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An Interview with Danny Schechter, the News Dissector

by ADAM ENGEL

Engel: Tens of millions, possibly over 100 million Americans have access to alternative or indy media via the web. How can we blame the corporate media, which is so transparently corrupt, for the “American People’s” support of the war and general ignorance of all things outside of the NYT/CNN point of view? Are we merely preaching to the converted?

Schechter: We live in a media-ocracy. Mainstream politics and mainstream media have morphed, converged, cross pollinated and merged to the point of provoking a personal purge. What that means is that “public opinion” as it is measured, and surveyed is taken seriously by big media and cultivated as well. You are partly right, millions turned against war despite the media brainwash, and did seek out other\ sources, but for the most part all non-mainstream media is marginalized. Having “access” to media does not mean it is read or digested. Millions have access to every book in the library too. How many are read?

Engel: I was surprised at the turnout for the February and March anti-war rallies in NYC, particularly since it got zero coverage in anticipation of the event, and minimal coverage afterward. The Feb 17 rally was covered by the Washington Post, but minimally by the New York Times – in their own backyard. Do you think the huge turnouts across the country (15 million worldwide) were the result of the word being passed via blogs, newsletters, Indy and Alternative Web sites?

Schechter: In part, the marches have been organized by experienced mobilizers with extensive lists, contacts and grass roots networks. The media exposure helped by validating the impulse but don’t forget there has been a growing rage among liberals and letter people after the Florida election, Seattle, the inauguration, and the rightward ideological drift of an already conservative media system…. media reinforced.

Engel: Are we becoming a nation divided not merely along the lines of “haves and have-nots” but “informed and uninformed?”

Schechter: We have information haves and have-nots, but also people who are exposed to TV news as their main form of info are often the most uninformed. We in the indy media do have the “means of production” to get our ideas out there but we lack the means of distribution to market, promote and build mass audiences. No we are not merely “preaching to the converted’ but “we” have to find better ways of getting our ideas across, and make them more accessible to the folks who have access. Also, lacking capital, we have few sustainable revenue models. Capisch?

Engel: I understand this. But when I refer to “alternative” or “indy” media I’m speaking almost exclusively of the Web. The corporate monopoly over the airwaves, cinema, and print is, in the foreseeable future, too powerful to confront using traditional methods. Do you see alt media as a kind of “guerilla” movement, using technology that anyone can use against the behemothic corporate/state media that no one can use?

Schechter: In part, and it is exciting but we need more cooperation and collaboration, linking and cross promotion. That is why we established <Mediachannel.org>. To make our affiliates more accessible to new audiences.

Engel: There has always been a divide between those who prefer to know and those who prefer not to know, but those who prefer not to know are bombarded with propaganda in the form of both “news” and “entertainment.”

Schechter: Why do you think people prefer not to know? That is very insulting and demeaning. Our media system devalues information, dumbs it down and provides news without context in an uninteresting way. Is it any wonder that some are not interested or just hang on the headlines. Our school systems suck. Adult literacy is low. There is little encouragement to think or incentive for doing so. We live in a depoliticized culture that promotes consumption, not citizenship. So don’t blame the people.

Engel: It should be insulting and demeaning, for many, many people either prefer not to know or simply do not care as long as it does not affect them. Our media system’s devaluation of information should not prevent adults from behaving like adult citizens and taking some control over their lives.

Schechter: I don’t want to engage in broad-brush arguments about THE people because you leave out the obvious ways we are all segmented–by race, class, gender–and then consciousness. If you start with the assumption that people are stupid you will never reach them. There are many examples of journalists, writers and TV program that engage large audiences and offer challenging content.

Engel: Are you saying someone who sees the obvious — a cruise missile smashing into a civilian building — in a colorful photograph on the front page, is excused from asking “who’s in that building?” merely because of the presentation? Adults must be encouraged to think? Why do some, many in fact, think more than others? What separates those who seek to empower themselves from those who don’t, even though both might have grown up under the same socio-economic circumstances, been failed by he same school system, and bombarded by the lies of the same media? Don’t blame the people? What of the 15 million who protested this war? Weren’t they blaming the indolence of their fellow citizens as much as the murderous arrogance of the American Government?

Schechter: No they were protesting the policy–appealing to fellow citizens to join in. Here in NY protesters were penned in and the police made it difficult for all who wanted to take part to do so. In every movement, there is a conscious elite that takes the lead but if the issues are clearly defined, if the leadership is good, if organizing is effective, many will participate. Our media system discourages a democracy of participation. It reinforces the idea that you can’t fight city hall, and that you can’t win. That’s why that media system and its ideological underpinnings need to be challenged with active resistance and a counter narrative.

