Us v. Them: When The Liberal Media Met In Boston

by Katjusa Cisar

At my first session at the fifth National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, at a panel called “Wikileaks, Journalism and Modern-Day Muckraking,” I sat next to a man who regaled me at length with how he had learned to find the real news from Libya via a Toronto professor’s blog. Later, as NCMR volunteers walked around the room collecting questions for the panelists on three-by-five cards, I watched him filling up most of his card. He carefully block-printed a preamble and two-pronged question, the first part of which was, “IS RESISTANCE FUTILE?”

Well, no. Based on all of the projects and innovation I learned about at the conference, no. But the lefty-friendly atmosphere of the conference occasionally bred simplistic Us vs. Them sloganeering that made me fidget in my seat.

In a post last Friday, Dan Gainor, an opinion writer at Fox News, scorned the conference as the nefarious plotting of a small cabal of liberals funded by “glib lefty investor” George Soros. While it’s true the nonpartisan-professed group Free Press, which has organized the conference since 2003, attracts lefties, the list of presenters — almost 350 of them — was impressive and not narrow. It included Glenn Greenwald of Salon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, members of the Federal Communications Commission, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, Andy Carvin of NPR, Steve Katz of Mother Jones, Clothilde Le Coz of Reporters Without Borders, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, and an exhaustive who’s who of independent and progressive-minded media, led by the genre’s rock stars/fertility goddesses: Amy Goodman, Laura Flanders and John Nichols, among others.

Gainor’s preemptive ridicule focused on the curious lack of media coverage it garners (ironic!). He’s not looking in the right places. Boston’s alt-weekly, The Phoenix, for instance, published informative NCMR-related articles on the latest developments in net neutrality and low-power FM radio. But he’s also sort of right.

The conference brought together about 2,500 journalists and media activists to talk about issues like net neutrality, public media policy and media democratization. These discussions included a healthy dose of lefty posturing. In the “Us. v. Them” dynamic of the weekend, “Them” was an amorphous mass — from CNN to mainstream daily newspapers, from the Hard Right to conservatives in general. And therein lay my discomfort. It’s not the politics that bug me. It’s the othering, the proud polarization in an absence of much political diversity. It comes down to this: An otherwise worthwhile gathering of journalists and media activists — holding, among them, fairly wide-ranging views! — is probably alienating people who’d add to the conversation and benefit from it.

This mentality allows platitudes and lazy thinking to breed. Nancy Pelosi’s speech Friday was certainly a low point. She stammered and rambled incoherently, mostly about health care reform, and apparently hadn’t prepared to give much insight into the topic at hand beyond statements such as, “Media reform is about the core value of our country.”

In an interview at the conference, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald told me he thinks the media landscape right now is so polarized that the conference’s progressive message could only conceivably have an impact on “allegedly mainstream” or “neutral” newspapers like the New York Times. A search of the Times archives turns up nothing on NCMR.

No doubt, political wrangling is vital to issues like net neutrality and control of the airwaves. Like Greenwald, fellow NCMR panelist Ben Huh of the Cheezeburger Network told me this tension has become the current reality of the debate.

“Unfortunately, it has become politicized, right? I mean, media reform and the right to have free speech and the right to have access to the Internet in the freest way possible should not be political,” Huh said. “But because of the way I think open broadband and those initiatives have gone down, it has become, not necessarily liberals versus conservatives, but the-right-to-control-commerce versus the-public’s-right-to-use-an-open-Internet.”

The network he runs — which includes I Can Has Cheezeburger, Fail Blog and The Daily What — is one of the small fish, he added, and reliant on net neutrality to survive: “I think Google’s pretty much the lone voice (lobbying for a free Internet) out there. And you’ve got all the telcos on the other side. They know how to play the government game. They’ve got a leg up on everybody else.”

Everyone else? That has to include a wider swath of America than In These Times readers. Personally, I’m thinking of my father, an off-the-grid conservative Catholic with whom I can only find common ground in good music and good beer. But I’m sure he’d support low-power FM radio access and other grassroots media efforts. If he actually used the Internet, he’d certainly get behind net neutrality, too.

