Rethinking transformative media

by Carolin Huang

What does it say about media activism when we continue to fall short of our political praxis? I ask this question to better frame an issue that wavers in and out of political consideration: that journalism is still dominated by white men. While I am restating what is both hypervisible and hyper-invisibilized, I want to revisit it as a way to retain it in our political consciousness. Such starkness in whiteness and maleness has put into question the palpability of media democracy. As further recognition, I want to emphasize the gendered/racialized division of labour that journalism, and of course, other forms of media, reinforces. Ultimately, I hope these recognitions make evident the importance of transforming the structures and values of our organizing.

The gendered/racialized division of labour is especially reflected in the differentiation of media into categories of more political forms of media vs. personal forms of media. For instance, Tumblr, Twitter, and zines are often considered less reliable sources of media compared to established media outlets, because they are more personal. This begs the question: what is considered political work? Both Tumblr and Twitter have been essential tools for political organizing among queers and millennials of colour. Inasmuch as these social media platforms often serve different purposes than news platforms, they should be acknowledged for the political weight they carry.

The absence of women, people of colour and LGBTQ people in journalism should make us question the transformative potential of journalism in its current form. This is not to overlook the many white male journalists and few non-white, non-male journalists who are doing essential work, but to highlight the new paths that have emerged because the current structures have not served many groups of people. Autonomous media groups that centre particular politicized identities have been formed in response to professional journalism. Sometimes these groups emerge out of a refusal to work with certain individuals/institutions and at others times, out of a desire to transform our social relationships in our work. We can look at these groups as espousing a form of ‘strategic essentialism’, a political aligning based on identity, that recognizes different points of convergence and divergence. These groups work against a politics of inclusion in the field of journalism, particularly for the reason that structures never transform for the sake of mere inclusion.

Even in the content of mainstream and alternative journalism outlets, hierarchies can be formed through the valuing of certain discourses over others – a valuing that ultimately casts certain voices as less prominent than others. Certain issues relating to economics (government spending, austerity, class war) are still prioritized, whereas issues relating to colonialism and feminism are sectioned off, scarcely present, or rendered unconnected to issues of economics. But as Wendy Brown explains in her new book Undoing the Demos, the condition of neoliberalism has already cast all aspects of society, including non-economic parts of society (education, culture), as marketable, consumable, and measurable in capital. Thus, the divide between economic and social issues is as blurry as ever. New perspectives and voices are needed for understanding our current sociopolitical context; in alternative/activist media, where the exclusionary structures of mainstream journalism are mirrored, this means recognizing voices/perspectives outside of the usual white men speaking about class war.

The exclusionary structures in journalism are very much embedded in its labour dynamics, and unpaid internships have come to represent the epitome of this exclusionary structure. We forget in our social movements that writing is a form of labour. Many believe that ‘writing for the revolution’ should be free labour but this neglects how writing for free comes from a position of privilege. As a result of this kind of neglect, only certain individuals are enabled as journalists. In this way, these kinds of organizing structures can often affirm the status quo, particularly if we do not put our political praxis into practice in our everyday relationships. As activist-writer Yasmin Nair asserts in her essay “Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice”: “We need to stop asking ourselves only: Are these projects going to change the world? Instead, we ought to ask: Are these projects fair and equitable and just in the way they treat artists as workers?” I realize that fully engaging with the issue of unpaid labour goes beyond the scope of the blog post but I want to make evident the connection between the issue of race and gender in media and the issue of unpaid labour in media. If we are hoping to make any revolutionary shifts in our organizing and society as a whole, we need to be open to transforming the structures of organizing themselves.