Deepa Fernandes: Free Press Plenary Speech Memphis
Free Press Plenary Speech, Memphis, TN, Jan 13, 2007
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There is a very fundamental question that we are all here in Memphis to answer, and that question is exactly what I want to go right to tonight. It's not a difficult one. But it is one that demands we act together as if our lives depended on it, because for many of our communities, they do.
Put simply the question is this: What does media reform mean to us?
We know, and have spent the last two days here in Memphis learning more about how elitist, corporate driven and un-representative our media is. Thank god this room needs no convincing of that. But the bigger, and to me more critically important question, is what are we going to do about it?
What is the media system we want to build?
I want to dream with you all, I want to take all the amazing creativity, diversity and funkiness that we possess to loudly and proudly march forward with our mandate for a media system that is so damn appealing and inclusive and humane and entertaining and informative and engrossing that Time Warner and Clear Channel won't stand a chance against us!
What I'm proposing is a vision of the media that completely overhauls what we have today! Not simply some rule changes here and some reform there. Hell no! What I'm energized by is the extremely thoughtful and thorough thinking and visioning of those who believe in media justice.
Now if you don't know what media justice is, well I highly encourage you to attend the session tomorrow morning that is looking at media justice. Because media justice in not interchangeable for media reform. It is not another way of calling for media democracy.
To me, Media Justice, is about changing who is at the table at every level, so that our communities are represented and have power in content production, ownership, policy and regulation. Disenfranchised communities don't just want to be invited in, and we don't just want a mic put in our hands. We want to own the mic and own the station. And we don't want a say in setting the rules, we want to call the game and play on our court.
And those of us who believe in a world where social justice is at the core, we will never achieve this world until we have media justice. Doesn't matter if the Dems control Congress, doesn't matter if Hillary or Barak are our next president. We can't put our trust in the system as it exists now, we need to be the voices of massive change. We need to be the voices of truly democratic and participatory media. We need nothing short of media justice.
Let me give you a taste of what the media could look like and why it is so important that those who have traditionally been shut out of the media, those who have been framed and misrepresented by the media and those who are almost always written about and not doing the writing, lead the way. And to do this I want to first delve way back in history to what I consider an incredible example of media based on social justice.
Two months from now there is going to be a momentous anniversary, not just for the American media, but for American democracy. 180 years ago, on March 16 1827, before slavery was outlawed, the nation's first African American newspaper was born in Brooklyn.
It was called Freedom's Journal, it was a broadsheet newspaper and it began with the powerful demand that "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly."
So how did such a path-breaking Black owned newspaper start, especially in a time when press ownership was exclusively the domain of wealthy white men? It has been posited by historians that the nation's first African American newspaper began in direct response to the naked racism of the white press, yet as veteran journalist Herb Boyd has told me, such a simplistic analysis denies the presence in the African American community of existing and powerful underground systems of communications, church newsletters and the oral tradition of communicating.
Freedom's Journal was so much more than a knee-jerk reaction to racist white media. It was a community communicating among itself. In fact, it came on the coat tails of generations of African American community leaders who had risked life and limb to build community institutions and powerfully assert the need to plead their own cause and determine their own destiny.
And it is wrong to see Freedom's Journal as simply an abolitionist newspaper, it was not. It was so much richer in news, community information and debate than any single example from the exclusively white press of the day. And here is the part that to me is relevant to how we should be thinking about radically changing the media system. Here is exactly where, if we simply followed a narrow model of media reform and managed to change up some existing rules, it wouldn't be a victory. Because it must be pointed out that in the role that Freedom's Journal did play as an abolitionist newspaper, it preceded William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, the Liberator, which history has framed as the first abolitionist newspaper. Now being good history students, you all have heard of William Lloyd Garrison, right?
Well Garrison, an abolitionist, was a wealthy white man who was a publisher by trade. He started his newspaper the Liberator to speak to both black and white audiences about the need for slavery to be abolished. As I have been studying this early press history, I was particularly struck by Garrison because of his openly stated philosophy of what he called participatory journalism. He believed that a newspaper should facilitate community dialogues, provide information to aid in connecting communities united around similar ideals and not allow itself to fall victim to only letting elite voices be heard. Garrison allowed Frederick Douglass to first be heard by a wide audience by publishing him. He wrote stinging editorials and he pursued his cause of abolitionism relentlessly. To read history, Garrison was a hero, the white knight of the abolitionist movement.
But wait, there's more.
Now hanging out in the back ground is the quiet and powerful predecessor to the Liberator, Freedom's Journal. In fact, by the time the William Lloyd Garrison decided that the cause of abolitionism needed a newspaper to support it, Freedom's journal three year run had come to an end. And, as has been the history in our social justice movements, rather than put his funding and resources towards restarting Freedom's Journal or another African American led newspaper and truly stepping back and letting those most affected lead the show, Garrison did what many people of privilege have done throughout history. He, as a wealthy white man, became the voice for abolitionism. It would be some years later that Frederick Douglass would come into his own, but for the early 1830's the Samuel Cornishs' and John Russworms' of the Black community would be totally forgotten as the well resourced white newspapers took center stage as the voice of abolitionism.
