracy does or the risks of genetic engineering or the buildup of a prison industrial complex or the deepening misery of the Palestinians, just to cite a few examples, is generally either derided or ignored by the mainstream press. It also appears that corporate journalists rise through the ranks not only because of their abilities and their work ethic but also because of their uncanny ability to always ask the wrong questions. To what extent this is done consciously (self-censorship) or unconsciously (internalization of institutional values) is impossible to say, and it really does not matter. The result is the same: journalism as the monologue of power.
I believe journalism is not about applauding the powerful but challenging how power is used and abused. It’s about asking hard-hitting questions that shed light in dark places. It’s about communicating information that not only gets the who, what, where and when correct but tries to put stories in a fuller context, often by asking and trying to answer the “why” questions, as well. And it is about seeking out the stories of those who live on the margins and lack power within the system, which includes most people in one way or another. If this is how journalism was practiced, it would be the beginning of an American glasnost.
The IMC is still a long way from fulfilling this ideal. But at least the will to do so is there.
John Tarleton writes for www.cybertraveler.org and the New York City Independent Media Center.