Independent Media Centers: Cyber-Subversion and the Alternative Press
First Monday

Independent Media Centers: Cyber-Subversion and the Alternative Press by Gene Hyde

Contents

Introduction
A Response to Corporate Ownership of the Media
The Alternative Press Tradition and the New Media
Birth and Development of Indymedia
The Spread of Indymedia
Indymedia at Work
The Impact of the Indymedia Movement

 

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Introduction

When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle in November 1999, hundreds of journalists and thousands of protesters converged on the city. The journalists represented, by and large, a handful of corporate media organizations, while the protesters represented a diverse group of interests with complaints against the WTO and its policies.

Indymedia Logo

Concerned that the major news organizations would fail to cover the WTO protests adequately, if at all, a group of Seattle media activists planned a proactive approach. Months prior to the WTO meeting, they formed the Independent Media Center (or Indymedia). They gathered donations, organized volunteers, registered a Web site, www.indymedia.org, and set up a newsroom with computers, Internet lines, digital editing systems and streaming audio and video.

When the WTO showed up, Indymedia offered volunteer journalists a place to file stories, photos, and videos of the protests and upload them to the Web. As Indymedia's behind-the-scenes reports of the protests came online, "an amazing thing happened," reported the Christian Science Monitor. "In an end run around traditional media, the Internet became the key player in dispersing information to a world hungry for details about the events in Seattle" [1].

Two years later there are now over 60 Independent Media Centers scattered across 20 countries and six continents, each dedicated to providing an unabashedly liberal counterpoint to the mainstream press [2]. From grassroots beginnings in Seattle, this online alternative to corporate media has spread like wildfire. That's not bad for a loose collection of non-profit, volunteer-staffed journalists and activists.

To understand how Independent Media Centers have spread so quickly, this paper will examine Indymedia's growth as a response to corporate ownership of the mainstream media, and place Indymedia in the context of the alternative press in the Internet age. It will then examine the birth and growth of Indymedia, followed by an overview of how Indymedia provides technological support for journalists and local offices. Finally, it will offer an assessment of Indymedia's impact.

 

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A Response to Corporate Ownership of the Media

"We had a saying in Seattle," one Indymedia journalist said, "We're trying to break through the information blockade." Indymedia organizers believe that corporate owned major news organizations have created a "blockade" that misrepresents or fails to report the varied viewpoints of those who protest globalization and the WTO. A telling example of Indymedia organizers' distrust of corporate media occurred during the Seattle protests. In an effort to downplay the violence of the WTO protests, the major networks reported that rubber bullets had not been fired into the crowd, based on reports from the Seattle police department. Indymedia journalists were in the front lines of the protests, and they filed online reports with photos of rubber bullets, contradicting police claims. The major networks were forced to change their stories [3].

A number of scholars and media observers are concerned about corporate ownership of the news media. The respected Columbia Journalism Review has been following media ownership patterns for years, and their Web site features a "Who Owns What" section, keeping track of media ownership. Corporate ownership often means conflicts of interest, according to Mark Crispin Miller, Indymedia/Corporate Media Protest Banner director of the Project on Media Ownership. Major corporate media owners typically own a diversified portfolio of other businesses, and Miller worries that huge conglomerates like Disney (which owns ABC) or General Electric (which owns NBC) "will have so many boats at sea that its most scrupulous reporters may well run the fatal risk of rocking some of them ... Thus does the chill of censorship have less to do with outright interference by the parent company (although that happens) than with editors and reporters learning what it takes to get ahead" [4]. The prudent, career-minded reporter may not pursue a story if it is critical of another company in the corporate family. This concern is shared by the national media watch organization Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), noting that "as news outlets fall into the hands of large conglomerates with holdings in many industries, conflicts of interest inevitably interfere with newsgathering" [5].

Ben Bagdikian, a leading scholar on the topic, has been studying corporate news ownership for decades. In his 1982 book, The Media Monopoly, he reported that 50 corporations owned half or more of the media business. By the early 1990s that number was trimmed to 20, and is now well under 10. With such ownership comes bias, and news content now reflects a narrow "range of politics and social values from center to far right," Bagdikian writes, leaving the American audience with a press that covers "a narrowing range of ideas." Corporate ownership, to Bagdikian, "is no way to maintain a lively marketplace of ideas, which is to say that it is no way to maintain a democracy" [6].