And I don't buy for a minute that it takes a white man to speak reason to another white man, that an African American would not even be heard by whites hence the need for conscious whites to speak for disenfranchised peoples. Freedom's Journal proved that wrong in 1827, having a large white readership in addition to its core Black audience, and today we have to ask, what has changed?
So happy 180th Freedom's Journal. I hope we can take inspiration from you and march forward, 180 years later. Which brings me to my conclusion. You see, one major thing we need to do today is to hand the reigns, the resources and the power over to those, who like the founders of Freedom's Journal, have the incredible intellect, talent and lived experiences -- and who come to media work as community organizers, which makes them more than simply a reporter, it makes them a media organizer -- to plead their own community's cause.
In fact, right here in Memphis are some such people who we have been both training and learning from at the organization I work for. I hope you get to meet them. Seek them out and hear from them why being a street vendor in NYC, like James Williams, and organizing for worker rights with the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center puts him not only in a critical position to bring his fellow workers voices out and increase their chances of winning their organizing goals, but it also helps other organized street vendors come to understand, through James, the critical importance of their voices and input into the now largely white and elite conversations around media policy. Imagine for a second how incredibly a community of currently very targeted and economically marginalized street vendors in NYC -- almost all people of color and mostly immigrants -- could benefit from a media system that allowed them to use hyper-local publicly owned wireless to communicate with each other while working, alert one another of police harassment incidents, alert one another when a fellow vendor is leaving a more prime selling spot for the day so another can move in there and benefit.
The sky is the limit! It could serve as an effective organizing tool and it could help educate people right around them about the issues facing street vendors and what they can do to help eliminate these injustices. But right now, the discussions around municipal wireless do not include street vendors like James. We need to hand the reigns and resources over to those who have historically organized to win us many of the rights we have today.
I hope you also meet Abdulai Bah, one of the most amazing young journalists I have had the privilege of working with. Abdulai comes from Sierra Leone and spent time locked up in prison on arriving in America simply for entering the country without proper documentation as he had to flee his country for his life. Abdulai has been leading up our reporting and reporter training in New Orleans, connecting with and reporting the stories of African Americans banished into trailer parks and denied at every turn the chance to return to their city and rebuild their lives.
Abdulai comes to us through another partner community organization called Nah-We-Yone, a refugee rights organization in New York City - and Nah-we-Yone means "It belongs to us" in Krio, now isn't that the message at the heart of media justice. And with Abdulai and Nah-we-yone, we have been pushed to think about just how we could change the media game so that those immigrants who are locked up in our country's jails could benefit from a participatory media. Imagine if telecommunications policy mandated that those incarcerated in immigrant detention centers should have access to the internet on a daily basis so they could educate themselves on the law and how to fight their cases. A digital expansion of the prison law library if you will - but written firmly into telecommunications policy so that a private prison could not deny someone the right. Then, the overwhelming majority of incarcerated non-citizens, who go completely unrepresented in their court proceedings and lose because they are not afforded a court appointed lawyer, might actually have a chance at winning their case. Now that is a media system based on social justice!
And also floating around at this conference is, we are told, the youngest panelist here, one of the sweetest and fiercest women I know, Ms Hana Georg. Hana is herself a journalist in training, she is a media organizer with Radio Rootz. This past summer Hana spearheaded and produced a documentary on youth incarceration with community organization, the Prison Moratorium Project, in New York. It was a completely youth produced documentary and just weeks after its completion and airing in NY, a national study was released backing up all the findings that this documentary's voices has testified too. Yet not one single media outlet that covered the national report had a youth voice in it. Thank god for Hana and the Prison Moratorium Project.
And while we are busy training Hana and other young folks at WBAI, our Pacifica Station in New York, the reality is that Hana and her peers most likely listen to the corporate owned hip hop and reggaeton stations and not WBAI. So part of what Hana is active in is a project, with other youth, to hold Hot 97, one of the most popular New York Hip Hop stations accountable to the community. Building communications power, which is at the core of the media justice philosophy, is about educating ourselves about the media we consume in our communities and taking action to make sure it is accountable to us. This is participatory media in action!
So James, Abdulai and Hana, I sincerely hope it is one of you up here next Media Reform Conference enlightening and inspiring us towards what we can do to bring about a more just, ethical, democratic and participatory media. And I hope you all hold me to my now publicly pledged ideal of what true media justice is, even if it means I one day soon don't have a morning show in New York City to host because you all have taken over!