7. ACTIVISM AND THE MEDIA
As was just discussed, in your career as an activist you should be prepared for
the consequences. You must anticipate your need for, and arrange beforehand, publicity
for your actions, and any assistance that you will require, including for support
personnel, and particularly for legal representation (and perhaps even diplomatic
support), if you might be arrested.
As a proviso, though, you should remember that the media are social institutions
(and diplomats are government representatives). Even worse, most media outlets
are now subsidiaries of major corporations. And, as corporations, they will generally
have an implicit if not direct opposition to your attempts to accomplish social
change. Furthermore, corporations attempt to increase their market power and if
possible obtain market monopolies. This is accomplished via acquisition, which
in the media industry involves the purchase of competing newspapers, magazines,
publishing companies, movie studios, radio stations, television stations and networks,
cable and satellite networks, and Internet companies; and also via other tactics,
such as price wars, to destroy weaker threats. (A related example is Microsofts
packaging of its various software products with Windows, to eliminate its
Such market consolidation trends have been underway for many years, with the result
that all forms of public media with widespread distribution are now concentrated
in a very few hands. Companies including News Corp., Time Warner, Disney, Viacom,
General Electric, AT&T, and Microsoft have essentially divided up the world
of information, and obtained unprecedented power.
This in turn is having significant effects in the areas of information access
and censorship, because the media control what we see and hear. We see what
they want us to see. For example, when you watch TV you might think that you
are seeing the real world, but this is rarely the case. TV is not
an open forum. Many people would like airtime to present their views, or art,
or to provide education, but they are not allowed on. TV access is almost entirely
limited to the representatives of institutions, and the views that you get are
those of the institutions. Individuals are excluded. What you see on TV is regularly
a very distorted view of reality, or not reality at all, but some unreal
fantasy constructed to meet an institutional end. (Because of this, watching TV
is unlikely to widen or expand your perspective. Rather, it distorts it, and it
also restricts it, and your life, if you use it the time you spend watching
TV and what you see on it as an excuse not to go out into the world.)
As a result of the vast media industry consolidation, much of what you are allowed
to see conforms to the wishes of a very few people, such as Rupert Murdoch, the
owner of News Corp.
It is critical to understand that if the media do not show or publish something,
the public you and I will not know that it exists.
Another type of censorship is the medias refusal to publish views that are
critical of themselves or of their partners or clients. For instance, the last
British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, wrote a book about the transition
there to Chinese rule, which was highly critical of the mainland communists. This
book was sold to HarperCollins, the largest publishing house in the world, and
formerly independent. But it has now been acquired by News Corp., and Rupert Murdoch,
anxious not to disturb his extensive array of commercial interests with the Chinese
dictators, had the contract terminated.
Even worse, The Times of London, one of the oldest and most prestigious
newspapers in the world, truly one of the last bastions of objectivity in the
face of overpowering commercial pressure, has also been acquired by Murdoch. It
refused to report on the dispute between HarperCollins and Patten, and now the
objectivity of its coverage of China, and anyone else with whom Murdoch has dealings,
(Patten did get his book published, by the way, but then he was a senior representative
of a major social institution.)
This type of censorship, which is called editorial censorship, or
the purposeful non-publication of critical or non-conformist views, or forms of
artistic expression, also exists at the level of media distribution, which has
itself been subject to the same trend of industry consolidation. You might even
call it secondary censorship. An artist or writer might have his or her work published,
but that does not mean that you are going to hear about it, or be able to buy
it in the stores.
All of this has profound consequences for activists. In many cases the media are
not our allies; they are the enemy. What we really need is Free Media, to which
anyone can publish, and fortunately, and primarily through the Internet, such
media is evolving. Excellent examples include Indymedia (www.indymedia.org), which
now has over one hundred and fifty affiliated websites in some eighty countries;
and Protest Net (www.protest.net), to which anyone can post notices of demonstrations
and other activist actions, anywhere in the world. These are just two of the many
alternatives that now exist. There are all manner of independent news websites
and email lists, and publications. However, it is still the case that to reach
a large audience, the mass media has by far the best distribution, so in a metaphorical
sense we are confronted with the need to sleep with the devil.
Activism requires publicity. Indeed, an action can be regarded as effective, in
an intermediate fashion (ultimate effectiveness is in achieving your end
in correcting the misdeed or problem), if you obtain a lot of publicity for it.
This is measured by how many people you reach, and the manner, positive or not,
and focused and convincing or not, in which your message is relayed. It is essential
to invite the press, both television and print, including free media (this would
generally be after the fact for many forms of direct action); to give them any
information that they need to understand the action, by way of a press release
and other materials; and to encourage them to cover it and your message in a positive
This is actually the other major benefit of direct action. Not only may you stop
the misdeed in its tracks, you will certainly attract media attention. In fact,
it can be argued that the only effective way to get the publics attention
is through civil disobedience: to break unjust laws. The public has been brainwashed
very effectively. It has been told to ignore social problems, even the most severe
and obvious. People need to be jerked out of their complacency, and direct action,
the efforts of individuals who are not complacent and who will make a stand, is
quite possibly the only way to accomplish this.
As to your message, you obviously want to describe the institution and its misdeeds,
the costs that have been incurred, and the corrective action that is required.
However, you also want to focus on the institutions executives. This is
because a gaping loophole exists: institutional executives are able to escape
personal responsibility. They hide behind the institutions large, impersonal
facade. They are cloaked in anonymity, and never held to account.
This loophole must be closed! Make an integral or even primary part of your message
identification of the executives in charge. Point them out as the unethical cowards
that they are. They may retain their positions following such a public identification,
but not their prestige and reputation.
Publicity is also essential because it increases the chances that during the action
you will not be attacked and, if you are arrested, that you will be treated fairly
and let off quickly without charge. In this regard, having a TV cameraperson on-site
is greatly to be preferred. The police, and any institutional thugs who are present,
will be much more reserved if they know they are being filmed. Indeed, you should
supplement the press with your own cameras: equip as many of your own people as
(Please see the media links in
the Activist Exchange for additional information about how to deal with journalists.
The different organizations listed present advice on many important topics, including:
press strategy, the drafting and issuance of press releases, the briefing of spokespeople,
and the conducting of media interviews.)
To close the chapter, I want to return to the idea of pinning blame where it is
The earth is not dying. It is being killed.
And those who are killing it have names and addresses.
- Utah Phillips
The first step in correcting a wrong is to identify the culprit the real
culprit. For corporations, this in turn requires an understanding of how executives
escape responsibility for the behavior of their companies.
Corporations in general are large and faceless; it is very difficult to find anyone
specific to blame. The underlying reason for this is as follows. When a company
engages in an unethical action, such as polluting the environment, the actual
employees who do it, who open a valve to allow the discharge of waste into a river,
or the atmosphere, do not feel as if they, personally, are responsible. To them,
they are simply following orders from above. (The anonymity of such an employee
is like that of a soldier shooting into an unarmed crowd, or of a lab scientist
torturing an animal, splitting a gene, or working on a weapon of mass destruction.)
Furthermore, this failure to accept responsibility continues. Their bosses feel
the same. And this goes on all the way up to the executives, who themselves believe
that they are not to blame, since they are merely following the leadership of
the Chief Executive Officer. But the CEO also is not to blame, as he is subject
to the Board of Directors, which in turn must report to the shareholders, the
owners of the company, which is the world of financial institutions, meaning Wall
Street. But Wall Street responds: Hey! Its not us. We just
apportion investment capital to the most successful companies. We have no impact
at all on their day-to-day operations.
In this way, no one in or associated with a company feels a sense of responsibility.
They have all been compelled to act the way they have. They have not had a choice.
(It is a form of determinism.) And this is the identical logic that is used to
justify military atrocities. More generally, it is the process by which groups
of people degenerate into mobs and do horrible things things which, as
individuals, they would never consider.
As activists, we need to end this anonymity. We need to remove the veil or turn
over the rock, so to speak. We need to pin the blame on the people who ultimately
There are many ways to accomplish this identification. In grassroots tabling,
letter writing, petitions, lobbying and demonstrations (and demo press releases),
such individuals must be named. Even more, they must be pilloried. Everyone must
know who they are, and their reputations must be ruined. We want to make them
pariahs, make them understand, clearly, that they personally are responsible.
For example, in demonstrations, dont carry a sign saying, Unocal
engages in ethnic cleansing in Burma. Enlarge a photo of the companys
CEO (or owner you can get one in the companys annual report), and
use the slogan, Roger Beach, [now former] CEO of Unocal, engages
in ethnic cleansing in Burma. Or show a photo of a polluted river, with
the caption, Thank you, Mr. _____, CEO of ABC Corp., for destroying our
Another idea is to get a group of activists, each with an enlarged photo of a
member of the companys Board of Directors, and have a banner saying Board
of Dictators! (This would be particularly suitable for companies that
are active in Burma, China, etc.) Also, what all of this recalls is the basic
activist premise: Be Creative!
© Roland O. Watson 2005