Media critic Robert W. McChesney is even more blunt in his assessment, attacking the "global commercial media system" as working "to advance the cause of the global market and promote commercial values, while denigrating journalism and culture not conducive to the immediate bottom line or long-run corporate interests" [7].

A recent study in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) found this to be specifically true in how major news organizations covered protests at the International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague, the free trade talks in Quebec City, the European Summit in Sweden, and the G-8 meeting in Genoa. CJR examined over 200 stories on these events by the 10 major U.S. news organizations and newspapers, and discovered that editorial opinion "leaned heavily towards the corporate side" and either often dismissed the protest movement as "a circus" or "a sporting event," ignoring the serious economic and political issues invoked by the protest movement. "The underlying issues that have brought out hundreds of thousands of people are often glossed over or misrepresented" [8].

This has resulted in what CJR has called a "media backlash." Rachel Coen, a media analyst for FAIR, thinks corporate bias in coverage has led many to draw "some connections between globalization and corporate-owned media." A specific response to this disaffection has been the development and rapid growth of Independent Media Centers. [9].

Given the nature of corporate media, and Indymedia's avowed progressive social stance, can a reader trust the Indymedia to be more objective than corporate media? Indymedia's Web site answers that in this fashion: "All reporters have their own biases ... corporations that own media entities have their own biases as well, and often impose their views on their reporters (or their reporters self-censor to conform their own biases to those of their employer). You should look at all reports you read on the Indymedia site with a critical eye, just as you should look at all media before you in a discerning manner" [10]. While truth may not necessarily be in the eye of the beholder, Indymedia takes the stance that a press beholden to no corporate entity has freer reign to report the truth as they see it.

 

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The Alternative Press Tradition and the New Media

Independent Media Centers are the most recent chapter in the long history of alternative journalism in America. Media owners have always controlled editorial content, leaving many factions of American society with no choice but to establish their own news outlets to exchange information. Throughout American history a number of communities have established alternative news outlets, including African-American organizations, suffragette and feminist groups, immigrants, war resisters and various organizations on the left end of the political landscape [11].

The merging of alternative journalism with the New Media is a natural one. New Media is the term journalism scholars have coined to describe how the rapid rise of telecommunications, computers, and the World Wide Web have changed how news is gathered, reported, and disseminated [12]. New Media technologies are transforming journalism in many ways, but one of the most important is a new "realignment" in the relationship between news organizations, journalists, sources, advertisers, and audiences [13]. Michael Schrage of MIT's Media Lab states this even stronger when he says that the real value of the New Media "lies less in the information that it carries than in the communities it creates" [14]. Indymedias are restructuring the traditional news hierarchy of publishers, advertisers, sources, journalists, and readers. In the world of Indymedia news, the relationship between the sources, journalists, and readers is all that matters. In the Indymedia community, publishers, advertisers, and corporate interests are left out of the picture.

 

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Birth and Development of Indymedia

When the WTO came to Seattle in November, 1999 press coverage included, for the first time, a fully operational and well-planned Independent Media Center. Led by organizer Dan Merkle , a Protesters in Seattle-Dec 1999 host of alternative news agencies, including Free Speech TV, Protest.net, Paper Tiger TV, Deep Dish TV, joined forces to form Indymedia. Working with $30,000 in donations and lots of borrowed equipment, Indymedia turned a downtown storefront into a bustling, high-tech newsroom filled with computers, Internet access, and their own Web site. Other groups provided streaming audio, while a digital video editing system was installed to edit reports for satellite feed. As one local organizer gleefully admitted, the WTO's choice of Seattle as a meeting place helped birth the Indymedia: "I mean, it's Seattle - we've got all the techies you'd ever want and all these companies specializing in everything they need to stream these stories all over the world" [15].

When the protesters hit the streets, the Indymedia office became the nerve center for an army of volunteer journalists. Indymedia issued press passes to journalists who then went out to the protests and recorded what they saw with pens, paper, audio and video tape, and digital cameras. When the Seattle police showered crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets, Indymedia journalists were in the thick of it, reporting the protester's viewpoints and documenting the violence, then sending their reports out on the Web.

