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Malkia Cyril on Media Justice: Interview by Samhita Mukhopadhyay
Why is media a critical issue for organizers, activists, and change makers?
First we need to define “media.” By “media” I mean all of the various mediums we use to communicate, including books, magazines, comedy, music, news, and movies; the mechanisms through which we communicate, including print, broadcast (traditional TV and radio), and digital (the Internet, cell phones, etc.); and the machine of civil society (schools, laws/policies, religious institutions, and news and entertainment outlets) that gives it meaning. It’s the meaning that’s created by these mediums, mechanisms, and machines that makes media so important. Knowledge is produced through these vehicles. Through all these forms of media, we learn about race and racism, about poverty and what we deserve in terms of jobs, housing, health care. We learn about migration and about the rest of the world. Through media we learn how to govern, what kinds of economic systems work or don’t work, and to define the limits of what’s possible. George Clinton, the P-Funk superstar, said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Whoever controls the news shapes our destiny.” It’s true. We must fight for our media, as well as use it strategically to transform the worldview that supports structural racism, an undemocratic democracy, corporate control and global inequity, and the devolution of cities and public institutions.
The conservative right knows this, and that’s why they spent decades gaining control over the media mediums, mechanisms, and machine to amplify agendas that advance their worldview. The recent resignation of Van Jones—the black progressive tapped by the Obama Administration to advise on the Green Jobs program—is proof of the right’s ability to use media effectively to advance an agenda. Without a collaborative and prepared progressive media infrastructure, national and local message coordination, media rules that advance and expand the public interest, and media activist groups with the power to mobilize constituencies around media bias and misrepresentation, the progressive left can’t win. Jobs, the environment, our health care system, and our schools are on the line. We need to win. Strategic use and transformation of our media system can help us do just that.
What is media justice and how is it different from media reform?
Media justice is a progressive-to-radical framework for understanding and undertaking media change. In the media justice framework, media is understood as a critical part of governance and shaper of power relations. Historically, we understand that U.S. media infrastructure and rules were created in the context of slavery and vast class inequity. Poor people, black people, native people, and all those who weren’t wealthy, land-owning white men weren’t intended to be able to participate in governance or in media. Over the years, the face of participation has ebbed and flowed with the times, but the underlying dynamics of media power have fundamentally stayed the same. Today, people of color represent a mere 3% of media owners, media bias and hate speech are rampant as ever, and poor rural and urban communities remain isolated and disconnected by the lack of media infrastructure. The vision of the media justice framework is of a publicly owned and representative media that creates communities that are connected politically, culturally, and technologically.
Truly, the difference between media justice and media reform is small. Media reform is a key element of media justice. Media reform refers primarily to the policy changes in the DC beltway that are effected through lobbying and other forms of advocacy to Congress and the FCC. These strategies tend to rely on social privilege and elite insider relationships. We need those. But to make the changes we seek, we also need a fringe and mass movement of leaders and organizations across all sectors who believe that media change is necessary and are willing to mobilize their constituencies to fight for it. Media change requires a political ecology that includes, but is not exclusive to, media reform. We need them both. And both need to be connected to a larger movement for social change and justice.
What role does CMJ play in the movement for media justice?
I am proud that the Center for Media Justice has played a leading role in building the media justice movement. We’re bridging three primary divides: the divide of democracy that separates those with and without the power and access to participate effectively in governance and economy along the lines of race and class; the divide between different sectors of the progressive movement, which has led to issue fragmentation, wedging, and the breakdown of a collective progressive worldview; and finally the divide between media activism and social justice. At CMJ we believe that there are specific media and alliance building strategies, leaders, and campaigns that can increase movement collaboration, increase movement effectiveness, and bring about concrete structural and institutional change. Over the last two to three years CMJ has led the development of the Media Action Grassroots Network, a national advocacy network of regional media, cultural, and social justice groups working together to bring about media policy change in the service of justice. With over 100 grassroots member organizations and staffed by Amalia Deloney, MAG-Net led the fight for a socially responsible DTV transition, and is currently working closely with the Media Democracy Coalition, Free Press, and grassroots and academic partners to close the digital divide through a campaign for universal broadband and another campaign to lower the cost of phone calls for incarcerated people and their families. CMJ also brings these groups together in a network-wide learning community to develop and share best practices with each other and the field, and provides capacity-building resources to groups participating in the MAG-Net Regional Hubs Project. We’re committed to developing and connecting powerful social justice groups and leaders with the capacity to make real media change that matters.
What are some examples of CMJ’s strategic media work in the service of social justice campaigns?
We’ve worked with organizations including Youth Together, Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, Just Cause Oakland, the Oscar Grant Coalition, and dozens of others.
