Last weekend, I attended the first-ever Media Accountability Conference, hosted by the progressive media-research group Project Censored, which publishes an annual compendium of underreported news stories. The group is based out of Sonoma State University in California. Project Censored has been publishing its list of underreported stories for three decades now; and this year, it put on a full event for media makers and activists to rub shoulders and bump heads on a variety of interesting panels.
Just as Project Censored brings together an array of diverse public-interest stories each year, it also welcomed a range of folks to this event, inclusive of the so-called "fringes." The group caused a local stir with the keynote speaker, former Brigham Young University physicist Steven E. Jones, who has publicized controversial findings challenging the official explanation of the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The next day, the local daily ran a front-page story on Project Censored, poo-pooing their choice to have a "conspiracy theorist" headline their conference. But hey, "if youâ€™re into conspiracy theories" as they like to say, I guess it comes with the territory. (Actually, organizers told attendees, only half jokingly, that they were thrilled about the unprecedented media attention.)
On Saturday, I spoke on a panel about government accountability with Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that TNS has used as source in our coverage over the past few years for its venerable watchdog work.
I gave a rough overview of the overall rising trend in secrecy. Thatâ€™s a trend thatâ€™s difficult to quantify exactly, but easy to discern with what we know about the growing number of decisions to classify documents, the use of the "state secrets" privilege by the White House, and other post-September-11 circumventions around the principle of government transparency.
On Day Two, there was also an insightful talk on underreported yet hiding-in-plain-sight environmental issues. Mother Jones writer Julia Whitty talked about the slow, steady and very public devastation of the worldâ€™s ocean habitats through commercial fishing. Eco-activist "Sprocket" of Earth First! explained how a web of corporate interests has let war ravage the Congo in order to feed our addiction to cellular technology.
Various awardees also discussed the "militarization of the homeland" through the increased collusion of the Pentagon with domestic law enforcement; water resource issues and global conflict; the implications of media consolidation for radio, broadcast and Internet communications.
A few of the conversations delved into how the media manipulates public perceptions, sometimes in ways that even self-described media activists may fail to pick up on. In a talk about "genocide" and ongoing wars in the Middle East and Africa, for instance, activist Keith Harmon Snow argued that the crisis in Darfur weâ€™re now starting to read about in the mainstream papers has already been co-opted by the multinational corporations looking to further exploit Africaâ€™s resources. He said that even as humanitarian advocates campaign for more aid to the region, they skirt connection between post-colonial corporate plunder and the so-called "savagery" plastered on the front pages.
It was a lot of ground to cover in 48 hours, and of course, the conference served only to give a cursory view of what different independent journalists and public-interest advocates are working on.
Unfortunately, most of the attendees were already heavily involved with independent media in some form, as activists, journalists or some combination. But the conference was about media accountability â€“ a goal that it not unique to independent or alternative media only. I wish the demographics of the attendees, and their professional involvements, reflected the diversity of the population that this issue impacts.
The most important insight I think we all left with was that ultimately, there are just too many underreported issues and not enough people to report on them. Still, as critical makers and consumers of media increase, the closer we come to realizing a new information system that takes these problems, connects them to a broader public interest, asks the right questions and does them something close to justice.