I am now at the inauguration of the Center for Media at Risk at Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia. The opening ceremonies have been completed. The presentations and discussions begin later this morning. I see from the program a broad set of concerns, with special sessions on the Digital, Entertainment, Documentary and Journalism. This is a noble project, at the core of my long-term intellectual and political concerns. In these dark times, they are pressing matters of life and death, of people and principles.
Journalists are being locked up and killed, the digital domain offers new alternatives, very much for worse and for better, as entertainment and documentaries are being reconfigured in promising, but also disturbing ways. I am looking forward to the presentations and to talking with the members of the center. I am hoping to explore ways to collaborate, particularly through the media vertical of Public Seminar.
I met an interesting young journalist from Azerbaijan, Arzu Geybulla, at the opening reception. We shared a sense of the clouds darkening the contemporary political landscape, with an understanding of a the weather forecast, with the experiences of her native grounds in Baku demonstrating where we may be headed, and her base in Istanbul showing the road’s contours, as we meet here in Philadelphia. The media are at risk, as a manifestation of post-truth authoritarianism, but they also are important grounds for resistance against the new authoritarians. I shared with Arzu my sense that Americans don’t realize the very clear and present danger. Thus, I have high hopes for the Center for Media at Risk and hope to work with it.
With this in mind, I wonder: What media? What risk? Answers to these apparently simple, but in fact, difficult questions will be presented at the launch, I’m sure. And, lover of the gray that I am, I know that agreement in answering my questions is not only unnecessary; it is not desirable.
When we speak of “the media,” we generally are thinking about institutions: major nationally read newspapers and periodicals, online and off, network and cable television and radio, local, national and international, and perhaps also the social media behemoths: Facebook, Twitter, and search engine Google. But on the other hand, there is “media” as the form through which people connect and interact with each other and with the artifacts and institutions of the broader world. All of “the media” above, but also books and the verbal and non-verbal communications of everyday life, of face-to-face interaction are included. We use and respond to one form of media or another to get on with our private and public lives.
“The media” and “media,” as objects of inquiry, are related, of course. They bleed into each other as topics, especially on the web and in the interactions on “social media.” But the risks they face are different. Being clear about what we mean when we use the word “media” may help illuminate the scope and the dimensions of the risk to individuals and groups, and also to specific social, political and cultural ideals, and the practices associated with them. I have been especially concerned with the sociological dimensions of such ideals and practices, of democracy and cultural freedom, of a relatively free public life. I am wondering how this will be addressed at the launch, and in the work of the Center.
In the opening lecture there was a hint. The speaker, Soraya Chermaly, made a strong case, demonstrating the ways women and other marginalized people have been written out of the codes of conduct and media practice, how they are systematically put in their place by media institutions, sometimes, even, despite the good intentions of enlightened media leadership. She considered the different ways different people in the media experience risk and what that experience is: focusing on how women experience risk in the newsrooms. Seen from this point of view, the media risks today are continuations of media risks of yesterday. But, I also note that we know about this thanks to the mediated activism of the #MeToo movement. It made the dimension of the problem clearly visible for the first time for both women and men. Making the concealed sexual aggression and violence visible is a public advance. “The media” played a significant role in this, a role that is under attack globally. This highlights the importance of the declared purpose of the promising new Center.
“A Free and Critical Media Environment requires ongoing critical address to the political conditions that challenge its viability. With the help of its affiliates, the Center aims to provide a global platform for tracking these conditions in the various forms that they take worldwide.”
I once puzzled over a paradox about cultural freedom: it is quite possible for cultural creators to be repressed, while their cultural form is kept alive and relatively well. (the title of my first book in this spirit was The Persistence of Freedom). Freedom of individual expression is important, but so is the freedom of expressive communities to persist through time in specific places, despite repression. I analyzed how a bold theater movement in Poland pushed against Party State control, to create a zone of politically and culturally challenging work, an alternative zone of freedom, apart from its repressive context. As individuals, some of the participants in this theater experienced direct repression and their work was censored, but their community of autonomy, of “living in truth,” as Vaclav Havel would later describe it, enacted a “power of the powerless,” an early example of the form of resistance that eventually led to Solidarność, the nationwide independent labor union that played a central role in the collapse and the democratic aftermath of Soviet totalitarianism.
When the most powerful man in “the free world” tweets this, there is an urgent need to critically respond.
In the shadow of this tweet, the Center for Media at Risk has been established. My modest critical suggestion is that when we think about the risks “the media” now face, our concerns should be with both how the individuals in the media are treated, and also how the media can or cannot continue to function as they provide public space for mediated independent thought, expression and action, and how this thought, expression and action is or is not able to meet broader publics.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar