"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Iraq war, coverage of it, loom large at media reform convention
By John Branston
January 13, 2007

MEMPHIS—In its second day, the National Conference for Media Reform had moments of edginess, passion, hot rhetoric, anger, charges of racism, a little rudeness, a few curse words, a few icons, plenty of icon worshippers, anti-war veterans, conspiracy theories, and calls to activism.

The Iraq war and coverage of it was a theme of several panels. Former UPI correspondent and current Hearst columnist Helen Thomas, once known as a good, tough reporter at presidential news conferences for some 40 years, has achieved iconic status for her opposition to the war. A panelist on "The Press at War & the War on the Press," she was referred to several times as a "living legend" and got a standing ovation.

"The press corps lost its way," she said of coverage of the run-up to the war. "We gave up our one weapon, which was skepticism."

[Audio feeds of the panel sessions and video of some of the main speakers are put on the Freepress's conference Web site as they become available. Other Nieman Watchdog stories on the conference can be found here.]

Thomas said she believes public opinion, now overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq war, has undergone "a sea change in the right direction" and that better news coverage, particularly by the print press, is partly responsible.

"Newspapers are more relevant than ever," said Thomas, who gracefully deflected personal praise. "Sound bites cannot replace a good solid story."

Aside from Thomas, favorable comments about the mainstream print media were scarce. More common were critics such as Norman Solomon (Institute of Public Accuracy), who said lame coverage of wars in the American press is nothing new. He said there has been some improvement in coverage of Iraq, but mainly in hindsight, while real-time coverage is still driven too much by official sources. For 45 years, he said, war coverage on the whole "has been fundamentally wrong."

In session after session, there seemed to be a liberal orthodoxy by default if not by consensus. Support for the war and other Bush administration policies was, basically, not to be found.

Craig Aaron of Free Press, organizers of the event, said the absence of a conservative point of view was not for lack of trying. "Our doors certainly are not closed to conservatives," he said. "These are not issues that only appeal to one side or the other."

Aaron suggested some conservatives may have attended and held their tongues when it came time for questions, and he noted that the conference drew more people (more than 3,000) from more places than the group's two previous national conferences. But he did not deny that self-segregation is at work in the "media reform" movement. He even suggested that the next conference should have a panel titled "Why Media Reform Is Not a Lefty Issue."

This aspect of the conference was apparent in Saturday night's program. Robert McChesney, author and co-founder of Free Press, the sponsor of the convention, said in a talk that "the reforms we work on favor no particular party." He called for "progressives" to go on the offensive and capitalize on the convergence of the digital revolution, the "collapse" of journalism, and the reform spirit driven by the war, public debt and political corruption. Then he introduced a surprise guest, a George W. Bush impersonator, or as they say in the home of Elvis Presley, a tribute artist.

A sample: "We need a media that is as big as this beautiful country. If we lived in Canada or France we would need a smaller media."

Then he took questions. The first and only questioner: Helen Thomas. The real one.

Meanwhile … there was plenty of passion and plenty of noise from a panel called "Hip-Hop Activism for Media Justice." For those unfamiliar with hip-hop, see www.sohh.com, which stands for support on-line hip-hop. Hip-hop artists Ilana ‘Invincible' Weaver and Brother Los performed, loudly enough to drown out a presentation going on in an adjacent conference room to the apparent annoyance of some spectators. The popular panel included "shout-outs" for attendees from Brooklyn, Detroit, and other cities that, judging from the shout-outs, were well represented.

"Hip-hop is a global phenomenon," said Malkia Cyril from Brooklyn, representing the Youth Media Council. "Its concentration and its capture by conglomerates is a global phenomenon."

Rosa Clemente of R.E.A.C.Hip-Hop, said blacks and Puerto Ricans started the grassroots independent media movement.

"Frederick Douglass was the first independent media person," said Clemente, who sprinkled her remarks with references to media racism, "white supremacy," and the "prison industrial complex."

Noting the attention given to the war in Iraq, she said "There's a war at home against people of color." Clemente also criticized conference organizers for canceling a panel on the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Aaron said that was true, but only because panelists scheduled to participate couldn't make it to Memphis.
        John Branston is a senior editor for The Memphis Flyer.

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