The Battle to Control Media Systems: The Culture of Professionalism Versus Cultures of Direct Participation

07/15/2010 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is a guest blog by James Owens. Originally published on Media-Ocracy.

Based upon comments delivered on June 24, 2010 at the U.S. Social Forum workshop, "Control of Public Media as a Social Justice Issue: Lessons from the U.S. and Latin America."

Who produces media systems? Answering that question is the only way to understand the culture and politics that such systems will reproduce. If communities in struggle seek to survive and build movements for justice we must win two essential communicative capacities: the capacity to communicate with each other and the capacity to communicate our perspectives across society. No community can effectively reproduce culture or defend its material conditions if it lacks the abilities to communicate internally as well as to project their perspectives externally.

To enable communication between, and therefore strengthen, movements in the U.S. and the Global South we need movement-based media producers organized in a network. In order to participate in and co-produce that network we need to strengthen local movement-based media by increasing its relevance to local community life. Lastly, to communicate movement perspectives across society we need to claim the right to participate in governing local public media outlets. That means organizing to demand and win democratically elected boards at publicly supported television and radio stations, especially PBS and NPR stations in the U.S.

Today we see professional journalists poised to claim control over a technologically and financially rejuvenated multi-media public broadcasting system. Can a professionally controlled system provide the communicative capacity our movements so desperately need? Professional journalists are themselves in a life or death battle to save their jobs - and as they describe it, their job is to produce the quality journalism that democracy itself depends on. However, the fact that professional journalists turn to democracy activists to help them "save the news" (the name of FreePress's project) shows that journalism depends on democracy - the kind of democracy that unfolds from organized citizen's actions. Journalism practitioners rarely acknowledge this fact, because it indicates that despite professional methods, training, and ethics, news production remains situated in politics and culture. I am going to briefly describe these political and cultural conditions and argue that professional journalists and administrators are not fit to control public media systems in the U.S. or elsewhere.

The culture of professionalism - its learned values, identities, and purposes - orients practitioners to serve the perceived needs of their profession; that is, to defend the interests and relationships the profession depends on. The consequence, in the case of journalism, is that journalists produce news that accords representation to the social order that maintains journalists' social position as professionals. A different culture of direct participation has emerged from peoples movements and community radio projects in Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Albuquerque, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Greece, and elsewhere. These social movements seek to transform the existing social order to promote human rights, self-government, sustainable and shared management of environments and resources, and respect for plurality. In the words of Sub-Commandante Marcos, these movements share a commitment to "Dignity," which he defines as "a house that includes the Other and Ourselves . . . a world where many worlds fit." Unlike professional culture, cultures of direct participation orient members to serve community needs over individual careers and to share resources and responsibilities rather than accumulate personal prestige.

To understand the vital necessity for dispossessed communities to take decision making over media systems away from professional journalists and administrators it is also necessary to examine professionalism's historical origins. Professionalism emerged in the US and Europe as a social response to the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. New divisions of labor and centralized production transformed agrarian and immigrant communities into an urban working class. For subsistence wages, unskilled workers endured menial factory labor under desperately inhumane working conditions. Professionalism emerged from the attempts by working class people to escape those conditions and the efforts of academic institutions to become the central means to attain middle-class wealth and social standing. Aspiring professionals modeled themselves on specialized workers, such as doctors, lawyers, chemists, who by the mid-1800s won increased prestige and income through formal training in scientific discourses and methods. They constituted new collective agency by creating associations of practitioners.

Professionalism was a social movement to adapt to, not resist, the division of labor imposed by the industrial revolution. Professionals who sought occupational and personal improvement tended to conceive of democracy as a system of individual rights in which freedom consists of opportunities for personal advancement up an established social ladder. Professionalized occupations construct their authority over social systems by using scientific and liberal discourses to claim the mantle of "objectivity" for themselves and represent non-professional cultures as partial or biased. To access professionally controlled systems thus requires other cultures to portray themselves, their perspectives, and causes in a 'professional' manner. Professional culture thus demands uniformity while portraying itself as a form of pluralism.

The power of professional culture to re-orient adherents to conservative political practices is all the more compelling in the case of journalism, where many aspiring news workers enter the field seeking not to defend the status quo but to defend the capacity of the powerless to hold the powerful in check. Nonetheless, cultural values such as impartiality and objectivity pressure journalists and administrators to detach themselves from social justice movements and rationalize the profession's exclusive claim on news production.

In contrast to the claims of some journalists and academics, journalism did not always exist in some form at all times of human history. Rather, it emerged from the historically specific conditions of 19th century industrial capitalism, shaped by the period's increased commercialization, complex production machinery, and division of labor - in this case the rise of specialized roles for reporters, writers, editors, and other news workers. Journalism properly speaking, the set of special occupations required to generate and distribute news content beginning in the era of the industrial press of the mid to late nineteenth century.

The project of professionalizing journalism was itself political. Beginning in the 1850s,journalists organized into associations to lobby government officials to establish programs of journalism in state universities. For example, press associations influenced the Illinois governor and legislature to create the journalism program at the University of Illinois. At the same time, publishers directly engaged private universities to found schools of journalism, often providing large endowments and dictating the framework for study. Joseph Pulitzer accompanied his 1902 proposal for a college of journalism at Columbia University with a $2M endowment; the program opened in 1912 based on Pulitzer's own pedagogies. As journalism scholar James Carey describes them, such "schools of journalism . . . were less attempts to educate for a profession, than to call one into existence." The attempts worked: journalism gained social recognition as a profession between WWI and WWII.

