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6. Media, community, and business

Eric Utne

When we planned to include a chapter on the role of the media in steering business toward sustainability, we had no idea what the conclusions of this chapter would be. First of all, we asked ourselves, what do we mean by "the media"? Should we limit ourselves to the mass media - the television networks and leading mass-circulation newspapers and magazines - or should we include the "alternative press" as a counterpoint to the views of the establishment? Should we perhaps focus on the business press? What about the independent local radio stations, which tend to be grassroots operations but are often linked up into national networks? And what about the new "on-line" media, such as the Internet, which interconnects thousands of diverse interest groups in a global electronic network?

The relationships between business and these multiple media are complex and often difficult to identify. As far as the mass media are concerned, they certainly represent the voice of the corporate establishment, which owns them and uses them skillfully to promote its worldview and values, focused on ever increasing material consumption - a value system that is profoundly anti-ecological. According to a widely accepted if cynical view, the primary function of contemporary mass media is to "deliver minds to advertisers - everything else is details." How, then, can we expect those media to influence business in any substantial way?

These questions seemed almost intractable to us. But if we were uncertain about what the conclusions of this chapter would be, we were quite sure about whom to ask to write it. As founder and editor-in-chief of the Minneapolis-based Utne Reader, a "bimonthly digest of the best of the alternative media," Eric Utne is uniquely positioned to survey the whole contemporary media scene.

Launched in 1984 with a circulation of 25,000, the magazine quickly became an unqualified success. Ten years later, its circulation had grown to over 300,000 and is recognized by publishing and advertising leaders as one of America's most influential and popular magazines. Prior to launching Utne Reader, Utne served as director of New Ventures for the Wilson Learning Corporation, which offers seminars for executives. We could not think of anyone more qualified to disentangle the perplexing relationships between business and the media.

As it turned out, Utne provided us with insights and conclusions we did not expect at all. After a brief but very instructive historical review at the beginning of the chapter, he focuses on the relationships between the media and community, and shows that one of the most harmful "second-order" effects of contemporary media has been to destroy local communities.

The same could be said of much contemporary business which has accepted without question the concept of economy of scale. In search of ever lower marginal cost prices, production units have been pushed to ever bigger scales, and the sheer size of these huge manufacturing plants has disconnected business from the community. Jobs are no longer created where people live, so that people have to leave their community to commute to where the jobs are. Large, noisy, and polluting production units had to leave the inner cities, leaving broken communities in declining town centers behind.

Utne specifically includes electronic networks like the Internet in his critique of the media, discussing in some detail why "virtual communities" are not true communities and, contrary to widespread hopes, do not further democracy. His surprising conclusion is that one of the most important roles for today's media is to help create true communities, and that, rather than the media steering business, those communities will then by their very nature influence business in the direction of sustainability. This thesis is supported by the reader salons initiated by the Utne Reader in 1992, which have blossomed into a nation-wide movement, involving nearly 20,000 participants in community building through face-to-face meetings and discussions of contemporary issues "from the heart."

Utne reports that several print and electronic media have begun to join these efforts of community building, and he is convinced that playing an active role in community building will prove one of the most effective and most rewarding activities of business on the path toward sustainability.

Several years ago, we ran an article by Walter Carp in the Utne Reader, titled "Who decides what is news?" The author showed with a lot of examples that news stories in the United States are not researched but derived almost exclusively from official sources. The press seldom investigates. The news is funnelled through Capitol Hill. Objectivity is confused with passivity. Reporters are explicitly forbidden to comment, and the instrument for keeping them in line is manipulating access. There are threats to reporters and to publishers that if they don't toe the party line, their access to the country's political leaders will be reduced. In addition, of course, there's the influence of corporations through advertising. So business influences the media directly through its advertising money, and indirectly through the campaign funds to politicians. The question, then, is, what actual influence can the media have on business if they are victim to those influences?

I agree with Carp, but I'd like to approach the issue from a slightly different angle. It is indisputable that a major role of the media, acknowledged by some of their more honest representatives, is to deliver customers to business. There may not be nefarious motives in that; it's a consequence of the market economy. However, I want to make the point that for their longterm survival, business and media both have to reconceive their roles. Various media need to see their audience not just as consumers or markets, but as constituents. If they hope not only to survive but to carve out a vital and sustainable role for themselves, they must re-create themselves as converters of community.

The sustainability of a community, and by extension that of the businesses in it, is inextricably bound to the community's overall health and vitality. Right now, the interests of the media and of business are very short-sighted, based as they are on concentrating power, ownership, and the messages communicated in very few people's hands. Their goals of economic growth, efficiency, and expansion put them in direct conflict with ecological balance and sustainability, which are mandatory for the health of all human and non-human communities.

The desire for stronger, cleaner, more cohesive communities is one of the principal concerns of people these days. They're yearning for a sense of connection and meaning in their lives. Unless the mass media begin to serve the interests of communities (where the vast majority of us live), rather than the interests of a few private individuals and corporations, people will eventually reject them - as they are now doing by creating their own community access television programs, desk-top publications, on-line computer conferences, and the like.

At various times in the history of magazines, to take just one medium as an example, precedents were set for journalists to promote the values and visions of sustainable culture. For their first 150 years, magazines were generally without advertising and often played quite an activist role in society. Only in the middle of the last century did advertising, through new forms of printing and especially the reproduction of photographs, turn magazines into vehicles for mass marketing. The wedding of ideas with commerce was a cultural innovation that had a sort of juggernaut effect. Very rapidly, magazines suddenly became much cheaper and therefore available to a much larger segment of the populace.

There was a reaction to this toward the end of the nineteenth century. Magazines and newspapers began to pay attention to the plight of the downtrodden and the underclass, and their provocative, no-holds-barred style became known as "muckraking." The media, as they were thought of then, thus had quite an active role as the "Fourth Estate," the provocateur that provided a counter-balance to the corruption of the entrenched powers-that-be.

During this century, the media's commitment to social justice has all but disappeared. The press has mostly become a mouthpiece for prevailing corporate and political values. There are exceptions: the underground press of the sixties, which was identified with "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll," evolved into the alternative press of the seventies and spawned a tremendous number of progressive, outspoken publications. They represent the small voices on the edges of the mainstream that question the status quo. In terms of what the print media have to offer, these publications are the principal places for the expression of cutting-edge ideas and new values.

Putting out messages in a passionate, openly biased and quirky way is typical of the alternative press. In England and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, newspapers don't pretend to be as objective as do the New York Times and other American papers that consider them selves the journals of record. That's certainly true of the alternative press in this country as well; the kind of thinking that we like to see is advocacy thinking. Like the producers of network television, those of us working on alternative publications create the messages that we send out. Unlike the mainstream or corporate media, however, we don't pretend to be objective. Our writers put their progressive biases right in print.

What we're seeing now is that, although there are still many vehicles for spreading unconventional views, they are being overtaken in terms of readership and numbers by a proliferation of special-interest publications. These publications target self-selected groups of people who share common belief systems, lifestyles, interests and world views - what the Yankelovich Monitor calls "media communes." People segment themselves into special interest groups. They circle the wagons around a particular set of cultural norms and tend to be out of touch with anyone who has a different way of looking at things. There's not a true civic culture, a shared conception of the common good.

Businesses encourage these divisions through their promotion of specialized products and publications; the more "niche markets" there are, the more there is to make money on. We see huge chunks of our print publications and vast amounts of time on radio and television given over to corporate advertising. Computer on-line services are increasingly being used to relay commercial messages as well. More and more of people's time is spent gazing into computer, television, and video screens or sticking their nose into tabloids and news magazines that feed the mind but not the soul.

The consequences of this shift are only now becoming apparent. There are first-order consequences and second-order consequences of technology. For example, the first-order consequence of the invention of the internal combustion engine was a shift in people's mode of transportation from the horse to the horseless carriage, the automobile. A second-order consequence was the creation of the suburbs. We totally rearranged our living patterns. What is the second-order consequence of the media? As we've gone from print to radio, then to television, and now to on-line and multimedia communications, the first-order consequence is that people would shift from one medium to another. But the second order consequence is that our lives and our belief systems have become increasingly mediated.

What the media have really done is destroyed community, and that has a profound impact. Whether it's the corporate media, or well meaning, non-advertising, non-commercial media - the effect of the medium itself, of whichever kind it may be, is to distance people from their genuine, flesh-and-blood community and link them to anonymous others who share their interests. It's really a kind of identity politics.

