I on the News

David Montgomery 22.04.2002 18:25 Themen: Indymedia Medien
With Digicam and Laptop, 'Independent' Journalism Rewrites the Rules, if Not Its Reporting
Videographer Robin Bell of the Independent Media Center interviews Kaori Suzuki, from Bergen County, N.J., at Freedom Plaza. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 22, 2002; Page C01

No chance the kid in the black mask would talk to the networks, but here he is spilling to a newsman with long blond hair and a metal bead piercing the space between his lower lip and chin.

"Why do you feel the need to wear a mask?" inquires the newsman, Robin Bell.

"To show solidarity with the Black Bloc," mumbles the mask, participating in the pro-Palestinian march Saturday on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

"I heard a reporter say the Black Bloc are the ones who do violent actions," says Bell.

"No," says the mask. "It depends what each person decides to do. It's circumstantial."


The exotic, impassioned, sometimes inscrutable protest tribes are back in Washington, and a horde of media people is tracking their every move. It turns out there are two media tribes. One is familiar -- the tribe getting paid to be here, which includes CBS, CNN, The Washington Post, etc.

That's the "corporate media," not a complimentary term, according to members of the other tribe.This second group includes the ones running around with tiny digital video cameras, looking as if they're making home movies. Or wearing headphones and holding microphones for interviews that may soon be heard in Columbia Heights; Burlington, Vt.; Jerusalem. Or scrawling notesfor future letters to the world.

They represent something called the Independent Media Center (IMC), a kind of global volunteer newsroom that exists primarily on the Internet, offering proudly biased fare that its advocates say compensates for the blind spots of the mainstream media.

Under a grove of trees, speechifying erupts from a series of experts on the protesters' issues -- a prospect that drives away the television cameras. But an earnest semicircle of mini-cams clutched in sweaty palms pays rapt attention. The holders of those mini-cams care.

Perhaps as a result, they have developed a following.

"You're with the IMC, right? You guys are doing great," says District resident Chris Ibarra, 33, when he spots videographer Bell doing interviews in Freedom Plaza.

Others are mystified, like the 15-year-old Palestine supporter on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

"What channel are you from?"

Become the Media

It's an old idea. Versions of an alternative press have existed for centuries.

The latest species of "indie media" was born in Seattle in November 1999 during the World Trade Organization protests. Activists formed the Washington IMC in anticipation of the April 2000 protests against the World Bank. Now there are 77 IMCs on six continents, including 34 cities in the United States. There is an Israel IMC and a Palestine IMC.

Each local IMC has its own Web site, and there is an umbrella Web site at www.indymedia.org. The Washington IMC's Web address is www.dc.indymedia.org. IMC members say hundreds of thousands of people visit the various Web sites each month, with the numbers spiking higher during major protests, such as the last three days in Washington.

What is radically different from almost any kind of communications medium in history is that no single person is in charge and all important decisions are made by consensus. No one tells anyone else what to do. No one rejects copy. Upload your report on anything at all, and it goes directly to the Web and appears with other files in reverse chronological order.

Anyone can participate. It is a literal embodiment ofa fashionable slogan among certain activists: Don't hate the media, become the media.

To make it possible, techies invented software allowing any stranger with an Internet connection to send text, sound, pictures and video with ease. Friendly capitalists donated server space and Internet video capacity, on which the whole no-budget anti-corporate media utopia still depends.

IMCs tend to specialize in sympathetic portraits of protests staged by the interlockinganti-corporate-imperialist-etc. movements. They also explore micro-struggles in their own neighborhoods. Recent D.C. IMC stories: "75,000-100,000 March Against Terror," "At Liquor Board: Neighbors vs. Nightclubs," "Smile! You're on Homeland Security TV," "Episode 1: The Anacostia Diaries."

And yet the IMC utopia is confronting some universal verities of storytelling dating back at least to Homer. The indie chroniclers haven't invented any newways of telling stories yet. Most of their pieces adopt forms already much used by the mainstream media, albeit with different content. But in the end, crafting content requires selection, shortening, simplification and even a mildly authoritarian editorial brain making decisions -- all of which indie media makers resist.

The result can be narrative anarchy, but a certain quotient of anarchy is also the point sometimes.

Technology Provides

Videographer Bell, now 23, became a believer in the IMC on April 16, 2000, here in Washington.

The evening before he had been snapping pictures of a downtown demonstration for a photography class. He wasn't protesting anything, but he found himself swept up with tourists, shoppers and protesters in a mass of 600 people arrested for parading without a permit.

When he got out of jail the next day he expected the incident to be a big story. But he says he couldn't find anything on television. The Postbegan a story with eight paragraphs on the episode. Someone told Bell to check out the IMC Web site, where he found what he considered a full report venting outrage.

"I was so impressed people were putting something out they felt passionately about," he recalls.

The artist and sound man for local comedy acts saved his money to buy a Sony digital video camera and a MacIntosh laptop with video-editing features.