Indymedia received almost immediate attention, and many reporters across Canada and the United States were quick to praise their reporting and their distribution networks. The Indymedia Web site received hundreds of thousands of hits during and immediately after the Seattle protests. The Nation correspondent Stephanie Greenwood dropped by Indymedia during the protests and reported the Indymedia office "full of committed people doing really good documentary work and reporting ... Something is starting" [16]. By successfully doing an "end-run around the information gatekeepers," John Tarleton wrote in Nieman Reports, Indymedia had done more than "create one more alternative lefty publication." What they had done was "lay the infrastructure for a multimedia peoples' newsroom" that would reach a global audience "without having to go through the corporate filter" [17]. This was grassroots Web-based journalism at an unprecedented level.

 

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The Spread of Indymedia

Something, indeed, had started with the Seattle Indymedia. By February, 2000, Indymedias were being established in cities like Washington, Philadelphia, Portland, and Vancouver. By the end of the year 2000 over 30 Indymedias were scattered across the globe, and in November, 2001, just two years after the first Indymedia hit the Web, the number is now over 60. Cities with an activist movement or those anticipating meetings and protests were prime candidates for an Indymedia, and the Indymedia Web site provides guidelines and a technical infrastructure for those interested in starting a local office.

Indymedia Banner

Individual Indymedia offices operate independently and purely through a network of volunteers. All Indymedia offices, however, are bound together by a common philosophy and a well-maintained technical infrastructure. Forming a new Indymedia isn't difficult, providing an interested group has a volunteer staff and can appoint a spokesperson who agrees to participate in online meetings of the whole Indymedia community. A prospective Indymedia office needs sufficient hardware and software to create and file stories. It also needs someone on staff who can write some HTML, train others how to file stories, serve as the local technician who will work with Indymedia home tech crew, and maintain a mailing list. In exchange, Indymedia's main Web site staff provides the local Indymedia with server space, a mailing list, a basic Indymedia Web page template, an e-mail address, other tech resources and support, and affiliation with the larger Indymedia network [18].

What makes the concept of Indymedias different than many online alternative news sources is their focus on grassroots reporting and online publication. While other online alternative news sources often fill their Web pages with editorials, commentaries, and news analysis (and Indymedia often links to these and other sources), Indymedia's primary emphasis is in providing a Web outlet for filing original, first-hand coverage online through print, photos, audio, and video.

This is facilitated through an impressive technical assistance network and infrastructure. The main Indymedia Web site provides a wealth of technical information and support for local branches and reporters. A detailed "Tech FAQ" answers most questions, and other detailed pages discuss Web site maintenance, information access, downloading stories, using streaming media and many more topics.

Organizational tools on Indymedia Web sites are included in the "Process" section of the Indymedia Web site. In addition to general information on how Indymedia Web sites function, there are 27 different categories of mailing lists dedicated to almost every aspect of the editorial and technical process. A dozen deal with general topics for all Indymedia offices, including lists dedicated to submitting feature story proposals, discussing Web page design, technical issues, editorial policy, etc. Four mailing lists are dedicated to sharing stories, photos, audio, and video clips. Technical mailing lists cover video, photo, and other topics, and each individual Indymedia office has their own editorial mailing list to cover issues specific to that office. All general and local mailing lists are indexed and accessible through the Indymedia main page. There is also an active Indymedia chat room [19].

Gradually, an editorial policy of sorts has emerged at Indymedia. When the first Indymedia opened in Seattle, stories were published to the Web with little editorial oversight. Following an "open posting" policy, anyone could file a report. As the movement developed, Indymedia staffers noticed that reports varied in quality. A ranking order emerged, where stories are read and ranked by a group of readers, and the ones deemed most newsworthy appear as leading stories, while the rest end up in a separate "open publishing" column. Soon what amounted to "a fairly standard newsroom" was in operation, the American Journalism Review observed [20]. While this editorial system is often hotly contested on Indymedia mailing lists as stifling free expression, one British Indymedia member justified it in terms of Indymedia's underlying philosophy of social activism. The issue, he argued, wasn't free speech per se so much as it was "how our speech can be used to create a sustainable and equitable society." In the end, quality stories take precedence over inferior ones [21].

 

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Indymedia at Work

A typical visit to Indymedia's main Web site (www.indymedia.org) reveals an active, dynamic presentation of news. Below the top banner are three columns, with the center column featuring the main stories. In mid-October, 2001, the lead story was ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, headlined "9-11: Peace & Justice". Following that was a report on battles in Bolivia between farmers and the government, followed by an in-depth report on how "fighting terrorism" has meant suppression of civil liberties around the world. Next were reports on large protests in Belgium, Canada, and Norway. Each report was extensively hyperlinked to Indymedia field reports and other news sources. The articles from Bolivia and Europe featured street reports from the protest front, while the ongoing coverage of the September 11th attacks featured a backfile of Indymedia reports and analysis.

