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WTO: Watershed for Alternative Media

Julie Light

   Media Alliance, March / April 2000

There are watershed moments in which world events and popular perceptions of them are changed. The week of protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last year was indisputably such a moment. Not only were the tens of thousands of protesters and delegates who gathered in Seattle changed by the experience, but people throughout the UnitedStates, and around the world, stopped and took notice of the WTO and its impact on their lives. After a decade of fighting defensive battles, fair-trade activists are beginning to set the terms of the globalization debate.

Seattle was also a watershed for independent media. Independent media were onto the story long before the mainstream press took notice. Alternative newspapers, magazines, radio programs, and web zines were covering the issues surrounding trade and globalization weeks before the WTO meeting, leaving the mainstream to play catch up. And hundreds of independent journalists were in the streets, many collaborating for the first time.

"People were fed up. They were not going to watch a massive uprising through a corporate lens," says Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! "They went into the streets with their video cameras and microphones and covered it from a grassroots perspective, unmediated by the corporations that were being protested like Westinghouse, Disney, or Time Warner."

In the days leading up to the WTO meeting, a few dozen local media activists in Seattle came together to form the Independent Media Center. In just six weeks, they put together an infrastructure for 450 journalists, who contributed to the Media Center's webcasts in addition to filing reports with alternative media outlets around the world. The Center's website got about a million and a half hits during the week of the WTO meeting, according to organizers.

"We did a lot without [much] funding," says Jill Friedberg, video coordinator for the Independent Media Center. She says the group raised just $45,000 in cash, but more than three times that much in donated space, video equipment, and other technical infrastructure. Friedberg notes that new collaborations were forged between different alternative media, much as new activist coalitions were built between environmentalists and labor groups and Northern and Southern movements. "Finally people recognized that the common enemy was big enough that they had to work together, " she says.

Viewers, readers, and listeners found a stark contrast between sensational mainstream news coverage of window breaking by a handful of protesters and the alternative media's coverage of the mass protests and the reasons behind them. Even when the mainstream covered the police crackdown against the demonstrators, its stories were devoid of context, say critics.

"The mainstream did an OK job of covering the tear gas and the rubber bullets, but, not surprisingly, they never talked about why there were tens of thousands of people risking arrest in Seattle. We were able to do that," observes Sasha Magee, who edited Showdown in Seattle. The video documentary, produced by more than a half-dozen groups working out of the Independent Media Center, aired on some 90 public access channels nationwide.

One area where the mainstream media missed the story almost entirely was in its coverage of debates between the developed countries of the Northern Hemisphere and the developing countries of the South. Most major news outlets portrayed the Clinton administration and its allies as champions of the environment and labor standards, and developing nations as concerned with leveling the playing field, even at the expense of human rights and the environment.

"They got it completely backward," says Pratap Chatterjee, investigative correspondent for World Trade Watch Radio, aired on more than 130 stations. "The elites both North and South are pro-trade, anti-environment, and anti-labor, but communities around the world are not." Chatterjee adds that even the independent media in this country are "just waking up" to the complexities of North-South issues, and that the Seattle meeting was an important lesson.

"On World Trade Watch we set out to bring out voices from the global South and look at the impact of free trade on local communities from the Bay Area to India, France, Mexico, and Ghana," he says.

The backroom nature of the WTO debates, as well as the breakdown in negotiations between developed and developing countries, made covering the official proceedings difficult for mainstream and independent journalists alike. "We had to depend on leaks; the meeting was in chaos," explains Tom Turner, executive director of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund. Turner edited the World Trade Observer, an eight-page daily paper put out during the Seattle summit. Published by Earth Justice, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the International Forum on Globalization, and Public Citizen, World Trade Observer sold out 10,000 copies daily and its web edition drew more than 48,000 readers from 48 countries. Reporters note that delegates were coming to them for information on "green room" negotiations.

On the day protesters effectively shut down the opening of the WTO, they shut many journalists out of the convention center as well. That left the journalists no alternative but to cover what was happening in the streets.

Most media critics acknowledge that mainstream coverage was mixed. While Time, Newsweek, and The Economist cheered on free-trade policies and characterized protesters as naive or dangerous, the San Jose Mercury News compared the protesters to Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott that catalyzed the civil rights movement. One New York Times reporter described the week as a "coming out party" for global grassroots organizing. "The message got out through the corporate media" despite that media's pro-trade tendencies, comments Democracy Now's Goodman.

Media activists are not resting on their laurels, however. The Independent Media Center is working with local groups in Philadelphia and Los Angeles that would like to set up similar operations for the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer. And independent journalists are already making plans to cover protests at the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting set for April 16 and 17 in Washington, D.C. Goodman says Seattle is a model for independent media collaboration: "This is what grassroots globalization looks like. It's the flip side to corporate communication."

Julie Light is Managing Editor of Corporate Watch, an online magazine She co-hosted World Trade Watch Radio from Seattle.

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