Engel: If we can’t blame the people for falling under the sway of corporate media, how can we possibly believe the people will respond to alternative media? According to this statement, they are clay, beyond suasion, too far gone to act in their own defense. They need encouragement even to think.

Schechter: Perhaps you can examine your own assumption–that people chose not to know. Many people feel powerless. Politics and events overseas are nothing they can effect. The media distances them and does not encourage engagement. They are not encouraged to have an empathetic connection with others, especially THE OTHER, people unlike themselves. The media system is about legitimating itself first–so when you are only fed one kind of information, that is the info you rely on…

Engel: Okay. You have a point. Many millions of people are overworked, underpaid, and just plain tired. Even Barbara Ehrenreich found herself thinking of nothing but a warm bed after a hard “day’s” (12-16 hours) work in “Nickel and Dimed.” Many people are so tired they can barely crack open a beer and watch a few hours of television before bed. Also, I agree that generalizations of “the people” fail to take the individuality of each person into account.

One of the “decisions” made by Big Media is what is worth reporting on. They have the money to send correspondents where they think newsworthy events are occurring. But I remember reading in Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” how the free-lancers working for (then) alternative magazines like Rolling Stone would laugh at the NYT guys in their suits, never leaving their air-conditioned hotel rooms while the “freelancers” would go into the bush.

Schechter: Well the NY Times had some great reporters in Vietnam and some lousy ones. Some like Gloria Emerson covered all the contradictions. The problem is that there are fewer journalists with her sensibility and insight. I wouldn’t diss everyone in the mainstream…I do diss their companies.

Engel: Similarly, anyone can set up a website anywhere. There were websites put up by Iraqis before and during the invasion. In short, the monopoly on “what’s important” is being challenged by the ability of those who were previously ignored to make themselves heard — and have their messages picked up by bigger, more widely known sites.

Schechter: True, and I think this is a very promising development but one which the readership needs to understand the importance of, not take for granted and support more actively., If you want a say, you have to pay too. I know lots of lefties who think nothing of buying the Times but won’t contribute to the alt media. We need a multi-track strategy–one that supports indy media but also takes on big media. As you can see from the FCC issue where TWO MILLION people wrote against pro-media monopoly rule changes, media is an issue that activates people.

Engel: Yes, I’ve seen the same phenomenon of lefties who’ll plunk down $400 for an mp3 player, demand “free” music, yet grumble about sending $20 to a news site they visit daily, (or download music from). The petitions and letters that went off to the FCC were encouraging. An example of people demanding a say in the media they actually own but which was sold out from under them. Which brings me to another question. The internet phenomenon is still less than ten years old, less than 7 years for most. Is it possible to shut it down? DARPA created it to work in pockets rather than a single connection, but still, most readers, not to mention websites, belong to a relatively few ISPs. Why not buy it out, or shut it down, or censor everything in the name of “security?”

Schechter: Nothing is fixed forever and ever. We have to defend our rights to communicate and sustain the space we have built for free expression and political advocacy. The government and corporations never intended for the web to emerge the way it has. But here it is–lets work together to have an impact through it and wish. It is not the platform that matters. It is what we stand for and stand with. A counter attack is coming. It is here. We have to keep it alive. Keep punching and counterpunching.

Engel: When I first got involved with the web in 1994 (using Lynx — just text) I thought: this is going to be revolutionary. Then came the dot.com thing and by 1997 I was writing copy for one of thousands of corporate commercial pitch sites. Now, especially since the election fraud of 2000, indy media seems to have exploded. Hundreds of “well-known” news sites, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of sites covering every range of human interest imaginable across the globe. Sites like the Mediachannel have helped inspire this, but where is it leading? Do you see an organized movement among people of various political persuasions who produce web content taking on the mainstream, a kind of guild or union? It’s one thing for a few site, such as Adbusters, to call for a boycott of a corporation or protest of government policy, it’s quite another if a confederation of thousands of sites pass along the message for organized resistance.

Schechter: Right now we are seeding the clouds, connecting readers to other ideas and demonstrating that diversity of viewpoint makes a difference. Where will it go. It already is going. A new media and democracy movement is emerging. The FCC campaign shows that far more people than we think will be supportive.

Engel: So the question boils down to what people are exposed to. If corporate media have the monopoly on information, and most people don’t have the time to verify every source, like a scholar or journalist might, the only challenge to this endless-loop is to introduce alternative viewpoints that are accessible to all. The Cosmos didn’t bestow the airwaves and cable to the corporate/government elite.

