by Dave Mazza
What is the role of alternative media? Having completed with our December issue our 25th year of publishing, it is a question I have been considering a great deal lately.
Are we here to report the news not reported by the corporate-dominated press, giving people context for the stories pouring out of their televisions, radios and newspapers? Are we supposed to serve as a replacement for the mainstream media? Or, is our mission more narrow, lending support to the movement by covering its struggles in a supportive way?
The answer to all these questions is yes under the right circumstances.
Take the Alliance, for example. We define ourselves as an independent tabloid — our commitment is to helping build democratic mass movements to bring about real social justice. In some cases, that means lending support to grassroots campaigns — emphasizing the positive aspects of those campaigns and the importance of the work they do. Yet we also have a responsibility to our readers to print the truth and to provide them with honest portrayals of the struggles we cover.
Take, for example, a recent article on our peace movement (Peace groups gather to take stock and look ahead;” The Portland Alliance; Dec. 2005). The story was about a recent meeting of most the peace organizations in the area for the purpose of networking and talking about future steps to deal with the war. There was much discussed in the two hours the meeting lasted and many campaigns and groups that were new to me and the peace activists in the room — even some of the old veterans. Yet, when it came time to write the story, I eventually chose to lead with “They were mostly middle class, middle aged and overwhelmingly white...”
As you can imagine, it wasn’t a popular lead with some of the folks in that room, although the conversations I’ve had since the story ran have been both civil and, I think, constructive. But even so, I believe I sensed in some of those conversations a small sense of betrayal. After all, the mainstream press routinely makes light of our movement — now the alternative press is going to join them?
Why did I choose that lead? This was a story that contained conflicting responsibilities for an alternative newspaper. On the one hand, we had a responsibility to support the efforts of these activists to end a brutal war waged solely for the enrichment of a few elites. On the other hand, we also had a responsibility to comment on flaws we found within the vessel crafted to do that work — flaws that could mean eventual failure of not just the attempt to end the war but of the movement itself.
In the story about the peace movement, I finally found our responsibility to constructively criticize the movement for its lack of diversity greater than our responsibility to stand in solidarity with them. The absence of youth and minorities — segments of our population that are the primary sources of military recruiters — deprives those most at risk a voice in stopping a war that may very well kill them. It also deprives the movement of potential new leaders and ideas that might started producing greater results. While I still reported a number of positive things about the meeting — especially the resolution to the governor campaign that was just getting off the ground — in the final analysis, doing what was possible to address the larger problem took precedence.
We cannot build a society that will uphold the truth by telling lies — no matter how compelling the arguments may seem at the time. We cannot prevail over those who have time and again trampled the truth underfoot by deceiving our own people. It may be gratifying to inflate the number of marchers for mainstream journalists or push the reach of your organization. Big numbers may mean power. But fabricated big numbers turn out only to be self-deception, something that is deadly to any movement, especially in these difficult times.
If it accomplishes nothing else, alternative media will have served its purpose if it continues to ask hard questions of the movment of which it is a part. Without an alternative fourth estate, democracy within our movement can easily wither and die. When that occurs, we are all truly lost.
The Portland Alliance
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Last Updated: May 22, 2006