Indymedia Israel Logo

A column on the right of the main Web site has links to upcoming international events with Indymedia coverage, as well as a list of "open publishing" articles - items submitted by individuals that reflect a myriad of views, mostly liberal. A column on the left features a search engine, links to all the Indymedia local sites, and links to technical and organizational sections of the Web page [22].

Most of the local Indymedia offices feature a similar interface and alternative news philosophy as the main Web page. The Israeli Indymedia, for instance, provides English, Arabic, and Hebrew pages. Articles in the center column offered a different perspective from what the mainstream U.S. press presents of Israeli politics and life. Articles included a critique of the government's military oppression of Palestinians, a report on the cruel treatment of Israeli conscientious objectors, several critiques of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and other views not normally presented by American news sources. Along the right column are the "open" postings, again in three languages [23].

While Independent Media Centers first gained international attention in Seattle, they have also caught the mainstream press's eye in various other places. At the 2000 Republican National Convention, the Philadelphia Indymedia received national press coverage as an alternative to corporate media. Indymedia's coverage of the violence at the G8 meeting in Genoa in summer of 2000 - some of it aimed at the Indymedia itself - was documented by an Indymedia video journalist and broadcast worldwide on the Web. In the short time since their birth, Indymedia Web sites have been growing in popularity, providing "a fuller record" of the news than that of the "mainstream media," according to The Guardian of London. Indymedias are earning respect for providing what one academic journal dubbed "important and pretty damned thrilling" alternative coverage of the news [24].

 

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The Impact of the Indymedia Movement

While criticism of corporate media has been growing, Independent Media Centers have actively covered alternative viewpoints, and have successfully used the Web to broadcast news. Using information technologies in a fashion unforeseen by the corporate world, the rapidly growing number of Independent Media Centers are providing an outlet for scores of disaffected and disenfranchised groups by reporting differing versions of the news than the mainstream press. Activists, journalists, and academics have all commented on this movement. Writing in the journal Dissent, sociologist Jackie Smith notes that Indymedia's "ongoing critical commentary on local and global events" is in the forefront of a larger "dialectic between cyber subversion and the growing concentration of power that shape the politics of the new millennium" [25].

On one side of this dialectic are corporations and corporate-owned media, criticized by Harvard's Nieman Reports for defining "the narrow parameters that actually are put forth for public debate. Every notion that falls outside of those parameters, such as the possibility for universal health care ... is generally derided or ignored by the mainstream press" [26]. On the other side are Independent Media Centers and the diverse communities they represent. While Indymedia won't replace the mainstream press any time soon, they are growing at an impressive rate. They will continue to research their stories, cover issues aggressively, and take the time to report on issues shunned by the mainstream press. Indymedia and the communities they represent are a force to contend with, for as the Columbia Journalism Review observed, they're "organized, they're global, and they're not going away" [27]. End of article

 

About the Author

Gene Hyde is Instructional Services Librarian at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas. He has been publishing reviews and articles in a number of newspapers, mostly writing about books, jazz, and other forms of American music.
Web: http://www.lyon.edu/webdata/users/ghyde/public_html/index.html
E-mail: ghyde@lyon.edu

 

Acknowledgments

This paper was researched and written from September-November, 2001, as part of the requirements for a class taught by Dr. Gretchen Whitney at the School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee-Knoxville. A different version of this article also appeared in Flagpole Magazine (Athens, Ga.) and Creative Loafing (Charlotte, N.C.). All images are from various Independent Media Web sites, which carry the disclaimer that all content is "free for reprint and rebroadcast, on the net and elsewhere, for non-commercial use." Please address all comments and questions to Gene Hyde at ghyde@lyon.edu

 

References

1. Tom Regan, 1999. "News You Can Use from the Little Guys," Christian Science Monitor (9 December). Background information also taken from John Tarleton, 2000. "Protesters Develop Their Own Global Internet Service, " Nieman Reports (Winter), and the Independent Media Center's Web site at http://www.indymedia.org, accessed 10 October 2001.

2. Indymedia defines itself as "a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth. We work out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media's distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity." Independent Media Center, "About Indy," at http://www.indymedia.org/about.php3>, Accessed 11 November 2001.

