by Greg Macdougall
There’s a lot that can be (and has been) said about media.
Maybe it’s about how self-esteem suffers (especially for youth) when exposed to unrealistic or misleading representations in the media. Or maybe it’s about (the lack of) diversity in the media – whether in terms of ethnicity or political views. Or maybe it’s about the Propaganda Model presented by Chomsky and Herman, or the theories presented by Marshall McLuhan.
I’ll be leading a course on Interdependent Media starting Sept 19th, and a week before that I’ll be facilitating something of a workshop sampler at Octopus Books Centretown — so I’d like to just give a bit of perspective on where I’m coming from or what I think.
I’ll start off with a quote from Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
I think this was from back in the ’60s, so if we contextualize the quote today it’s not just the newspapers but the whole 24-hour newscycle that we’re exposed to. The quote is still very much valid, in my (and others’) opinion the objectivity of the mainstream / corporate media is a bit skewed. They work for their main customers, not the public interest.
At a local level for instance, Randall Marlin – a neighbour of mine and a long-time professor at Carleton – recently mentioned to me how he thought the Ottawa Sun was mainly about the local real estate development industry and the car industry. When those industries hold sway at a newspaper, you probably won’t get the full range of views fully represented on either Lansdowne Park development or climate change.
There’s a lot more that can be said about, say, Fox News south of the border. But they’re the easy targets.
The whole media industry really is skewed, and the main culprit – besides who owns the majority of the media – is the way advertising drives the industry.
When you read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch TV, you aren’t actually their customer. You are their product – they sell your attention and time to the advertisers. If you happen to be paying for the media, you’re likely just subsidizing the cost of getting that media to you – their profits come from selling their audience to their (commercial) customers.
Which is why they’re all in trouble – advertising in traditional media isn’t what it used to be. Classifieds used to be a big thing, but with Craigslist and Kijiji they’ve really taken a hit in that segment.
I recently interviewed Tom Stites, Founder and President of the Banyan Project in the US. He stated that after they’d decided on what journalism meant to them – reliable, respectful and relevant information delivery – the model that made sense was a co-operative setup, where the readers/viewers were also the owners of the media. This isn’t something we see very often, although in Canada there is the Media Co-op which is founded on that principle.
It’s interesting if you look into the history of ‘objective reporting’ in media: it didn’t used to exist. Papers existed with explicit biases, and it was only as advertisers realized that associating themselves with certain perspectives might have a negative impact on people who didn’t agree with those perspectives, that this new ‘objective’ reporting came into being, so that advertisers could more easily appeal to everyone they wanted to.
Another quote I like is from the music/hip-hop group OutKast, from their sung Humble Mumble: “Speeches only reaches those who already know about it / This is how we go about it.”
Growing up – in high school and the first half of university – I can’t say I was very politically conscious. But I was getting a dose of an alternate reality through music, mainly rap.
I can remember after staying up late one Saturday night to listen to – and record – the midnight-2am ‘Blunted Dummies Hip Hop Show’ on CKCU 93.1FM, the next day walking down the street and listening on my walkman to musical story-telling about the use of hemp in the 1800s in the USA. I wasn’t getting that kind of consciousness anywhere else – and even today with the internet most people probably don’t hear a lot about the hemp industry; I’ve even heard a rumour that the whole ‘medical marijuana’ legalization is a front to keep the focus off of legalizing the other myriad uses of hemp that would threaten long-standing commercial interests in different areas.
One of the many other social issues I came to be aware of through rap music was the epidemic of incarceration of young black males in the States. It’s interesting, because some (a lot) of the representations coming out of the rap industry were images of criminal behaviour being celebrated, that fed into the greater public’s notion of young black men as hard criminals. But unless you go more in-depth you don’t realize that it is systemic racism that is really what is going on, with so many locked up in prisons.
The glorified images coming out of the rap music industry were not always real – there was even a movie made (CB4) showing how rappers ‘played’ gangster for the fame and fortune, when that’s not really who they were – and if you listened to the right rap music you’d understand the deeper situation.
I interviewed Jelleestone, a rapper representing Rexdale in Toronto, in 2001 and this is what he had to say: “This is what people in record companies give money to, is ‘fuck’, ‘bitch’, ‘ho’, you know what I’m sayin, and ‘kill a nigga’ shit, that’s what they want to hear. That’s what they choose to pay you for. That doesn’t mean that’s what a dude got to say, but if that’s what’s making the money, what’ch you gonna say?”
It’s interesting how much is said in rap music lyrics about the art of making the music, about making media, a kind of meta-perspective. (Of course, it’s also interesting how much is said in rap music about a whole lot of subjects, because really where else do you get so much said in the four-minute span of one song).
But I eventually did become politically active, and it was through media – I eventually got subscribed to Adbusters magazine, and then started making media a couple years later. First it was with the student newspaper at Waterloo, reporting on the track and field team meets (I was on the team and we needed someone to write things up). I soon branched out into reporting on social justice issues – later on in my first year with the paper, I was the editor of a special four-page insert for ‘Buy Nothing Day’ – and ended up with a weekly column that was mostly dedicated to issues of social justice.
Through the newspaper I got involved with WPIRG, an activist organization on campus, and then into Indymedia (the Independent Media Centre network that started at the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization). And on into the present, where I do freelance writing/multi-media work and am involved with the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa (IPSMO) in roles that include media making, and in setting up the Ottawa Working Group of the Media Co-op.
So I feel I have a lot to bring to leading this course, but also I feel that you – if you enroll – and the other course participants will have a lot to offer. We all have stories about how media has affected us, how we’ve engaged with it, and the model of learing that I use values the experiences and knowledge that each person brings to the course.
I recently came across this quote, from Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood: “The skills children will always need to thrive – deep thinking, the ability to differentiate fact from hype, creativity, self-regulation, empathy and self-reflection – aren’t learned in front of any screen. They are learned through face-to-face communication, hands-on exploration of the world, opportunities for silence and time to dream.” http://on.fb.me/QdkO0l
I really endorse this – for all of us children of whatever age, it’s never too late to apply – and I feel that is the essence of what this course has to offer.
Hope to see you there.
Interdependent Media sampler evening
Wed Sept 12, 7pm
at Octopus Books Centretown
Under One Roof, 251 Bank St 2nd floor
Interdepent Media six-week course
Wed evngs 7-9pm, Sept 19 – Oct 24
at the Glebe Community Centre
175 Third Ave, corner of Lyon
More of Greg Macdougall’s writings and multi-media work can be found at his website, www.EquitableEducation.ca