What is alternative media anyway?
This is an increasingly difficult question to answer with the advent of the Internet, personal webpages, and blogs, which have turned mild-mannered citizens into super-powered investigative journalists. The definition of media itself is in flux. So for the most part, alternative media are news outlets that are not controlled by corporate sponsors, monopolies, government agencies, or family dynasties. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our news does come from journalists, papers, stations, sites, and networks that have a vested interest in spinning or concealing the truth from the American public.
What aren't you telling me?
One of the drawbacks of corporate-owned media is that journalists must often contend with censorship when the things they write make someone in the establishment nervous. This is not a new phenomenon. For example, in 1958, McCall's canned an article by Betty Friedan contradicting several "studies" of the day that said too much education makes women unhappy. Using the personal experiences of several college-educated homemakers, Friedan suggested that perhaps it was not education which made a woman unhappy, but rather the restrictive, tedious, vicarious life of a housewife. (Wallis 7). In this case, the reason for the censorship was obvious: Friedan's article posed a threat to men's power over their wives, and they didn't want to risk losing their domestic servants.
Now, things have gotten more complicated. Government agencies, politicians, and corporations have entire paid staffs working to spin, befuddle, and conceal the truth. To make matters worse, the vast majority of media have been bought up by large corporations that benefit from maintaining the status quo and concealing their actions from public view (Columbia Journalism Review).
Throughout the '90s, mainstream media did not report important stories like the murder of student activists on a Chevron facility in Nigeria; the profits chemical corporations are making off breast cancer; the recycling of radioactive materials into household products and medical devices; and violations of U.S. child labor laws unmatched since the 1930s (Project Censored).
Here are some of the stories that corporate media are passing on right now:
- Many of Boeing's big jets are made with unsafe parts, according to industry whistle-blowers;
- The Environmental Protection Agency is relying primarily on the research of large chemical corporations to make decisions vital to Americans' health;
- U.S. Military forces have been using napalm, white phosphorous, and other chemical weapons on the Iraqi people;
- Members of the Bush Administration have suggested dismantling the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs because the cost of soldiers' benefits is supposedly hindering the war effort;
- Internet giant Yahoo! collaborated with the Chinese government to arrest journalist Shi Tao for "divulging state secrets";
- More than a million African-Americans' votes were not counted in the 2004 presidential election due to strategic challenging of black voters by the GOP, the malfunction of electronic voting machines in largely black districts, and "mix-ups" with felons lists in swing areas;
- Lockheed Martin Corporation is now being contracted to conduct the interrogations of prisoners in Iraq (To date, several detainees have been tortured and killed while in custody).
A hell-raising history
These stories are examples of why we need alternatives to corporate media, and reminders of exactly what reporters are up against. However, some encouragement can be drawn from our history. The first inklings of alternative media began in the 1800s with the "free thought," abolitionist, and suffragist movements. At the start of the 1900s, socialist, pro-union, feminist, and the first muckraking newspapers were gaining popularity.
Those who first earned the "muckraker" title-- folks like Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis-- and other journalists of this period were some of America's first radical, investigative journalists. They certainly were not ones to accept the official line on anything, and blazed a path for the radical journalists to follow (Smith 21).
I.F. Stone is a perfect example of the muckrakers' legacy and one of the most widely respected investigative journalists of the past century. After several years as a Washington correspondent, Stone began publishing his own 4-page newspaper in 1968 out of his house. He combed meeting transcripts and official documents, using nothing but public records to uncover truths with the power to shake Washington to its core.
"Establishment reporters know a lot I don't know," Stone said, "but a lot of what they know isn't true, or they can't print it" (Downie 188).
Seymour Hersh was another new muckraker with good instincts and an unwillingness to run with the pack of the Washington press corps. Through hard-hitting, investigative journalism, Hersh first reported the stories of the My Lai Massacre, the Nixon Administration's secret bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger's spying on his own staff aides, the CIA-inspired overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and a multitude of other government cover-ups.
Hersh was a gruff, abrasive, tenacious New York Times reporter who, like Stone, wasn't content to report the official line coming out of Washington. One time, after he gave a speech in South Dakota about the Vietnam War, an anonymous army clerk shoved a piece of paper into his hand that indicated a US Army division commander had only reprimanded American soldiers who killed 10 Vietnamese villagers without provocation. After some investigation, Hersh was able to verify these events.
"[That story] was a clearer example than My Lai of how this kind of thing was tolerated at the highest levels," Hersh said of the killings, but to his dismay, only one major network picked up the story. NBC covered it on their nightly news, but remarked that only ten Vietnamese civilians had been killed in this incident, whereas more than a hundred were murdered at My Lai. (Downie 57)
While Hersh was shaking things up in D.C., Bruce Brugmann was raising hell out on the West Coast with his own newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Brugmann got his start in journalism in the 1950s as a student reporter at the University of Nebraska, where he was nearly expelled for writing in defense of liberal professors accused of Communism. In 1966 Brugmann began publishing his muckraking weekly, which flew in the face of corporate-controlled, politician-polite newspapers already publishing in the area.
"I don't want to see an objective piece of reporting," Brugmann told his Bay Guardian reporters. "But this is not dishonest journalism; it is 'point of view' journalism. Our facts are as straight as we can make them; we don't run a story until we feel we can prove it or make it stick; we always talk with the adversary and try to print his part of the story" (Downie 177).
The radical explosion of the 1960s created the perfect climate for a similar explosion of alternative media publications. Some, like Brugmann's paper, were broad in coverage. Others had a specific focus, like Women's Liberation, Black Power, or opposing the Vietnam War.
Perhaps the most unsung radical journalists of this period were the members of the African-American Press and Civil Rights Movement. According to Dr. Lionel Barrow (a journalism scholar and activist for diversity in media), the black American press developed to:
- 1. Perform a watchdog function for the black community that the white press was either unable or unwilling to perform;
- 2. Answer attacks published in the white press;
- 3. Present a viewpoint that differed even from that of liberal whites;
- 4. Be a carrier and preserver of black culture.
In doing this, African-American reporters were subject to segregation, harassment, and physical attack. The Chicago Defender, the Pittsburg Courier, the Memphis Defender, the SDS's New Left Notes, and many other publications were strong voices for freedom and equality, and perfect examples of alternative media's courageous, unflinching, truth-telling spirit.
Where do we go from here?
Now and in every decade there have been muckraking, investigative journalists who work to uncover the truth. The common traits among these folks are guts, a bit of fight, and a deep conviction of what's right and wrong. Now more than ever we need journalists like this. Are you ready to roll up your sleeves?