Schechter: How do people find out about new information sources. new websites? Remember the tech boom. Some companies spent millions branding and promoting and advertising and nothing stuck. Partly customers didn’t understand what they were selling and it was so new and complicated. They failed. Others like the old NAPSTER or EBAY or AMAZON which make life easier or cheaper etc succeed. Alternative sites like ours have to figure out how to reach an audience and grow it. Our “competitors” in the mainstream have TV shows pushing their URLS. They are visible, and received the benefits of cross promotion. Also, other sites of armies of people pumping in new content, using the latest design and tech gizmos. We can’t compete. That doesn’t mean our content isn’t valuable, valid or interesting. It is. How do let more people know about it?

Hey I am not a pessimist like you. I believe in the possibility of change, of educating people, or motivating activism. That’s why I do what I do as a film maker, writer and journalist. Alternative media needs to be credible too.

Engel: I am a pessimist. Though I believe in the possibility of change and education, I don’t see it happening among a majority of the population. On the other hand, all I know of the “American People” comes from the images of mainstream media and the flags I’ve seen waving from cars and porches since 9/11. Is it possible that I myself am another “sucker” for mainstream media for believing what they say about who and what the American people are and what they’re thinking (via polls etc.)?

Schechter: What an admission–you are sucked in. Maybe you need a bit more perspective. I was in the civil rights movement. Only a few supported it first, but then grew and had an impact. I fought against the war in Vietnam. Our movements helped end it. I battled apartheid. It became a world wide issue and triumphed. (That doesn’t mean that everything is hunky dory. One set of problems always gives way to another.) My point is that history happens. People make change. The tide in the Bush war is turning. He is loosing support. More lies are being unmasked.

Engel: I grew up with and know (friends, relatives, in-laws) people with “advanced degrees,” who came from what most people in the world would call privileged backgrounds, yet who expose themselves to the TV News as Well as the equally misleading newspapers, magazines and “cool” websites. When I approach such people with the possibility that there are other points of view, both left and right, and that many people outside the U.S. see their own countries in far more complicated ways than we do, they scoff at me for “always being political, never just having fun” (as if staring at a TV were fun) or shrug their shoulders as if to say, some people have whiskey and cigarettes, I have this.

Schechter: Are you always being political? If people perceive you that way, then you have to consider new ways of relating to them, and interesting them in what you have to say. Being righteous and shrill doesn’t work. Sometimes reason does. You can’t abolish the people.

Engel: Sometimes I am righteous and shrill, to my detriment, but often I am reasonable and reticent, listening to the “other side” grow righteous and shrill. Though I am never “righteous” when arguing with informed “opponents” of different opinions (right wing, Libertarian, Conservative etc.) rather, the people who are allegedly “informed” but who receive their opinions straight from the CNN/NYT/FOX corporate media get me stomping up and down. The Right winger has sought alternative information; the “mainstreamer,” has not.

Schechter: Keep stomping but also work on ways and means of spreading the word and the sense that winning is possible. It isn’t everything but it helps. I work on Mediachannel in part because I want to build a bridge where possible between mainstream media people–most of whom are dissatisfied–and more independent minded journalists. I want get a deeper debate going within journalism and within our movements about the impacts media has on our lives. I also want to encourage more Global connections–so that we lose some of our own parochialism and see ourselves as part of a changing world.

I need help. To get Mediachannel better to. To fund and distribute my films (my latest are on the media war in Iraq and unanswered questions about 911. I also want your readers to check out my new book on the war we saw and didn’t see in Iraq. It’s called EMBEDDED: WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION. It is available on PDF online at mediachannel.org. It is being published by Prometheus books. Onward!

Danny Schechter is a television producer and independent filmmaker who also writes and speaks about media issues. He is the author of “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” (Prometheus), “Media Wars: News after 9-11” (Innovation), “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” (Akashic Press), “The More You Watch, The Less You Know” (Seven Stories Press) and “News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics” (Electron Press). He is the executive editor of the Mediachannel.org, the world’s largest online media issues network. He can be reached at dissector@mediachannel.org

ADAM ENGEL, a pessimist, can be reached at bartleby.samsa@verizon.net

 

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Adam Engel is editor of bluddlefilth.org. Submit your soul to bluddlefilth@yahoo.com. Human units, both foreign and domestic, are encouraged to send text, video, graphic, and audio art(ifacts), so long as they’re bluddlefilthy and from The Depths.

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