True Democracy & the War on Dissent
by Jonathan Lawson, Susan Gleason,
Resist newsletter, December 2001
The social and political climate of post-September 11 America
has seen intense pressures for citizens to conform to particular
forms of patriotism. Pressures have flowed from the federal government's
repeated (and rather anti-democratic) calls for unquestioning
unity, and have been broadcast and amplified by a national media
willing to toe the official line rather than report voices of
At the same time, however, alternative media voices proliferate
via small newsletters and magazines, radio and television production,
and the Internet. Using the Internet as an organizing tool, a
distribution network and a publishing platform, the Independent
Media Center network continues to grow in size and exposure as
more progressive organizations and ordinary folks look to its
websites for media alternatives.
The IMC's unique "open publishing" system, by which
independent journalists publish their own materials directly to
the web, makes browsing the IMC sites a mixed bag of thoughtful
analyses, activist dispatches, on-the-street news items, rants
and reprinted media from unknown publications or organizations.
Without a central editorial authority dispatching reporters (or
fact-checking stories), readers are obliged to think critically
as they are reading-to allow a story to provoke further research,
further reading, and perhaps further writing.
Even before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and before
the wave of reactionary law enforcement measures rammed through
Congress in the weeks which followed, critics of power politics
in the US understood that the Bush administration was on the lookout
for aggressive strategies to promote its neoliberal economic agenda
(inherited from the Clinton administration) while stifling domestic
In The Nation (dated September 17; in fact, the last issue
published before September 11), for example, Edward Said wrote
that "Bush, Blair and their feeble partners prepare their
citizens for an indeterminate war against Islamic terrorism, rogue
states and the rest," an example of what he termed "diversions
from the social and economic disentitlements occurring in reality."
At home, Said observed, orthodox catch-phrases of globalization
such as 'free trade,' 'privatization' and so forth, are repeated
over and again "not as they sometimes seem to be-as instigations
for debate-but quite the opposite, to stifle, preempt and crush
Said's unfortunately prescient words were quickly forgotten
in the uncritical patriotic fever imposed after September 11,
as forces within the Bush administration rushed to link a cornucopia
of pet projects to its newly justified anti-terrorist quest. Before
bombs began to fall in Afghanistan, some of the most shameless
and morally bankrupt rhetoric came from US Trade Representative
Robert Zoellick, who asserted that anti-globalization protesters
have "intellectual connections" with terrorists, and
that pursuing free trade was an important way to combat global
New, expanded definitions of terrorism were part of a colossal
package of law enforcement legislation rushed through Congress
without debate or other regular processes. The Patriot Act, passed
into law in late October, is 342 pages long. Many controversial
provisions expanding police and judicial power were likely part
of Justice Department and FBI wish lists long before the bill's
introduction as a timely anti-terrorist measure. The Electronic
Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) has made a detailed initial
analysis of the act and its potential effects on electronic media.
Reflecting on the increasing pressure government forces have
placed on anti-globalization demonstrators since the Seattle WTO
ministerial, many activist groups have charged that the real purpose
of this legislation is to criminalize organized protest, through
expanded definitions of terrorism and surveillance authority.
Because of our relationship with the anti-globalization and environmentalist
activist movements, and because we have already had encounters
with police and federal law enforcement agencies, Indymedia volunteers
are also taking a hard look at these new laws.
Most IMC volunteers would probably describe themselves as
activists as well as journalists. Credentialled IMC journalists
working in the midst of street protests have relied on their "press"
badges to distinguish themselves from protesters, although this
has not stopped them from getting gassed, pepper-sprayed, struck
and arrested by police in Seattle and elsewhere.
Last April, while tens of thousands protested against the
Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City and elsewhere across
the hemisphere, FBI and Secret Service agents served the Seattle
IMC with a court order demanding the handover of Internet server
logs. The order would have given the US government access to over
1.25 million IP addresses of independent journalists, activists
and readers who visited Indymedia sites during the eventful weekend.
The government's justification for the burdensome order claiming
that classified information regarding Bush's travel itinerary
had been posted to an IMC site- later turned out to be false.
As the IMC prepared to fight the order in court two months later,
the government quietly dropped the matter.
Activism and the Current Media Landscape
In recent months, the Seattle IMC has covered numerous local
or regional stories chronicling government crackdowns or violations
of civil liberties. Some of these have directly resulted from
the new antiterrorist fervor in law enforcement: nonviolent School
of the Americas Watch organizers and anti-globalization protesters
have been denied entry into Canada; residents and supporters of
Seattle's Somali community protested the government shutdown of
several Somali-owned businesses, only one of which was allegedly
suspected of having links to international terrorists. In a ruling
which showed remarkable contempt for the First Amendment, a Seattle
judge found constitutional the "no-protest zones" the
government created during the WTO to foil large demonstrations.
Stories like these get a much different spin in the corporate
media, where restrictions on subject matter and actual debate
have increased since September 11.
