Austin is a good town for media. Between the state capitol, the largest university in the country and the verbal gaffes of George W. Bush, there is rarely a slow news day. Yet some Austinites have detected gaps in the news coverage.
The Austin Independent Media Center formed to report the news that never makes it to the press. They focus on the “unofficial” stories: free speech battles at the University of Texas, the Austin Police Department’s expenditures on riot gear and the local anti-Bush inauguration demonstrations.
“Texas politics has received international attention recently,” said Will Mangum, an organizer of the Austin IMC. “But there are a lot of political issues, and a lot going on, that’s not showing up on the radar.”
The Austin IMC is part of a global independent media movement that began with the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The 50,000 activists that shut down the high-profile business meetings knew their message would not make it through the filters of corporate media. So, instead of depending on mainstream media, activists decided to try something different: They made everyone a publisher.
In mid-October, local organizers rented a downtown storefront, scrounged together 25 donated computers, and started the Seattle Independent Media Center, a “24-hour activist newsroom.” Nearly 500 media affiliates–ranging from established groups like Paper Tiger TV to individual activists–used the video and computer equipment at the center. Some produced daily, half-hour television programs for free re-broadcasting around the world. Others wrote about the demonstrations in The Blindspot, a newsletter distributed on the streets of Seattle during that week.
But it was the “direct publishing” on the group’s website that challenged the day-by-day mainstream media coverage of the demonstrations. Using an online submission form, anyone could publish an account of a civil disobedience, a soundbite of a labor rally or a photo of police brutality. Submissions automatically load onto the Indymedia newswire, unedited.
“We’re trying to demystify the technology, and show people that anyone can publish,” Mangum said. “Our generation took computer classes in school, but we didn’t take radio or print or television classes. The Internet is a medium that is accessible to a lot of people, and has the possibility of opening up dialogue.”
Every posting has an “add your comments” option, where readers can respond to the information they just read. On controversial topics, such as property destruction at demonstrations, a page may have dozens of responses from people around the world. They often critique the journalism itself. Did the reporter include all relevant sources? Was the writing sensational? Was it appropriate?
This independent media movement has grown hand-in-hand with the burgeoning anti-globalization movement: fueling it, and being fueled by it. Wherever environmentalists, unions and anarchists have organized global demonstrations, community activists have organized Independent Media Centers to report on them. The Internet makes it easy for communities to start up an IMC: All sites use the same server, use the same graphic interface and have links to the other IMCs. When the protests end, keeping the IMC running is relatively cheap. No IMC has a payroll, and most don’t even have offices.
Boston, the second IMC, formed to cover the Bio2000 convention on biotechnology, and later covered the exclusion of third-party candidates from the presidential debates. When the Olympics hit Sydney, media activists used the international attention to shine light on aboriginal issues and pro-squatting movements. The student movement that led to the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic used the Belgrade IMC to both coordinate and report on actions. The Austin IMC gained momentum during protests against the Fortune 500 meetings in Austin last year.
Not all of the more than 50 IMCs have launched to cover a mass demonstration. The Houston IMC, for example, started in response to the controversial changes made by board members of Pacifica radio. “The information just wasn’t coming out of the mainstream press,” said Nick Cooper, an organizer of the Houston IMC.
The political orientation of Indymedia has drawn police scrutiny. The FBI recently tried to force the Seattle IMC to hand over their computer server logs and all other material related to their coverage of the Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations in Quebec City last April. From those logs, the government could determine who visited Indymedia, what they viewed and when. The FBI withdrew the court order on June 14, but Indymedia organizers are still wary of the government’s use of the Internet to monitor political activists.
Seeing what people around the world are doing, and engaging with those people, has helped build a genuine social movement. But as the excitement about Indymedia levels off, organizers have begun to ask themselves tougher questions. Does Indymedia exist to report on activist communities, or to reach out to the whole community?
“We put out our initial ‘web’ with the Internet, to bring people together and connect activists around the world,” said Brian Couser, an organizer for the Austin IMC. “Now, we are putting out our second web, to strengthen the first one, and reach less-represented populations.”
Will Potter is a writer in Austin.