One example that stands out is our 2007 public relations support of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). In San Francisco, forced migration has whittled the black population of the city from almost 13 percent in 1990 to 6 percent in 2000. In 2007, Bayview Hunters Point, one of the last remaining black communities in San Francisco, was being targeted for speculation and luxury development by Miami-based developer Lennar Corporation, a multibillion dollar company with a pattern of unaccountable behavior in the neighborhood. When Lennar and what the San Francisco Chronicle called a “dream team” of connected political operatives put a Bayview Hunters Point development proposal on the ballot, POWER and their allies jumped into action and placed a competing proposition on the ballot. Proposition F would have required that 50 percent of the housing in a 10,000-unit luxury development be made affordable to residents making $40,000 or less a year, and ensured that any development activities occurring in the last remaining black community in San Francisco be responsive and accountable to that community.
The news coverage on housing and displacement in San Francisco’s opinion-leading outlets rarely talked explicitly about race; however, race was implicit in the marketing of luxury housing and in the discussions on affordable housing. Affordable housing was tagged as crime-ridden, crime-infested, for people on welfare, or for people who don’t pay their way. The marketing was targeted at black people, and many of the main sponsors were black. The developer ran ads on BET. Affordable housing was framed as part of a failed welfare system as opposed to a reasonable expectation for any San Francisco resident. Communications strategists at CMJ knew the story on affordable housing and race needed to change, so when POWER asked us to help, we did.
CMJ got to work crafting strategic messages that would reframe Lennar as a bad actor, and highlight the profits made from housing that the current, primarily black and Latino, residents of the Bayview community would not be able to afford. The goal was to expose the tax breaks and other subsidies granted to Lennar by the city for free while poor black communities could not afford to live. POWER and CMJ led with the core values of fairness, families, and the future.
CMJ then trained POWER’s staff and members to be effective spokespeople, and pitched stories to the local press. Leading with a racial justice message and the voices of black and Latino Bayview residents, CMJ secured stories in all the local opinion-leading newspapers, as well as a story in the New York Times covering POWER’s unprecedented proposal of 50 percent affordable housing.
In addition to these more traditional methods, CMJ also produced an ad, placed it on YouTube, and distributed it through our networks across the Bay Area. In less than 24 hours, not only had YouTube hits on the video reached almost 10,000, but radio and television interviews followed.
When it comes to making policy change, I think sometimes even if you lose, you win. Despite being outspent by almost $4 million and going up against a sophisticated PR machine, Prop F narrowly lost by only a few percentage points. It was the most radical proposition of its kind in the history of the city, and it almost won. Lennar Corporation spent $5 million dollars in the last three weeks of the campaign to defeat POWER’s ballot measure. Up until then, POWER led with more than 60 percent of the vote, demonstrating that investing in racial justice communications can lead to significant victories. A note to funders: Spending on communications matters.
Despite the narrow loss of Proposition F at the polls, the communications work CMJ did, with POWER’s dynamic organizing leading the way, made possible an increase in guaranteed affordable housing in the development from 25 percent to 35 percent. That’s why it’s important to give racial justice a face, a name, and a frame. We did that, and it made a difference.
How did you get involved in this work? What continues to inspire you?
My mother was a Black Panther in Brooklyn. Her primary role in the Party was to coordinate the New York breakfast program and as NY editor of the Black Panther newspaper. I was born in 1974, and by that point I was only able to witness the aftermath of the intentional destruction of the party by the FBI and local police force in New York. I learned early that the unfettered cooperation between local media and local police can result in bogus charges against innocent people that then incarcerate these leaders for the length of their natural life. Media bias helped to destroy the Black Panther Party. Lack of access to mainstream media by black folks in general meant these leaders didn’t have a mass platform to fight back. It meant their image was distorted in the public mind and created the justification for illegal searches, unjust charges, and extreme sentences. The public opinion that media bias gave birth to also increased fear for everyday people and discouraged them from organizing to defend and advance the cause of their lives and communities. This is the most tragic outcome, and one I have worked my entire life to correct. I got involved in this work because I learned from my mother that stories have incredible power, and stories with authority and legitimacy even more so. I got involved in this work because I want to change the “official story” on race and class.
I am inspired by the thousands of community organizers I work with who remind me, as my mother did, that stories are not built on words alone, but on the breath, sweat, and labor of those working for change. Stories are embodied by policy, told in victories and defeats. Our stories become part of the ethnosphere that helps us manage and negotiate our political environment. It’s the innovation at the heart the collective struggle for justice that inspires me.
How can folks get involved in the movement for media justice?
Everyone can and should be part of the movement for media justice! If you’re part of an organization that wants to make sure public schools and housing get broadband, or change the media rules that impact your issues, find out more about the Media Action Grassroots Network, go to the Allied Media Conference, turn your members and participants out for actions and sign on to the various petitions for a progressive national broadband plan and against hate speech. If you are an individual who cares about and wants to fight for a better media system, sign up for CMJ’s e-bulletins, and sign up for our action alerts! Together, we can make a difference. Remember, whoever controls our media, gets to define the future. And I’m looking forward to a bright one.
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