Disquieting political events have readers anxiously watching the news, but mainstream American media offers a limited range of sources and commentary. The Internet’s alternative news sites are a gold mine of hard-to-find information and opinion from an international perspective. Reviews of specific sites follow below; I would also like to call readers to consider their own role in news circulation.
In a 1998 speech to Harvard’s Second International Conference on Internet & Society, Charles Nesson, faculty director of The Berkman Center for Internet and Society, challenged attendees: “Is cyberspace to be a global commons or just a mall?” According to the Berkman Center’s newsletter, The Filter, Nesson urged attendees to take responsibility for maintaining a balance between private and public interests on the Internet, saying, “Now is the time to build global parks in cyberspace - to open, nurture, and maintain vibrant noncommercial spaces where people can freely create, learn, and play.”
The Berkman Center, an open-source advocacy think tank at Harvard Law School, supports a project to design software that “filters” out the Net’s commercial sites. Two concepts common to the Net receive legal representation here: a noncommercialized commons and the responsibility of active Netizens to create this commons. Such important, spontaneously generated effort is alive and well in spite of commercial invasion, as is demonstrated by the growing number of sites devoted to alternative news. The power of these news sites is enormous. This power derives from instant, low-cost publishing in combination with wide distribution, both much-acknowledged attributes of Internet culture. But this power is greatly aided by another much noticed, though scarcely analyzed, phenomenon - mind-sharing through listserv distribution. Combining alternative news sources and listservs results in a much more effective dissemination of information than would be the case otherwise.
This phenomenon should be studied in order to understand how to strengthen its impact. The responsibility that Nesson urged upon Netizens can in part be fulfilled by making distribution part of one’s political practice; in other words, not just informing oneself from these sources but actively choosing the most relevant articles and channeling them into listservs to which one belongs. The dissemination effect would then be geometrically reinforced.
Following are brief descriptions of alternative news sources, all of which have value for anyone who wishes to participate in informed politics.
Alternet Combating Information Overload
Alternet, a project of the Independent Media Institute, filters articles from more than 200 sources, selecting a mix of news, opinion, and investigative journalism on subjects that range from the environment and cultural trends to policy debate and health issues to publish as an online magazine. The article database includes more than 7,000 stories organized thematically. The site is interactive and offers a weekly e-mail summary of lead articles. Alternet’s mission is to “find, evaluate, aggregate, and organize links to the best journalism, policy analysis, and Websites on a range of pressing issues” in order to act as an “online helper” in combating information overload.
Indymedia Direct Action
Indymedia (The Independent Media Center) is a group of collectively run media outlets with centers in Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Italy, Mexico, and the United States. Each center functions as an autonomous node in a decentralized network; the group eschews all organizational structures that conflict with its two main principles of decentralization and autonomy. It is committed to nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action in a global arena.
Established in 2000 to provide grassroots coverage of the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, the first Indymedia center acted as a clearinghouse of information for journalists and provided up-to-the-minute reports, photos, and audio and video footage through its Web site. It produced its own newspaper, distributed throughout Seattle and other cities via the Internet, and hundreds of audio segments, which were transmitted through the Weband Studio X, a 24-hour micro and Internet radio station based in Seattle. The site, which uses a democratic open publishing system, has logged more than two million hits since then.
Indymedia’s participatory governance model is derived from Continental Direct Action Networks, which in turn is derived from the People’s Global Action network, initiated in Geneva in 1998. Indymedia is the news source complement of the PGA.
The Nation First Amendment Advocacy
The Nation is too well known to need commentary, but a reminder of its mission is edifying. An epigraph from its founding prospectus in 1865 opens the site’s About Us page:
The Nation will not be the organ of any part, sect, or body. It will, on the contrary, make an earnest effort to bring to the discussion of political and social questions a really critical spirit, and to wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred.
The Civil War-era language of waging war with war, albeit of words, not arms, is striking. Its emphasis has been modified rhetorically in recent years. In 1966, one hundred years after the epigraph was written, The Nation Institute was founded as “an independently funded and administered public charity committed to the creation of a just society and an informed public, as well as to the preservation of rights protected under the First Amendment.”
The Nation has thus grown into a much larger organization operating within a national framework, with some reach internationally. In contrast to the two Webliographic entries, the magazine’s name reminds us of nationalist and internationalist arenas of political concept and action. The institute has expanded the organization’s role through programs such as an internship program to train young journalists, research grants for independent journalists, a Public Debates and Forums program to hold town meetings on timely and controversial issues, and Supreme Court Watch.
The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research Insistent Globalism
TNN describes its mission as peace, “learning to handle conflicts with ever less violence against other human beings, other cultures and Nature.” This networking organization publishes a beautifully organized, simple, and extensive list of links on its World News page. These links offer general search pathways through either alternative or mainstream news outlets at both regional and global scales, or through “meta” links, which are thematically organized. TNN’s commitment is to a “global rather than national focus,” and the term “rather” is key to its political perspective. Through providing the capacity for regional/global searches, it does indeed “effectively help to reduce the Western biases of a handful of media conglomerates.” TNN also offers its own regionalist perspective in English- and Nordic-language articles written by members from Scandinavia. TNN is a highly informative and useful site. Beyond the excellent content it provides, it is also a model for activist meta-organization for which there is much need in other sectors.
Foreign Policy in Focus Citizen-Based Foreign Policy Agenda
As its name makes obvious, this organization is devoted to issues of U.S. foreign policy. It is a particularly exciting project because it identifies policy not with government bureaucracy but with citizen-driven initiatives, and because it aims to affect global affairs by making the United States a more responsible global leader and partner. The site offers excellent white papers investigating various theoretical and practical aspects of what the site terms “a new global affairs agenda.” FPIF also provides profiles and links for specific agenda items such as demilitarization, drug policy reform, protecting labor standards and the environment in the global economy, democratizing access to medicines, and halting U.S. intervention in Colombia. The site also offers useful searchable categories: “Regions,” with commentaries and policy briefs for major regions of the world; “Topics,” with information on subjects such as terrorism, health, and human rights; “Products,” with access to briefs, books, films, and other items; and “Media Center,” with a search engine for media support items, policy experts, and media training.
International Action Center Hegemony and Racism, an Action Archive
The International Action Center was founded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. This site is an archive of articles and information with an activist focus, targeting U.S. militarism, war, and corporate greed. The expressed intent is to connect struggles against racism and oppression within the United States. It is organized by region and topics such as antiglobalization, Congo, Iraq sanctions, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and “no to NATO expansion.”
New California Media Community Communication Co-Genesis
New California Media is a network of print, broadcast, and online ethnic news organizations founded in 1996 by the Pacific New Service. According to the NCM site, its goals are to “give greater visibility to ethnic press; raise the ethnic community’s voice in civic affairs, expand ethnic media’s advertising base, and promote ethnic community concerns statewide.” The NCM functions in a much broader capacity than simply disseminating news. NCM and PNS organize forums that link public policy and grassroots initiatives. They represent people, issues, and ideas that are usually pushed to the margins: global migrants, new religious faiths, survival economies, postminority cultures, and citizenship in a global age. Their commitment to youth is neither lip service nor colonizing. Close to 50 percent of their staff and contributors are under 30. Their four core constituencies are young people (the most marginalized group in our society), incarcerated youth (the most marginalized group among the young), ethnic media (a new majority media in many cities), and eccentrics (the “literati” of California’s ethnic communities.) As with other sites described so far, the self-description doesn’t do justice to the philosophy behind the site’s efforts.
Institute for Policy Studies Progressive Challenge Networking
This year the Institute for Policy Studies celebrated its 37th year as the only multi-issue progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. The IPS has formulated an eight-point Fairness Agenda for America. It aims to build a meta-coalition of progressive groups around this agenda and to this end offers books, articles, films, conferences, and activist education. A key component of the IPS strategy is the United Nations Affairs program, which aims to build “a new kind of U.N.-centered, democratic and people-based internationalism.” The policy analyses treat failed and failing U.S.-brokered policies and offer alternatives for achieving “comprehensive peace with justice, rather than unequal, imposed stability.”
Free Speech Internet TV Freespeech Audio/Visual Studio
From one perspective, this site’s name misrepresents its offerings. If you expect a TV-like experience online, you won’t get it. From another perspective, it represents itself perfectly. A TV experience created through free speech efforts wouldn’t be anything like nonvirtual TV, either. While FSTV does offer free speech, it does not offer free speech for free. This organization/business raises money to fund its efforts through practices much like those of conventional, for-profit businesses like Redhat (which sells packages of operating system/software packages of Linux “freeware” for very low prices). FSTV raises interesting questions about the relationship of activism to profit-making that may be unique to digital culture. The services, promotions, and hosting it offers make it something like a very low-budget, subscription-driven TV production studio that also distributes video.
FSTV has developed its own inexpensive software, called TK3, for authoring audiovisual works. Like Adobe Acrobat PDF, it offers a free reader, and charges for the “writer.” Unlike Acrobat, TK3 is not limited to text and 2D graphics. It allows for real-time streaming of digital video. But it gets more interesting than that. FSTV offers, for a low monthly rate, 24-hour programming on DISH Network, channel 9415. And through its Free Speech Media LLC and online store it distributes relatively inexpensive DISH Network satellite systems. An affiliate program organized rather like Amway enrolls other Web site organizers on a commission system. All purchases routed through affiliate sites receive a small commission. It remains to be seen whether or not this system works to the benefit of free speech activism.
Global Exchange Program A Public Awareness Campaign
Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, aims to increase the the U.S. public’s global awareness while promoting political, social, and environmental justice globally. It has six main programs: political and civil rights campaign, social and economic rights campaign, fair trade, California human rights, reality tours, and public education. It disseminates books, videos, articles, and editorials and maintains a speakers bureau.
Spread the Word
The mind-sharing of these alternative news sites can be greatly enhanced by listserv distribution. Listservs can be considered the equivalent of free newsstands. For instance, the recently formed listserv Professors for Peace has a handful of active members. Yet each of them, drawing from different information sources, acts as a filter, sending the Professors for Peace listserv relevant articles and making the list a powerful news source. When a member of the listserv takes the responsibility of acting as a filter, not just informing him- or herself from the list, but actively channeling relevant articles to it, distribution can become an important part of political practice. Dissemination of the articles is geometrically reinforced. It is my hope that each reader will participate in sharing this compendium of sites. Spread the word.
Peace, and the lack thereof, has been much on our minds recently. How would a U.S. attack on Iraq affect our lives? We’re all pushing the worst fears away. In Living in Limbo, seventeen artists speak their night thoughts.