tent, such as the 1995 decision by CBS to kill an interview with a tobacco industry whistleThere were a lot of subjects and little sense of priority; each panel had its ten to fifty spectators. Though the going assumption seemed to be that the conference participants were linked by some common purpose, it wasn’t so clear what that purpose was. \(In conjunction with its report, the IAJ proposed one specific action: distributing a “Pledge of Journalistic Integrity” to CEOs of major media companies”I pledge that I will acknowledge journalism as a unique profession with its own set of principles, practices and values not to be overtaken by entertainment and commerce,” it began, and continued in the same high-minded /suspect whatever common ground people found, they found in the hallways, in groups of two or three. The dissimi larities were more apparent; in particular I was struck by those between younger and older participants. The conference drew a large number of young peopletwentysomething journalists, activists, and students, and the organizers did make an effort to include some younger voices on panels. But in many of the discussions, the questions and complaints of the \(older, emaudience members could really engage. If you’re a freelance writer whose chances of making a living from serious journalism seem awfully slim, then general handwringing about television or corporate ownership or whatever hardly seems worth the price of admission. At times, it was as if the younger audience members weren’t in the room. During one panel The Nation’s Katha Pollitt admitted that at that magazine the editors often feel cloistered: sometimes, she said, they try to think of writers under thirty, and cannot. That was honest, but an odd thing to say to an audience which had no shortage of writers under thirty in it \(then again The Nation itself usually has a bunch of interns on its masthead, and surely some of them are when a reporter for the New York Observer asked panelists about the freelance or contract nature of much of the work in journalism, representatives of the National Writer’s Union and the Newspaper Guild briefly agreed that it was a serious problem. But then the moderator changed the topic with a blithe, “But who knows what the workplace will look like in ten years?” It seemed, also, that the older participants were generally more dismissive of pop culture than the younger ones would be. Once in a while I got the sense that some of my journalistic elders wistfully believe that some future rule-of-the-smartest might banish the lurid celebrity tales entirely, as if a truly “democratic” media would get rid of Diana Spencer and Mary Albert, period, and focus on utility deregulation. The showcase event of the conference was its Friday evening session on “State of the Media,” a televised-for-CSPAN, moderated-by-Bill Moyers discussion featuring Pollitt, her fellow Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson, CBS commentator Farai Chidaya, and Mark Crispin Miller. On the hyperbole-studded conference schedule, it was described as “a groundbreaking discussion”; suffice it to say that it was not. After a few bland comments from the panelists about the difference between mainstream and alternative journalism, Miller attempted to inject a little drama into the discussion by unveiling a poster for the movie Twister, and a similar-looking Time magazine cover on hurricanes. He pointed out that the magazine ran the hurricane cover while Time-Warner was plugging the movie. A teed-off Isaacson then protested that the magazine had taken pains for several years to not run covers related to TimeWarner movies, and that this one occasion didn’t strike him as so terrible. I can’t say it really moved me to outrage eitherworking for a small-town newspaper I learned right off that pets and weather events sell like nothing else. The problem is how to balance what “sells” with the kind of journalism whose value is not defined by the bottom linewhat gets left out is more important than much of what goes on the cover. They’re related, of course; too often both are decided by some assumption of who readers are and what they “want.” Hitchens was careful to insist to Isaacson that the real evil in the mainstream media lies not, for example, in its exploiting of the Diana story but in its tendency to dictate the reader’s reaction to it, for example by claiming that “she was our princess, she touched our hearts.” I think this is a good point; it’s applicable not just to the mainstream media. There was an assumed “we” at the conference, too; “we’re not getting our message across” was a common sentiment. But who are “we”? What’s the message? Across to whom? Throughout the congress this flimsy We of the frustrated message existed, or failed to exist, in the place of a political We, devoted to constructing some kind of media reform policy. But this was probably inevitable, because the Congress addressed much more than corporate conglomeration, which is only one item on anyone’s list of problems with the media. If we were to ask how it was possible for Fortune to assign James Agee to write about the lives of sharecrop: pers in 1936, surely the answer wouldn’t be the relative virtues of Henry Luce vs. Time-Warner. My guess is we’d have to start talking about what constitutes a story, and whether present-day media-makers, both mainstream and alternative, don’t too often presume to know what the stories are at the outset, rather than hunt for them. That said, there were some little connections made, some less grand proposals. At another panel, New York Daily News writer Juan Gonzalez suggested that people try to put together radio stations to broadcast along the U.S.-Mexico border, to serve as a source of information for maquiladora workers. Other journalists shared their methods for researching, say, one city’s abandonment of minority neighborhoods, so that their work might be replicated in other areas. The success of the congress lay in these less ambitious, more concrete moments. It brought together progressive journalists and others who are so often isolated, feeling as if they’re the only ones doing what they’re doing. There is intelligent life outside US magazine and Business Week, the congress affirmed. Not a movement, but life. Observer contributing writer Karen Olsson lives in New York. NOVEMBER 7, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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