So we have these media communes, or what many people are calling "networks." There's a terrible danger of confusing networking whether on-line or not - with the real joy of true community. The Internet is not a real community; it is simply people who are involved in networks. The difference is that in networks people arrange themselves according to common interests, and by choice. You can choose to be in or you can opt out. In true communities, diverse people are required to deal with each other, to "mix it up" face to face and to work through their differences. Living in community is not easy, but can be tremendously rewarding. It teaches us tolerance. That's the basic ingredient of democracy: finding a way to get along with each other. Rather than separating ourselves from people with whom we disagree, moving them out of our circle, we must learn how to deal with them.

Most of the people on this planet live in real communities, but most North American college-educated people tend to arrange themselves in networks. They work with, they live with, and they hang out with people like themselves, with similar educational levels. They've come to mistrust people who are differently educated. They don't know them; they're distant from them. There is not a democratic foundation to their lives.

Jeffersonian democracy was based on the belief that the greatest wisdom lies in the majority of the people, not in the few "best and brightest" who would plan for the rest of us. That's a very different model of government than the one we have now. Christopher Lasch wrote in our Salon issue four years ago that what is necessary for true democracy is an educated, informed citizenry, but that information and education are not necessarily academic. What we have now is an enormous amount of information that washes over people, and that is taken in passively if it is taken in at all. The mass media continue to act as the corporate voice, but the public is not listening anymore. People are simply losing the capacity to listen. The sea of information everyone is swimming in is completely cluttered and congested. Everyone is competing for attention, trying to break through the clutter, and people quite naturally, I think, as a survival mechanism, tune it out.

That, of course, is not democracy. Democracy is an activity, a process. It is based on people's experiences, relationships, and common learning. The only way to have a truly informed citizenry, an active and motivated citizenry, is through live, personal discussion and debate. The information we need - in fact, more than the information, the knowledge and the wisdom - comes by word of mouth. Think of what life was like before the advent of commercial media. People got their news from each other, through story-telling and small talk, through shared observations. You'd learn about when to plant, and what the weather meant, and what was happening in the community. But increasingly the media have been telling us about people we don't know, who are at a distance from us, and convincing us that what's going on elsewhere is more important than what's going on right here.

As the media have evolved, they have separated communities. But now, they can become a connective tissue. They can facilitate the shift from a market-oriented culture to a community-oriented culture. They can promote genuine democracy and connectedness by focusing on that which is really relevant to the lives of everyday people.

How? Not so much by exerting pressure on business directly as by introducing its readers and viewers to each other. Most media represent a one-way broadcast model, with the information coming from the center and radiating out to the periphery. Editors and station managers often feel happy and successful if they get some feedback to the center in the form of audience response. But what they're not doing is introducing those people around them, their constituents, to each other. That's where community happens.

Utne Reader had a conference some time ago on "Media and the Environment," which explored the advocacy role of the media with regard to environmental problems. At this conference, we brought some of our subscribers together. When we introduced them to each other and invited them to speak from the heart about the things they cared about and believed in, genuine new relationships were formed.

This made me realize that we should try to do this not for just these few dozen or few hundred people at this conference, but for all our subscribers who would like to meet. So we ran a little ad in the Salon issue that invited our subscribers to let us know if they'd like to meet other Utne Reader subscribers in their area. In other words, we introduced our readers to each other. Nearly 10,000 people responded, and now over 20,000 people are meeting monthly in each other's living rooms to talk about the things they care about, and often to do other things. Some are getting married; others are starting businesses or schools or co-housing projects. All kinds of things have come out of it. And our salons are just a little tip of the iceberg of an enormous craving people have for human interaction and true community.

As a result of what we did, the Minneapolis Tribune started community roundtable discussions that they've been promoting in the newspaper for the last two years. As of September 1994, 171 newspapers around the country have gotten involved in similar efforts in what has come to be known as "public journalism." Not only is it a service to the community, it's in the business interest of newspapers to do this kind of thing. People who are connected to their communities read their local newspapers, so a natural goal of newspapers should be to hook people into their communities. When people are brought together and given an excuse to speak about what's most important to them, collaborations and connections are made, and community begins.

