The Return (kind of) of Chicago Media Action

Posted by Mitchell - November 2, 2022 (entry 735)

Today -- November 2, 2022 -- marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the most important days of my life.

In March 2002, the website of Chicago Media Watch had a black banner and saying "under construction" for three years. As someone who worked in web development as my job, I knew that it wasn't "under construction", it was abandoned -- and I took it upon myself to do something about that.

I reached out to Chicago Media Watch. I had fortuitous timing: I was told about a meeting that was taking place on the campus of Loyola University that week. I attended and I rounded up folks who were able to get the email addresses of all the folks interested and/or who had the pieces necessary to complete the puzzle of a working website. The hard part was getting all the pieces; once I had them, I was able to assemble a working website. What took three years of "under construction" I had complete in about a week.

The tech efforts grew into a team of folks under the rubric of Chicago Media Watch. I worked with a designer who added lively good-looking graphics. Articles of a quarterly newsletter -- good, timely articles -- were posted quarterly. A conference was slated for the fall of 2002, again at Loyola University. I built a form and code on the website to process tickets to the conference paid online via credit card. There were hundreds of people signed up. A video team would record the whole proceeding. The lineup of speakers was impressive. Everything was working great.

Two days before the conference began, I was asked to make an addition to the itinerary. Sure thing, easy enough. I didn't think much about it at the time.

Here's a quote from a write-up I made -- "The conference, titled "Conference on American Propaganda: Historical, Legal, and Moral Perspectives," was an all-day event at which various experts spoke on propaganda. Speakers included Bill Ayers (faculty, UIC), Leon Stein (faculty, Roosevelt University), Jennifer Van Bergen (writer for, Matthew Rothchild (editor, The Progressive), and John McMurtry (faculty, Guelph University, Ontario)."

But the big story, and the spark behind what became Chicago Media Action, involved the final two scheduled speakers, and led the article I wrote and posted on Chicago Indymedia's website: "Controversy marred the 2002 Chicago Media Watch (CMW) Conference on Propaganda, held at the Crown Center at Loyola University of Chicago on November 2, 2002. A vociferous protest of a scheduled speaker by another scheduled panelist eventually led to an expulsion and arrest.

"The expelled and arrested panelist, Chris Geovanis...publicly objected to CMW President Liane Casten to the scheduling of speaker Richard Baehr, former Education Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Right before Baehr was about to speak, Geovanis loudly objected, accusing Casten of caving in and selling out. Geovanis emerged from the audience and approached the stage where Casten, Baehr, and other conference speakers stood.

"Geovanis eventually returned to her seat but stood in protest during part of Baehr's talk. Geovanis eventually left the main conference hall, but Loyola police arrived to escort her out of the Crown Center and asked her to leave campus. Geovanis and others walked to the campus limits, and continued to walk until a discussion ensued on plans to form a media monitoring group more active than CMW. The discussion led to a pause in walking, perhaps two blocks from the campus limits. Police arrived, saying that Geovanis disobeyed a police order to leave campus, and was therefore placed under arrest.

"Geovanis was scheduled as a panelist on a CMW Panel Discussion on Media Activism. Geovanis was released from jail late the same evening.

"Baehr's speech, listed on the conference program as ~Exceptionalism: The Attack on Israel's Right to Exist~, was defended by Casten as a balance to an immediately preceding talk by Sut Jhally, professor at UMass-Amherst and director of the Media Education Foundation.

"Jhally's speech, listed on the conference program as The Occupation of the American Mind: Occupied Territory, detailed the use of media propaganda by pro-right-wing Israeli interests against American citizens to continue the Israeli military's illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and the U.S. financial and military support of the occupation.

"Near the end of his talk, Jhally publicly noted the curious juxtaposition of his talk with that of a talk by an AIPAC representative, who sat onstage at the same time as Jhally. Jhally spoke at previous CMW conferences, but noted that he would return for the 2002 conference on the condition that he talk about Israel and Palestine, a topic that gets little critical scrutiny."

The executives of CMW certainly wanted Sut Jhally to speak at the conference -- he was and is an excellent speaker and spoke at past CMW events. Sut insisted on talking about Palestine, for the aforementioned reasons and that his company, the Media Education Foundation, had just released a film on the very topic.

Given that CMW executives were what are now called PEP (Progressive Except for Palestine), Sut's insistence on talking about Palestine them in a jam -- they didn't want him to talk about Palestine, but they weren't in a position to remove him from the lineup. They asked Sut to change the topic of his talk, Sut said no. So then the CMW brass went ahead with their "compromise", to bring in another speaker for purposes of "balance". Sut received a standing ovation for his talk -- the only ovation of the entire conference.

Liane ordered folks who disagreed with the decision to change the itinerary to leave. A relative handful did (I was among them), and some of those outside the main hall of the Crown Center took up a challenge Chris made before she was escorted off the premises. The challenge: Chris encouraged folks to start "a new group" and offered a date, time, and meeting venue to get things started.

As far as I know, the final panel discussion on media activism never happened. But the following Sunday, November 10, 2002, there launched that "new group" on media activism. Ten people attended that meeting, which ended with the decision on a placeholder name for the group -- the "Chicago Progressive Media Working Group". The intent was to actually do the activity and the activism that Chicago Media Watch wasn't doing (heck, they took years to get a website going). The Chicago Reader had a write-up about the conference.

I threw myself into the work for this new group -- this despite having a full time job, and being a part-time student in graduate school at the time. I felt I owed it to Chris and to Sut, since I should have been more cognizant of the conference schedule change as it was happening, and since I felt bad about Chris' arrest.

In January 2003, the group decided a new permanent name -- Chicago Media Action (CMA) -- and what followed was a decade of activity and activism on a host of media issues: The Media Ownership Uprising of 2003 to stop the FCC from gutting a number of media ownership rules, efforts to analyze and improve the PBS affiliates in Chicago, supporting and working with the public access cable television channels (CAN TV) in Chicago, working to improve radio, organizing to support network neutrality, raising awareness of the fiasco surrounding America's digital television conversion, presentations and appearances and forums and organizing and protests and legal actions and o n and on. The website chronicles all of this and more.

It was ten years later, in January 2013, that Chicago Media Action effectively ceased functioning. What happened? In brief: I had my wedding that month and because of family obligations I cut back my activism. I no longer attended CMA meetings (then done via telephone conference), and once that happened, the meetings stopped -- particularly since I was hosting the meetings -- and the group petered out.

I've been able to return back to activism in recent years -- my main work since 2017 has focused on writing computer models of a non-capitalist, non-communist, democratic economy; I even contributed to a book on the topic published last year, as well as giving online talks on the topic.

But I want to get back to media work -- there's a lot I want to comment on and work on, and the twentieth anniversary of the founding of what became CMA seems a good transition to do that. But I don't want to reorganize CMA as it was; that would take a lot more effort than I have time to do. I envision this as an online regular commentary -- a nice, lengthy essay on a media-themed topic perhaps once per month, with accompanying activism of one or another sort.

I've been able to resurrect a mailing list -- if you're receiving this email, you're on the list. You're welcome to share this email, and you're welcome to encourage others to join the resurrected CMA newsletter mailing list. I plan to keep this email list free of charge. If you want to unsubscribe, email and just ask to unsubscribe.

Twenty years after its original founding, and nearly ten years after its demise, CMA -- in a manner of speaking -- is back. Let's see where this goes and what we can do.

Thank you for reading.

-- Mitchell

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