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Breaking Through The Information Blockade 

Independent Media Centers revolutionize the online alternative press

Who knew Seattle would begin a media revolution? When the World Trade Organization met in the espresso capital of the US 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. Concerned that the major news organizations would fail to cover the WTO protests adequately, if at all, a group of Seattle media activists decided on a proactive approach. Months prior to the WTO meeting, they formed the Independent Media Center, and set about gathering donations and organizing volunteers. They registered a Website 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."

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

Opposition 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" that results from corporate control of news reporting. The issue of corporate ownership of the news media is a hot topic for scholars and media observers. The respected Columbia Journalism Review has followed media ownership patterns for years, and their website features a "Who Owns What" section (www.cjr.org) dedicated to keeping track of media ownership. Media critics in academia and public interest groups like Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have long observed that "as news outlets fall into the hands of large conglomerates with holdings in many industries, conflicts of interest inevitably interfere with newsgathering."

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."

This has resulted in what the Columbia Journalism Review 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 the Independent Media Centers.

Given the nature of corporate media bias, can a reader expect news from an Indymedia site to be any more objective? Indymedia addresses this directly: "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."

Birth and development

When the WTO came to Seattle, press coverage included, for the first time, a fully operational and well-planned Independent Media Center. Led by organizer Dan Merkle, a 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,borrowed equipment, Indymedia turned a downtown storefront into a bustling, high-tech newsroom filled with computers, Internet access, and their own website (www.Indymedia.org). 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."

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