The Wichita Eagle, in Kansas, is also part of this "public journalism" movement. Starting in 1990, the paper began to vigorously hold political candidates accountable for their positions. They repeatedly ran a feature that outlined candidates' stands on key political issues and news stories that covered these controversial issues in depth. They analyzed the candidates' publicity for accuracy, published a sizable "Voter's Guide" just before Election Day, and sponsored TV public service announcements that encouraged citizens to vote. Research showed that voter turnout was way up as a result, and that people's understanding of the issues also increased substantially. This experiment led to the Wichita Peoples Project, in which the newspaper collaborated with a TV and radio station to invite citizens "to share ideas about how to regain control over the systems that control our lives" and to explore the "core values" of the community.

Another constructive use of the media is a televised public forum in El Paso, Texas, called "Paso del Norte." Several times a year, with the help of the National Issues Forum, citizen discussion groups come together to grapple with a specific community problem. Information that outlines a variety of viewpoints on the issue is made available at the local library. The group discussions are moderated by trained facilitators, and a relevant film clip on the subject is often shown.

Each discussion group then sends representatives to a televised, primetime, call-in forum. On the Sunday before the forum, the local newspaper carries an article on the upcoming television show topic, along with a "ballot" that solicits citizen opinion. The opinions of every caller to the forum and every participant in the discussion groups are tabulated along with the ballots sent to the newspaper, and then sent to policy makers. It's a clear example of how the media can usefully promote citizen discussion and debate.

In The Quickening of America: Rebuilding Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives, by Paul DuBois and Frances Moore Lappé, a number of innovations are suggested which, if adopted by media outlets, would make them much more responsive to their communities:

• Conducting surveys or town meetings to learn citizens' concerns;
• publishing in-depth articles connecting social issues to people's everyday lives;
• pressing candidates aggressively for clear, full explanations of positions;
• publishing special voter guides;
• repeating issue summaries and analyses several times during electoral campaigns;
• sponsoring public-service TV spots to encourage voting;
• connecting people to citizens' groups working on particular issues;
• furnishing a meeting place for citizens to discuss key issues;
• forming task forces to sponsor discussions of key issues;
• transforming the "letters to the editor" section into a real dialogue, organized by key topics;
• starting an expanded community bulletin board that provides information about events;
• launching a "citizen of the week" profile highlighting community problem-solvers;
• initiating a regular column written by students and/or teachers about reforms needed or under way in the local schools.

As Lappé, and DuBois point out, "As long as the media are a mere commodity, responsibility for their use rests with the shareholders of media conglomerates. The shareholders' goal, understandably, is the highest return on their investment. But as the media become communication tools in a living democracy, they no longer are simply a commodity. They also become a community good."

Now, Utne Reader discussion groups are a kind of media communes in their own right. Our readers are a very unusual, highly educated, and involved group, and we're bringing them together with like-minded people. In a sense, they begin as self-selected networks of the kind I'm criticizing. But when these people get together and they create a level of intimacy, they start looking for people who are different from them to bring into the conversation. We think the next stage of our salon movement is to work with other organizations of very different political, social, and cultural points of view, and to have a much larger conversation.

This fits very nicely with what Sheldon Hackney at the National Endowment for the Humanities is encouraging. The central project under his tenure as the head of the NEH will be to create what he calls a National Conversation among Americans all over the country. In town meetings, church basements, and people's living rooms, they will talk about what it means to be an American. Hackney feels discussion groups are the way to really get things going.

If people start reasserting community and reconnecting to community, this will change the nature of their relationship to business. They will be stake holders rather than mere consumers. As a result, those who are offering products will have to become more responsive to their dictates. Business will recognize that for its own sustainability, it must help people become active seekers of information through discussion and debate with their fellow citizens.

To summarize, I have sort of side-stepped the question of how media can steer business toward sustainability. In my view, the emerging new role of media is to help create community, and a true community by its very nature will influence business in the direction of sustainability. In other words, the influence will go from media to community and from community to business. Then, of course, I would also suggest to business that it has a role in helping create community, and that such a role will make business more viable. People may be suspicious of that role at first, just as they are suspicious of "greenwashing." But advocacy-oriented entrepreneurs have found again and again that they will enlist people's allegiance if what they do is sincere and effective.

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