The mainstream press, more often than not, takes administration
rhetoric at face value, relying on official sources to describe
current events, and allowing its claims to go unchallenged. As
recently reported by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting (www.fair.org), mainstream networks CNN and FOX instituted
official wartime policies requiring journalists to downplay reports
of Afghan civilian casualties. Reporting on domestic approval
of the US bombing, NPR's Cokie Roberts was asked by the host whether
there were dissenting views among the public. Her reply: "None
In its public addresses, the Bush Administration has forgone
thoughtful analysis of complex issues, substituting "nonnegotiable"
policies and simplistic explanations. The extent to which current
statements have been dumbed-down is revealed by a comparison between
recent rhetoric and Reagan's well-known "evil empire"
speech the iconic representation of cartoonish simplicity-yet
written for a higher 'grade level' than Bush's intended audience.
Reporting on anti-war sentiment, including large demonstrations,
is systematically marginalized by most mainstream print media
as well. When 65,000 demonstrators marched in Washington D.C.
on October 26th, the Washington Post ran one photo depicting a
lone angry counter-protester. When acknowledged in written reports,
large demonstrations are interpreted as threats to public safety,
and often described using prejudicial and unwarranted language.
Two years afterwards, it is common for the Seattle Times to report
as fact wildly inaccurate fantasies about the "riots"
and "widespread property destruction" which accompanied
Through ceaseless repetition, this way of marginalizing protest
movements has affected even the alternative press. In Seattle,
both major alternative weeklies devoted articles to diminishing
recent anti-war protests as unsophisticated, old-fashioned or
muddled. In total, the current media and legislative landscape
impede activists who find themselves always pre-defined by waves
of negative propaganda.
What is to be Done?
Even as opinion polls show very high public regard for federal
policies and acts of war abroad, it also seems true that many
people retain the intuition that they're being misled, that government
spokespeople and mainstream media talking heads aren't always
telling the whole story. During recent times of perceived national
crisis, the homogeneity which generally marks corporate news media
has taken a cartoonish turn. Dissenting views, outside of a very
narrow range, are disallowed. Uncritical patriotism and ceaseless
flag-waving are the marching orders, faithfully following Bush's
stern pronouncement, "you're either with us, or you're with
All this fails to resonate with the perceptions, feelings
and opinions of many Americans. These people are the natural audience
for the many alternative media sources that are out there. Responding
to this growing audience along with other independent media sources,
Independent Media Centers continue working to produce and disseminate
important stories and critical perspectives that are overlooked
or purposefully ignored by the mainstream.
At the same time, we also encourage our readers and other
activists to become more analytical consumers of the media, to
develop mental tools that make it easier to see around the propaganda,
to see how stories are shaped by ideological presuppositions,
and to become articulate media critics, speaking about or publishing
one's own critiques of the mainstream press.
Becoming more critical consumers of the news is crucial for
all activists, and for democratic systems to truly function. Here
are several guidelines for increasing media literacy skills, followed
by some additional guidelines for media activists who choose to
take up the Indymedia challenge and become the media! These guidelines
draw from Ali Abunimah and Rania Masri's critique of Gulf War
news coverage (in Iraq Under Siege, Anthony Arnove, ed.).
Media Literacy Guidelines
1. When reading, watching or listening to news media, become
an "analyst." For every report, ask, "Whose voices
are included, whose are excluded? What hidden presuppositions
helped shape this story?" 2. Read widely. All news media
are shaped by particular political, economic and ethical positions;
get your news from multiple sources and read them comparatively
and critically. Seek out noncommercial and international sources
of information. For those with Internet access, browsing the web
makes this easy. Labor unions, NGOs and advocacy groups such as
the Institute for Policy Studies or Public Citizen often post
detailed news stories concerning specific issues.
3. Discuss your findings with others. As you develop your
own good habits, share them with your friends and co-workers.
Everyone discusses the news-use these discussions to sharpen your
own thinking about the media we consume as well as to educate
Independent Journalist Guidelines
1. Stay awake. We are all affected by the propaganda pushed
by corporate America- activists need to be vigilant in keeping
themselves and each other alert. If you don't preach to the choir
every once in a while, the choir won't learn the songs.
2. Learn the battlefield and choose your battles. None of
us can read or listen to everything, or cover every story. Choose
a topic or situation that interests you, and learn about it. As
time goes by, you will become more expert in your chosen area,
and readers will learn to trust your writing. 3. Communicate effectively.
Write down your observations, make a radio or video piece. Whether
you are writing a current events story, a media analysis article
or an opinion piece, present facts as accurately as you can. If
your piece contains movement jargon or comes across as a rant,
readers may put less stock in what you have to say.
4. Develop networks. Make contact with other journalists,
activists or organizations interested in the same issues. Support
and advocate for independent media sources. 5. Be persistent.
Make things happen. Submit your writings to independent media
sources. Publish your articles, photos, video and audio pieces
to any Indymedia site (look for the publish button on the front
page). Once an article is posted to an IMC, it remains archived
there-readers can search for your writings and link to them from
Jonathan Lawson, Susan Gleason and Daniel Hannah are journalists,
educators and organizers at the Seattle Independent Media Center
(seattle.indymedia.org), part of the global IMC network (www.indymedia.org).
Seattle Independent Media Center received a grant from RESIST
Democracy in America