Alex Beam of the Boston Globe, who appeared on a panel Saturday about successes in local media coverage, is a member of the much-hated-on mainstream media and employee of a newspaper that nearly shut down completely two years ago. He reflected later to me on the absurdity of being in a roomful of people who condemn big corporate newspapers. “I don’t share the core ideology that seemed to infuse the event,” he said. “Do I want to sit on a panel and refer to everyone who works for Wal-Mart as the bad guys? I’ve seen wonderfully powerful critiques of Wal-Mart in The New York Times.”

He was curious about and admired several of his co-presenters, he said, but apparently not enough to stick around for the rest of the conference beyond his scheduled panel: “I am not trying to reform the media. Media is being reformed. It’s being restructured in fundamental ways. That’s not what this conference was about.”

Leading up to the conference, I’d spent the past six months in sprawling Atlanta doing under-stimulating freelancing for two hyperlocal news operations, AOL-owned Patch and a network of Blockshopper-run sites in the Houston ’burbs (how’s that for “hyperlocal”?). Hyperlocal is debatably The Next Big Thing in The Future of Journalism, and AOL is leading the trend with Patch. I did not hear Patch mentioned once during NCMR, probably because, in the conference’s anti-corporate ideology, AOL counts as a “Them.”

My New Year’s resolution this year was: pay less heed to future-of-journalism worrywarts and soothsayers. I couldn’t stomach reading one more post or article on social media strategy or personal branding or the philosophy of paywalls. It had all become repetitive noise and a distraction. I entered the weekend excited — the schedule looked substantive and, frankly, I was ready to be energized and inspired. Media needs a kick in the pants. I need a kick in the pants. But what had crystallized for me by the end was something along the lines of John Lennon’s famous truism about life happening while we’re busy planning it. Media transformation happens while journalists and activists and politicians navel-gaze and theorize on reforming it.

Ahem. Of the ideas, projects and people at NCMR, here are a few favorites:

Spot.Us founder David Cohn joked on a panel discussion of young entrepreneurship that he wants to become “the Rupert Murdoch of independent journalism.” Under the fundamental assumption that journalism never was and never will be sustainable in the traditional ad-driven way, he started this open-source project in 2008 in the Bay Area to pioneer community-powered reporting. is a conduit for story tips, reporter’s pitches and money collection and has since expanded nationally. The reader-supported model fits with trends in the news industry, Cohn said: “We’re actually in a very early stage where people are starting to open up their wallets.”

During a panel on “Old-School Journalism Organizations Shaping the Future of Journalism,” Orion Magazine

editor Jennifer Sahn said the economic collapse barely affected her publication because it has been completely ad-free and reader-funded for decades: “This is Orion’s moment. We’ve been user-supported, always.”

Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, did a fun but disturbing deconstruction of reality TV, particularly Flava Flav’s minstrel dress-up on VH1’s “Flavor of Love,” and argued that if reality TV continues in the same direction, “there is going to be a tremendous act of violence” on a show.

The Newspaper Guild is heading up a writers’ boycott of HuffPo (on Facebook at “Arianna has done a great job of exploiting the moment. There won’t be anything left to aggregate,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild, a labor union within the Communications Workers of America.

At a discussion of WikiLeaks on Friday morning, Glenn Greenwald got cheers from the crowd after he argued that there’s “no greater threat to the free press than prosecution of WikiLeaks.” Blogger Erich Vieth posted a good recap of the talk, plus a few videos.

The big celebration of the weekend (there was free food!) was the recent passage of legislation that will open up the airwaves to low-power FM radio stations. In a speech at the conference, Senator Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) praised the bi-partisan effort that allowed the legislation to pass. The Uptake has the video of it.

The hands-on “Sandbox” workshop series made concrete idea of media democratization and included how-to sessions on soldering your own audio cable, building a wireless network with open-source software, and even old-school printmaking.

Katjusa Cisar lives in Atlanta (but not for long) and plans to claim her cat Clyde on her taxes as an office assistant.

Photo of the closing panel of the National Conference for Media Reform, from left to right: Deanna Zandt (moderator), Craig Newmark (craigslist), Ramya Raghavan (YouTube), Ben Huh (Cheezburger Network), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit), Cheryl Contee (Jack and Jill Politics).