With about $2,500 in equipment, an independent journalist can produce decent-quality videos. The flowering of the new indie media would have been impossible just a few years ago, when editing decks cost more than $10,000.

"Someone like me can have a backpack with a laptop and a camera and document a story in professional quality and distribute it around the world at a reasonable cost," Bell says. "That was impossible five years ago."

The ideal is for as many people as possible to "become the media." But the multitudes who don't have $2,500 for video equipment and may not own computers can visit libraries or Internet cafes to participate in this revolution.

Attempting to reach across the digital divide, many IMCs publish newspapers, including the more-or-less monthly D.C. Free Press. They also offer workshops to teach people to use borrowed IMC equipment, to get the means of production into more hands.

News Smorgasbord

Videographer Brian Long, 30, and photographer Annette Normand, 29, are sitting at a computer in the D.C. IMC's headquarters on Champlain Street NW in Adams Morgan.

The handful of small rented rooms on the second floor of an old building costs about $2,000 a month, which the IMC barely covers by subletting some of the space and holding regular fundraisers. The sagging couches and folding chairs seem out of place amid high-tech audio and video equipment.

Long, an Internet applications consultant by trade, and Normand, a headhunter, are inthe D.C. IMC's editorial collective, meaning they help determine the look of the Web page and exercise what minimal editorial discretion is tolerated.

The right column -- called the news wire -- is the chronological record of everything filed to the D.C. IMC. The only items removed are what the collective deems "hate speech." In case anyone suspects abuse of power, stories found unacceptable for the news wire are preserved in a basket a few clicks away. No story is ever killed; D.C. IMC readers can scroll back through the full two years' worth of submissions.

The center display contains features the collective considers especially good, also in reverse chronological order. "The corporate media report who, what, when and where, but they're not as good at why," Normand says. "We try to say why."

Hence the center column has stories with interviews of people explaining why they're for peace, Palestine, D.C. statehood. There is a video about George Mason University students walking out of class to support Palestine, a story themainstream media did not report.

The chronological rule means no one takes the authority to highlight one story over another, but it results in a dizzying smorgasbord: The GMU story is followed by a story on Venezuela, followed by a story on the D.C. liquor board cracking down on nightclubs. Taking no chances that the reader will miss the point, the writer of the liquor piece stands firmly with the nightclubs, having recently worked for one, and she calls neighbors' concerns "nonsense" and D.C. Council Member Sharon Ambrose "lame."

The IMC is upfront about its biases, believing that is an honest kind of journalism. One bias is against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. "I think even a well-produced pro-[Ariel] Sharon piece wouldn't be approved as a feature by the editorial collective," Long says -- but it would be faithfully included on the open-to-all right-hand column.

But doesn't the mainstream journalist's practice of trying to get the other side of a story give the reader a certain protection against errors and bad faith?

Listen to Eddie Becker, 52, who started in alternative media during the May Day anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of 1971 and is one of many veterans embracing the new approach:

"Everyone has their own journalistic code," he says, "and anyone who wants to criticize them has the same placement on the Web site. It's not buried on page 3 as a correction. 'This is a lie!' can appear right after."

A kind of truth can emerge from this vigorous back-and-forth, he believes. "In some ways it's more democratic," Becker says.

Negotiating How-To

The idea for covering Saturday's multiple protest marches was that IMC reporters would be present at every important scene.

But since no one at the IMC gives orders and people can do what they want, the schedule of marches was posted on large sheets of paper, and reporters could sign up to be at one or another, choosing autonomously to fill any gaps. Days ahead of the event, there was a meeting and a suggestion that the video collective agree on specific stories in advance. But all that came out of the meeting was an agreement on some general areas of interest. It was decided that while everyone would pursue personal projects, the videographers would also collaborate on a 28-minute tape that within a week would be put on the Web and sent around the country to interested public television stations.

Long set out to ask people why they were protesting, and he stuck with the speechifying after the mainstream media cut away. Bell asked people to speak a message to the people of Palestine or Afghanistan.

Videographers Elizabeth Croydon and Jenny Carden picked a parody approach, doing mock corporate television stand-up reports. "Humor is a way to reach people who haven't already educated themselves about these issues," Croydon said.

That night, IMC volunteers from New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Washington filled the Adams Morgan newsroom. Writers posted bulletins on the Web site about arrests. David Russo and the audio team sent live reports from the arrest scene over Internet radio.

Suddenly people realized the corporate media had posted overall stories on the protests a couple of hours earlier, and still a full report wasn't up on indie media. Someone started typing.

Meanwhile the video team of more than a dozen began logging its tapes and conceiving possible segments for the 28-minute summary account. In the coming days editors would be nominated to make final decisions on content -- subject to veto by individual videographers.

They would wrestle with style -- the quick cuts the younger videographers favor, or a pace that lets characters speak at length? Or both? Would there be a unifying vision? Whose vision? Is that important?

Indie media were still wrestling with such issues.

"It's a process," Becker said. "This will be a great experiment."
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