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Propaganda as a juicy item on the ‘red meat’ panel in Memphis

SHOWCASE | January 13, 2007

In the morning, panelists shoot zingers at Bush, at Fox News, and at fake news. Then an afternoon panel focuses on 'youth media.'

By John Branston

MEMPHISEvery dog has its day, and for media watchdogs, that day is every day thanks to the explosion of blogs and popular websites on the Internet.

The National Conference for Media Reform’s panel on “Propaganda and the Press” was jokingly called “the Gorbachev panel” by one participant, but it could also have been called the “red meat” panel or the “hot button” panel.

With panelists launching zingers at such juicy items as Fox News, the war in Iraq, and George Bush, the session drew an overflow crowd and had audience members lined up at the microphones to put in their two cents worth and plug their own blogs and sites.

[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.]

The panel included self-described former federal government propagandist Nancy Snow (www.nancysnow.com), John Stauber (PRWatch.org), Judy Daubenmier (News Hounds), and Peter Philips (Project Censored).

A sampler:

“I’m quickly becoming a stand-up comedienne when I talk about propaganda,” said Snow, formerly with the United States Information Agency, but now somewhat disillusioned with her ex-employer. (“This is the administration that is all about rolling back taxes, and that includes taxing our thinking.”)

Stauber’s PR Watch started in Madison, Wisconsin as an offshoot of his Center for Media and Democracy. It now has a staff of ten, thanks in part to the popularity of its “fake news” and interactive “source watch” features. “If you focus on the propaganda you’ll usually be ahead of the news,” he said.

Daubenmier’s contribution is News Hounds, of which she said, “If your focus is on the power of the Great Satan and his evil spawn then News Hounds is for you.” The site is famous (as measured by Google hits and 20,000 to 60,000 site visitors daily) for its motto “We watch Fox News so you don’t have to.”

“We want to make it as difficult for them to operate as possible,” said Daubenmier, who considers it a compliment that Bill O’Reilly called her group “off-the-chart Left.”

While some watchdogs use ridicule and humor, Project Censored is all serious all the time. Philips took a bit of flack from moderator Sam Husseini (Institute for Public Accuracy) who wondered if some watchdogs are gobbling their own brand of conspiracy propaganda in stories such as the theory that Building 7 next to the Twin Towers was deliberately demolished and its collapse was not due to fire. Husseini drew a few hoots of skepticism when he noted that the theory had been challenged by Popular Mechanics.

What’s next? Snow had one suggestion: Focus more on the mainstream big media. “It’s not enough just to make Fox News the enemy.”

Special panel on ‘youth media’

Saturday afternoon at the conference the subject of “youth media” was treated as a special panel.

“It’s amazing to me that in a forum about independent and alternative media more young people aren’t included in this process,” said Kareem Chadly, 25, of Berkeley, California, attending his first National Conference for Media Reform. “This panel is definitely one of the most diverse demographically and by age.”       

With keynoters such as Bill Moyers and Jesse Jackson, the majority of the more than 3,000 conference participants were shaped by the civil rights era, Vietnam, and Watergate. But most of those in the “Making Our Voices Heard: Youth Media Across the Nation” session were born after Richard Nixon resigned.

The stories they have produced and written reflect their diversity: San Francisco teenagers who survived gunshot wounds, a Kentucky high school student kicked out of school for drawings deemed terroristic, the price of a gay-straight alliance of high-school students, the military’s disproportionate recruiting of young Hispanics, the deterioration of hip-hop music, undocumented immigrants as young as 14 with drinking problems, to name a few.

With the mainstream media seeing readership and viewership declines, anyone who can attract the coveted “youth market” has a chance of at least getting a hearing if not an embrace. Mac Blair’s Appalshop videos on Appalachian youth attracted attention from the ACLU as well as bigger media. Paul Billingsly (www.youthoutlook.org) said the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times followed up on Youth Outlook’s story on kids with bullet wounds. And Dulce Mora of Chicago has tapped support from the Tribune and McCormick for a site called RadioArte, whose documentaries are produced by young Hispanics.       

“They might not be able to go to college to study journalism but they’re training to become reporters,” she said.

The panel was notable for the near absence of print media. Most of the groups specialize in Internet or radio products. The independent spirit is strong.

“I don’t feel it’s my job to impose a world view on anybody,” said Billingsly, when asked if he is driven to achieve justice in his community. “We’re about young people being able to articulate what their truth is whatever it is.”

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