Chris Geovanis and "A New Group"

Posted by Mitchell - March 2, 2024 (entry 768)

As I mentioned in a mid-month dispatch in the month that past (February 2024), we lost the founder of Chicago Media Action, my dear friend Chris Geovanis. I had the good fortune to speak briefly at her memorial service, and I posted a transcript of my remarks online.

Understandably, it has been a difficult month, and I normally would write an essay on a media-themed topic, minimum 1000 words, in the days and weeks leading up to the second of the month when the essay would be mailed out and posted online. However, I didn't do that this month, but that doesn't mean that I won't be sharing anything this month. In fact, quite the contrary.

I have mentioned in this newsletter that many years ago I tried to write a book about Chicago Media Action, but with no success. No publisher at the time agreed, and the plans for the book were never completed. I did however write two draft chapters for the planned book, one of which I shared in excerpted form previously. And now, for the first time, I now share the other chapter I wrote, in full below.

This is what would have been Chapter Two of the planned book, and I share it now because Chris Geovanis plays a prominent role in the chapter. Do note: this is quite long (more than 3,500 words), and it repeats some of what I mentioned in the first of these monthly essays which I wrote to mark the 20th anniversary of Chris' courageous action (as described below). But it's a story that is worth sharing at length, and which is worthy of repeating -- in every sense of the phrase. Please enjoy.

Chris Geovanis, presente!


Chapter 2: "A New Group"

To understand how CMA began, and the early and ongoing motivations involving CMA, we have to focus in detail on a single day – Saturday, November 2, 2002. I count that date as CMA's birthday, as it represented the culmination of a number of significant events, not the least of which was the founding of what became CMA.

It was on that date, at the Crown Center on the northside Lakeshore campus of Loyola University in Chicago, where there had assembled a progressive-minded conference of scholars and activists dedicated to critically analyzing the media and searching of ways to improve it in a progressive fashion. In many ways, it was progressive. And in one significant way, it was not.

This was a conference organized by Chicago Media Watch ("CMW", not to be confused with the Chicago-based Community Media Workshop, which also bears the same initials [NB: Community Media Workshop has since changed its name to Public Narrative]). I had helped with some of the organizing of the conference, focusing mainly on computer-related work – maintaining the CMW website, building and setting up an online credit-card payment system for the conference, and (in what would play a key role in what was to come) posting the scheduled itinerary of the conference on the CMW website amid a flurry of last-second changes.

About 200 people attended the all-day conference, including some who came in from out of town. The conference took place in the Crown Center's main conference room, and the conference bore with a single word as its main theme: "Propaganda". (Officially, the full title of the conference was "Conference on American Propaganda: Historical, Legal, and Moral Perspectives.")

Propaganda was certainly apropos to the time. A U.S.-led war against Iraq was looming on the horizon. In fact, a war against Iraq had been underway since 1991 – complete with regular bombings against Iraq since the "end" of the "first" Gulf War and the worst economic sanctions regime in history. But this "new" war was poised to escalate into what was billed as "shock and awe", and the major U.S. corporate media were bowing with uncanny precision to the dubious pronouncements from the Bush White House of a looming Iraqi threat fueled by Iraq's supposed development of weapons of mass destruction.

But progressive political perspectives generally made little headway in the major media. Right-wing commentators dominated local and national radio. TV news was little more than a vast commercial wasteland. Efforts to try to gain some headway into this scene merited little success -- even Chicago Public Radio refused to broadcast a public service announcement announcing this very conference. Worse, media had become increasingly concentrated in recent years and poised to get worse. But this conference hoped to help stem the tide, at least locally, by offering a variety of progressive perspectives, and by offering inspiring stories of those who worked to make better media and the media better.

The itinerary of the conference listed the first five speakers in order:

  • Bill Ayers – former Weather Underground member and faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who talked about the U.S. education system and how it trains students to fit in certain pre-determined slots in society.
  • Leon Stein – faculty at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who discussed propaganda that was used by the Nazis in Nazi Germany.
  • Jennifer Van Bergen – a writer for the website, who discussed the USA Patriot Act and its impacts on civil liberties for Americans.
  • Matthew Rothchild, editor of The Progressive magazine and the conference's listed keynote speaker, who talked about U.S. foreign policy.
  • John McMurtry, faculty from Guelph University of Ontario who talked about the public mindset regarding government policy and media.

There was also a scheduled panel about Chicago-area media activism, which included among its participants Christine Geovanis (all her friends call her Chris) from the Chicago Independent Media Center ("Chicago Indymedia"). But that was slated for the end of the conference.

Before then, in the middle afternoon at about 4pm, there was a presentation by Sut Jhally – professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Jhally was also the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation (MEF), a production company which creates videos intended for schools and universities that critically analyzed U.S. media.

Jhally had just completed the production of a film for MEF, called "Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land" – a film about the role the U.S. media plays in supporting the repression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. The U.S. government provides moneys to Israel to the tune of about $5 billion annually, and that money is crucial to providing the necessary support, including purchases of equipment and weapons, for the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza Strip seized by Israel in 1967.

The role played by the media involves what Jhally calls "the invisible occupation". As Jhally argued in his speech – entitled "The Occupation of the American Mind: Occupied Territory" – the basic facts about Israel and Palestine have to be kept out of American media. After all, if most Americans knew that U.S. support fueled this ongoing repression, Americans might be outraged at what their dollars are being used for, and they might act to end the funding which would then end the occupation. That is a big reason why U.S. news coverage of Israel/Palestine, despite its relative abundance in U.S. news media, had to be kept on a tight leash to ensure that it doesn't interfere with this arrangement of Israeli policy to sustain the occupation.

