|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
"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
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
"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
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
www.corpwatch.org. She co-hosted
World Trade Watch Radio from Seattle.