3. C. Carr, 2000. "Get Me Download!" Village Voice (8 August).

4. Mark Crispin Miller, 1999. "Can Viacom's Reporters cover Viacom's Interests?" Columbia Journalism Review (November/December), at http://www.cjr.org/year/99/6/viacom.asp, accessed 11 October 2001.

5. Ben Bagdikian, "The 50, 26, 20 .... Corporations That Own Our Media," Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, at http://www.fair.org/extra/best-of-extra/corporate-ownership.html, accessed 11 October 2001.

6. Op.cit.

7. Robert W. McChesney, 1997. "The Global Media Giants: The Nine Firms that Dominate the World," Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (November/December), at http://www.fair.org/extra/9711/gmg.html, accessed 12 October 2001.

8. John Guiffo, 2001. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Columbia Journalism Review (September/October).

9. Op.cit.

10. "Should I believe news I read on Indymedia?" Independent Media Center, at http://process.indymedia.org/FAQ.php3#activist-journalist, accessed 15 October 2001. For an example of media bias in the self-proclaimed "fair and balanced" Fox News channel, read "The Most Biased Name in News: Fox News Channel's extraordinary right-wing tilt," Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, at http://www.fair.org/reports/fox.html, accessed 11 November 2001.

11. Lauren Kessler, 1984. The Dissident Press: Alternative Journalism in American History. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, pp. 1-20.

12. John V. Pavlik, 2001. Journalism and the New Media. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. xii-xiii.

13. Pavlik, 2001. Journalism and the New Media, p. xiii.

14. Michael Schrage, "The Relationship Revolution," Merrill Lynch Forum, at http://www.ml.com/woml/forum/index.htm, accessed 21 October 2001.

15. Independent Media Center, at http://www.indymedia.org/about.php3, 21 October 2001; Dean Paton, 1999. "War of the Words: Virtual Media Versus Mainstream Press," Christian Science Monitor (3 December 3); and, John Tarleton, 2000. "Protesters Develop Their Own Global Internet Service," Nieman Reports (Winter).

16. Stephanie Greenwood, 1999. "Report From the Front," The Nation (27 December), and at http://past.thenation.com/issue/991227/1227greenwood.shtml, accessed 27 October 1999.

17. John Tarleton, "Protesters Develop Their Own Global Internet Service," Nieman Reports (Winter).

18. "So you want to start an IMC in your town?" Independent Media Center, at http://process.indymedia.org/want_imc.php3, accessed 12 November 2001.

19. All the above information is from Indymedia's "process" section; see http://process.indymedia.org/, accessed 12 October 2001.

20. Marc Fisher, 2000. "Low Power to the People," American Journalism Review (October); and, Ken Layne, "Our Only Choice: Cover What's Outside: Inside the Philly Independent Media Center," Online Journalism Review (2 August 2000), at http://ojr.use.edu/content/print.cfm?print=410, accessed 7 September 2001.

21. "On Censorship, the IMC Mission, and Free Speech," Independent Media Center, at http://process.indymedia.org/on_censorship_and_free_speech.php3, accessed 12 October 2001.

22. Information from the Independent Media Web site at http://www.indymedia.org/, accessed 29 October 2001.

23. Information from the Israeli Independent Media Web site at http://www.indymedia.org.il/imc/israel/webcast/index.php3?language=en, accessed 29 October 2001.

24. Hillary Rosner, 2001. "Network: A Very Different View of Genoa," The Guardian, London (30 July); and, Ken Layne, 2000. "Our Only Choice: Cover What's Outside: Inside the Philly Independent Media Center," Online Journalism Review (2 August), at http://ojr.use.edu/content/print.cfm?print=410, accessed 7 September 2001.

25. Jackie Smith, 2001. "Cyber Subversion in the Information Economy," Dissent, volume 48, number 2 (Spring). Echoes of this sentiment are also found in the conclusion to Jackie Smith's "From Protest to agenda building: description bias in the media coverage of protest events," Social Forces, volume 79, number 4 (June 2001).

26. John Tarleton, 2000. "Protesters Develop Their Own Global Internet Service," Nieman Reports (Winter).

27. John Guiffo, 2000. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Columbia Journalism Review (September/October).


Editorial history

Paper received 2 December 2001; accepted 25 March 2002.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Independent Media Centers: Cyber-Subversion and the Alternative Press by Gene Hyde
First Monday, volume 7, number 4 (April 2002),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_4/hyde/index.html





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