A few years ago, continuing 16 years of social and political activism, I started a media consulting business with the goal of helping progressive organizations get wider coverage on their issues. Much of my media work has been with a variety of social justice and labor organizations in upstate New York, conservative Republican country.
Having arranged hundreds of news interviews, editorial board meetings, and talk show appearances on a variety of issues relating to Central America, Cuba, Haiti, occupational safety and health, and the Contract with America, I have often found that is possible to work with journalists and get a more or less undiluted message out to the public.
While corporate ownership of the media, increased concentration of ownership, and shrinking news departments may be daunting, it is my experience that there are many more positive opportunities available to activists than we may realize. The following are some observations on the obstacles we place in our path and my experiences with journalists.
Accepting marginal status
In workshops I run as a media consultant, activists frequently express very understandable feelings about the media based on discouraging experiences: "Don't trust them"..."not on our side"..."scared to talk to them"... "massive indifference."
Publications aimed at activists may intensify this negativity. Out of 51 recent articles in the Nonviolent Activist, only three mentioned the media as an outreach strategy, and only one article indicated that mainstream media actually ran stories on the activism discussed.
While negative comments about corporate media are understandable, the lack of success stories in activist publications fosters an attitude that ignores the mainstream media as a resource for activists to utilize.
"Activists need to take some responsibility for getting our story out," says Pat Kipping, a 20-year social justice activist and media education consultant in Canada. "We have to understand and engage with the workers and the processes of the media institutions. We need to use the same tactics and efforts as the big boys to get the ears and eyes of the media, only we need to be better and more creative."
Kipping argues that progressives do not have an expectation that mainstream journalists are interested in our work and therefore do not place a priority on learning public relations skills and forming relationships with reporters.
"We tend to accept marginal status for our ideas," she says. "We expect to be rejected and don't realize there are many people in [the media] who are open to our ideas."
Media critic Noam Chomsky agrees. "It makes sense to keep a realistic grasp of the factors that limit and distort the media product," he says, "while at the same time recognizing the many opportunities the media offer to introduce new perspectives and understanding. Many fine journalists, commentators, and activists have shown how much can be achieved with dedication and commitment."
Activist success stories
In looking around the country, I see examples that reinforce my belief that the mass media, with all its limitations, holds great potential for activists.
The Cleveland Interreligious Task Force on Central American coordinated a speaking tour on the School of the Americas, a U.S. military training facility for Latin American military personnel that includes many notorious human rights abusers and dictators among its graduates. Estimated media audience: 2.6 million, including a City Club speech rebroadcast to 170 radio and TV stations in 39 states. An editorial board meeting resulted in a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial calling for the closing of the school.
The Piedmont Peace Project, a peace and justice project that operates in rural North Carolina counties that are strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian Coalition, integrates media planning into its overall strategy. The group's work has been featured in dozens of national articles, national wire service stories that have appeared in several hundred daily newspapers, television stories on CNN and CBS network news, and hundreds of radio broadcasts including National Public Radio. This is in addition to coverage in their local media.
"We've got to be careful that we don't get so righteous in who we will work with and who we won't work with," says Jesse Wimberley, an organizer for Piedmont Peace Project. "You know you can take that sentiment a little too far. You can use [mass media] as a tool for organizing the same way the far right uses it as a tool for organizing."
Activists trying to reach the general public need to accept the fact that most people get their news from mainstream media, Wimberley says. Progressive publications, newsletters, and periodicals, while very important, reach limited audiences. "We have to get out of this purist mode that unless its totally politically correct we shouldn't be messing with it," he says. "That's a very defeatist position to take. We end up talking to ourselves. We'd end up having all our stuff published in liberal magazines. We'd be preaching to the choir."
That's why Piedmont Peace Project worked so hard to get an article in Family Circle, according to Wimberley. "Who reads Family Circle? Middle-class, low-income women. So if we want to do a story about women finding their voices and using them to take a larger role in this economy, both local, state, and national — what better place to reach that set of people?"
Kathleen Rumpf, a Catholic worker activist in Syracuse, N.Y., brought national media attention to abuses in the local jail, including coverage on "60 Minutes," National Public Radio, and articles in The New York Times and Boston Globe.
She started her campaign by setting up a mock jail cell outside Syracuse's Public Safety Building. This provided a great photo opportunity for newspapers and visuals for TV. As the story developed, she fed material to reporters and formed professional relationships which helped tremendously as different aspects of the story broke.
Thinking like a reporter, she knew that an upcoming Physicians for Human Rights report, which described a method of prisoner restraint as a form of torture, could provide a news peg for a front-page metropolitan story. The resulting media coverage helped bring about changes in the way prisoners were handled.