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Albert Among Speakers in Independent Media Forum

By Keith J. Winstein

STAFF REPORTER

The MIT Western Hemisphere Project hosted a day-long program of presentations and panel discussions by members of independent publications and media outlets on Monday.

The event, entitled “A Forum for Independent Media on The Western Hemisphere: History, Culture, Economics, Politics,” was among the first to be arranged by the fledgling group.

The program consisted of two sessions: a series of six lectures in the Stratton Student Center in the morning and afternoon, followed by a three-hour panel discussion in 10-250 in the evening. The daytime session also included a “media fair,” where participants could browse and buy books and other materials from 25 publishers.

Barsamian faults radio stations

The three-hour evening session featured a lecture on “War, Terrorism, & Media” by David Barsamian, followed by “So What Do We Want? -- And How Do We Get It?” by Michael A. Albert ’69.

The two lectures were followed by a question-and-answer session with about 80 audience members, moderated by Linda Pinkow, news co-director for WMBR, the MIT campus radio station.

Barsamian is the Director of Alternative Radio, which describes itself as “a weekly one-hour public affairs program offered free to all public radio stations” out of Boulder, Colo.

Saying that “there is no greater force than the media in shaping the public mind,” Barsamian decried the “huge vacuum created by” the Boston public broadcasting stations WGBH and WBUR having been “corporatized over a period of decades.”

Efforts to reform them, Barsamian said, have been made difficult by the “preposterous barrage of propaganda that PBS and NPR are somehow left-leaning.”

In particular, Barsamian faulted the media for propagating after Sept. 11 “the reductive, formulaic, monochromatic one-note samba that ‘evildoers hate us,’ that this is a clash of civilizations: Islam versus the West.”

“I hope I’m wrong, but I think there will be more bin Ladens,” Barsamian said, reminding the audience of the formerly supportive relationship between the United States and Muslim fighters in Afghanistan by holding up photographs of former President Ronald Reagan greeting “freedom fighters” in the Oval Office.

Barsamian asked why contemporary Western commentators would discuss “how to reform the Arab world” after Sept. 11 when there were “no calls to reform the Christian or Western world after Srebrenica,” referring to the 1995 massacre by Bosnian Serb soldiers of almost 10,000 Muslims after United Nations peacekeepers failed to protect them. Nor were there “calls for reform after Western Europe in the 1940s,” he said.

Barsamian ended by speaking of the future, saying that the public after Sept. 11 was, “clamoring for stories that don’t tell the official story,” and that projects aiming for an “increase in the democratization of the media” are the “key to effecting social change the justice.”

Mike Albert talks of ‘how to win’

Albert, former president of MIT’s Undergraduate Association, spoke next. Albert dismissed the notion that the media are incapable of reporting “truthful stories” and “complicated realities,” citing the sports and business sections of a newspaper as examples of each, respectively.

Instead, he said, an economic analysis tells us that the requirement to make a profit by selling advertising “will put constraints on what appears in the media.”

Shifting gears, Albert launched into a discussion of techniques to get people to “join the movement.” “It is a catastrophe that the left has not been able to get its message across of ‘what we want,’” he said.

Albert compared leftists’ situation with that of a hypothetical orator against aging. Just as one might successfully convince a crowd that capitalism is an evil, Albert said, one could convincingly demonstrate the scourge of aging, but this is not enough. Until people believe that there is an alternative to capitalism, they will be no more likely to join a movement against it than one against aging, believing either to be against the inevitable.

“That’s why we need vision,” Albert said. “They think [capitalism]’s the way life works, and we should quit whining about it.”

The recent “anti-globalization” protests have been on the right track for seeking to attack “the institutions instead of just manifestations like war,” Albert said, but he cautioned the audience about the difficulties of success.

“The only way to win is to raise the social costs so high that the other side relents,” rather than trying to convince “the other side” of the rectitude of one’s position, he said. “We need 10 million people.”

Albert finished on a positive note, saying he was glad the failure of the left to “win” as yet could be traced to its own mistakes, rather than the inherent strengths of the other side.

“Thank God we can look over the past 30 years and find all sorts of failings on our part,” he said.

Panel advises audience on tactics

Most questioners followed Albert’s line, asking about tactics to bring people into “the movement.”

In response to one question about how to better bring people into the fold, Albert cautioned that, as an alternative media institution, “it’s hard to have any interaction except with people who already agree with you.”

In an interview, Albert said of independent media organizations, “That stuff they teach you in journalism school is beside the point ... I think you should label news ‘news’ and opinion ‘opinion’, but also realize that news is opinion.”

Albert also drew a distinction between the Independent Media Centers, which allow anyone on the Internet to upload material, and his Z Magazine “ZNet” site, for which he said contributions are examined and edited before being posted on some areas of the site.

Forum organized by new group

The Western Hemisphere Project was formed over the summer to discuss and present issues relating to the interactions among people of the Americas, said Erica L. McEvoy ’03, the group’s president.

“It stems from looking at Lori Berenson’s case,” McEvoy said. Lori H. Berenson, a former MIT undergraduate, is currently serving a 20-year jail sentence in Peru following her conviction on charges of collaborating with an outlawed rebel group.

“What sort of context does it happen in?,” McEvoy asked. “We started looking at other issues besides Lori. What got me going was looking at human rights issues.”

The impetus behind the independent media forum was that “there are some issues that some of us thought weren’t represented in mainstream media,” McEvoy said. “That raises the importance of alternative media” and hence the daylong program.

Some of the independent media outlets are structured like their “mainstream media” cousins, while others such as the Independent Media Centers allow anyone on the Internet to contribute news or opinion stories, sometimes with no clear distinction observed between the two.

Ryan lectures on media savvy

Charlotte Ryan, a professor of sociology at Boston College, spoke during the day about techniques for activist groups to use the media to share their concerns. Ryan is the author of the book Prime Time Activism. She also “coaches people to talk to journalists” through BC’s Media Research & Action Project.

“It was a privilege for me [to be invited to the event],” Ryan said. “There were some very interesting people in the audience, all of whom are trying to do some serious work.”

Cautioning that “all that communications can do is shine a bright light on good work,” she said the media savvy she teaches is important “in light of the increasingly narrow window of opportunity to get news into mainstream news.”

Many organizations represented

Others who spoke during the day included Joshua Rubenstein, the northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA, and Josh Grebe of the Independent Media Center of Boston.

The Executive Director of the human rights advocacy group Grassroots International, Kevin Murray, spoke about the upcoming second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Murray said that while the WSF was originally organized as a sort of counter-event to the World Economic Forum held last year Davos, Switzerland and starting tomorrow in New York City, the message this year would be that, “there is an alternative.”

Murray was optimistic about the quality and amount of news coverage the WSF will receive, saying in an interview that the Forum is now a legitimate “pole on the debate.”

The lecture series “was a great discussion. I thought it was a very worthy event,” Murray said, although he expressed disappointment at the turnout, which some estimated at 20 attending each daytime lecture. “I knew a lot of the people in the crowd, which suggested they were not from MIT. I had hoped to be talking to more of the student body.”