Not only was the professionalization of journalism a political accomplishment, it was a means to political power. Professionalized news production enabled journalists to construct new social authority for themselves, new credibility for the news they produced, while increasing the commodity value of news for publishers. Institutions of news publishers and press associations relied on the discourse of professionalism to negotiate and claim power in their contestory but symbiotic relationship: Journalists relied on the monopoly power of the newspaper to establish and defend the authority of the profession while news corporations used professionalism to control journalists.

Journalists' new social authority thus depended not only on the power of news corporations but on the broader material relationships that enabled that corporate power. Intentionally or not, news professionals subsist in a symbiotic relationship with elites, officials, and corporate owners. These dependencies encourage journalists to use their gatekeeping and interpretive practices to reflect the needs of the powerful social forces that sustain the profession. There is ample evidence to support this point: Over the 100 years from 1900-2000, journalists spoke more while all sources spoke less, reports focused less on events and more on interpretation, and stories increasingly originated from official and PR entities.

While public perception of news credibility increased from the 1930s-1970s, it has fallen ever since, along with audiences. Creative human labor focused more on digital technologies that further fragmented the gate-keeping power of professional media managers. Journalists are now attempting to recreate their gate-keeping power in the online world. As Washington Post Senior Editor Leonard Downie explained it to Frontline:

This is just a new technology, a new technological form of citizen participation . . . But the important thing is: Label the professional stuff; label the stuff that's not professional; and have certain filters, even for the non-professional stuff. So we don't let people libel people online or use the wrong language online, a variety of ways in which you kind of police the citizen participation.

Professional journalists are now organizing to control the next generation of public media in the U.S. They continue to use the discourse of professionalism to rationalize their claims over the CPB system, depicting themselves as immune to influence by the corporate funders they depend on. In a December 2009 Federal Trade Commission workshop on journalism and public media, NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller stated, "Advertising subsidizes the newspaper and all commercial media. You know, does that mean that newspapers have pulled their punches about those advertisers? Certainly not." Astoundingly, she even claimed that there has never been "any instance in the history, at least, of NPR where a story has been slanted or, you know, favorable to a foundation funder."

Others argue that professionalism already provides sufficient accountability. On the same FTC panel, the vice president of the Knight Foundation's journalism program stated, "one of the great things about the commercial newspaper industry is how many hundreds of major newspapers have fantastic codes of ethics that they do hold each other accountable." Note that he said they hold each other accountable - a reminder that professional journalism offers no mechanism for audiences to hold practitioners or publishers to account.

Sadly, some activist organizations, most prominently FreePress, have devoted themselves to helping professional journalists to control public media. Meanwhile, Social justice movements don't have a dog in the fight. Fortunately, struggles in Latin American exemplify the power of social justice movements to lay claim to, and sometimes win, increased control over the means of communication. Latin American journalists and publishers followed the U.S. model for professionalization during the 1930s. However, through local struggles and with the aid of international funders, Latin American producers and activists created alternatives to professionalism.

Projects funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the 1950s and 60s greatly expanded access to equipment and training and may have created temporary material support for journalists to ally with popular struggles against military dictatorships. Some journalists sacrificed their relationships with the powerful to cover the stories of the liberation movements, in the process entrusting their own lives and futures to the fate of those movements.

During the 1980s, UNESCO also provided funding for Latin American indigenous radio and video production. In Columbia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere, years of activism by indigenous communities and media reform and human rights groups yielded legislative reforms that recognized both the collective rights of indigenous peoples and the right to create and receive communication. In some of these cases, activists even won government funding for local- or indigenous-controlled media centers that then become the locus of new battles. La lucha continúa.

Struggles for community controlled media in Latin America express recognition that creating media is part of the process of creating cultural practices and shaping social life. Therefore, diverse communities must themselves participate in producing both media content and systems in order to survive. The culture of professionalism, with its values of expert control and technical perfection, refuses to acknowledge these facts, instead casting marginalized communities' efforts to shape media as inappropriate attempts to bias the independence of the press. Professional culture obligates producers seeking professional credibility to 'distance' themselves from those they cover and to fulfill high production aesthetics that signify news commodity value.

The goal of social justice movements should not be state-of-the-art mastery over these techniques and technologies, but rather the creation of "citizens' media" (in Clemencia Rodriguez's terms): a new communication order that enables the powerless to shape media production, to use it to produce cultures of direct participation, and in so doing to constitute a new social force. To borrow from the ideals of filmmaker Garcia Espinoza, 'any attempt to match the perfection of commercial journalism contradicts the implicit objective of a revolutionary journalism - that is, the call for an active and participatory audience.' I can only add that active audiences are not only the goal of a democratic media system but the means to it as well.

James Owens is an organizer, media coordinator and researcher active in movements for human rights and against war. His master's thesis researched the racial and economic politics of professional journalism. He authored "Chicago Tonight: Elites, Affluence, and Advertising" (Extra!), "Mumia Abu-Jamal: The ABC Hatchet Job" (CovertAction Quarterly)), and co-authored "Journalism" for the International Encyclopedia of Communication. He also co-founded peace and media organizations, including Chicago Media Action.