This marks a significant irony since the debates in Israel itself, and in Israeli media like the newspaper "Ha'aretz" over Palestine are far more open and diverse than they are in the United States.

Jhally also outlined the various institutions in and around the U.S. media which were and are used to ensure that the U.S. news media maintains a strict purview of Israeli policy. Key among those institutions were organized groups which deliver "flak", or negative feedback, back to the media – groups like CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which describes itself as "America's pro-Israel lobby" and widely considered the leading American lobby group on behalf of Israeli foreign policy).

Jhally gave a lecture that was widely considered masterful – he got the only standing ovation of the entire conference, in fact. Jhally was a speaker at previous CMW conferences, and a very popular one at that, so it was natural to invite him back for the CMW conference in 2002. That is why CMW folks found themselves in a pickle at what would follow.

According to an account that Jhally himself gave at the conference at the end of his speech, Jhally insisted that he discuss Palestine at the conference, both because it was the topic of his then-new film, and because it was a topic which he felt got precious little coverage or critical scrutiny in the United States.

Jhally's insistence did not sit well with a handful of folks tied with everyone in CMW officialdom -- most notably CMW President Liane Casten and a handful of key CMW supporters and funders. Despite their otherwise progressive political views and opinions, they also uncritically supported Israeli foreign policy efforts against Palestine.

The CMW leadership and conference organizers ultimately agreed to Jhally's request, but asked Jhally to connect his speech with the theme of the conference, which was "Propaganda". Jhally said that he responded: "I'll try".

But they didn't let Jhally's insistence go unrewarded. As an effort to bring "balance" to what had been a previously and exclusively progressive conference, Casten had announced immediately after Jhally's speech ended that she had unilaterally changed the schedule of the conference (done without informing other CMW organizers, it later turns out).

Casten had added to the itinerary, to speak right after Jhally, Richard Baehr, an "education" director at AIPAC. Baehr was scheduled to give a speech as a presumed counterpoint to Jhally's conference.

Jhally had alluded to Baehr's presence on stage before Jhally began his speech. Baehr was listed on the printed schedule for the day's conference – but he was not listed on the itinerary I had posted on the Chicago Media Watch website.

Suddenly I put two and two together: Liane had unilaterally changed the schedule without telling anyone else. I felt duped: the rug had been pulled out from under me and I didn't see it coming, a victim of the very propaganda this conference was supposedly trying to combat. Rage boiled over in me, even though I sat attentively and listened rapt to Sut Jhally's remarkable speech. Reassuredly, I wasn't alone in my rage.

At the point that Casten took to the conference podium and actually introduced Baehr to the audience, Chris Geovanis emerged from the audience and ran toward the stage. As she approached the stage, Geovanis publicly yelled aloud, accusing Casten of being "a sellout" and being "corporate-media-like". An exchange ensued, which was later transcribed in the Chicago Reader:

"Why? Why are you giving him [Baehr] equal time?" screamed Chris Geovanis, who was standing in the aisle below.

"Oh, no," said Casten to herself.

"You have done a disgusting service to media activists here like myself that you brought in under false pretext to have to listen to an apologist for a racist state," Geovanis shrieked.

"When you try to censor that individual – how dare you!" Geovanis screamed. "How could you have engaged in such a despicable act? And you have betrayed the principles of this organization. I'm ashamed to know you! It's disgusting! It's disgusting. It's disgraceful."

Casten then once again addressed the audience, and accused Chris back in the audience who disagreed with her of being "closed-minded", and gave a moment to those who didn't want to be "closed-minded" to leave the main conference room at that point. A number of people did; I count myself proud to be one of them.

Sut Jhally interrupted at this point, and pointed out the inconsistency of balance at his conference. After all, Leon Stein lectured about Nazi Germany without a counterpoint from any Nazis; Jennfier Van Bergen talked about the USA Patriot Act without a counterpoint from some civil-liberties-hating partisan.

As Jhally said: "This is not about not wanting debate. I think the more debate the better. But the question is about this conference – about what the meaning of this conference is. Why, on this issue, is it the only thing on which there has to be balance? There are differences between public events and the events of progressives who want to further the analysis and want to further the strategy. If you allow that to become what it has become now, then we're not doing any favors for ourselves. It's not about not having debate. It's about what the purpose of this conference is"

Sut Jhally walked out of the conference room and left the conference immediately after giving his speech. He opted not only to leave the conference, but to leave Chicago and return to Massachusetts (he had changed his flight to leave earlier).

I found myself seriously torn. At the time, I had been worked with both CMW and Chicago Indymedia, and I was shocked both at what was unfolding before me, and a conflict between arguably the most prominent representatives of both media projects. Even as Jhally was about to give his speech, I sat in the audience and looked at the flyer and there it was in black and white was a printed schedule, different from what I had posted on the CMW website.

Nevertheless, the show went on. Baehr gave his lecture, entitled on "The Attack on Israel's Right to Exist". I barely heard it, having left the conference room, and returning back only briefly after some time, when I saw Chris stand in protest and yell out to Baehr:

"When do we get to respond to this?" said Chris.

"When I'm done." said Baehr.

I found myself focusing on the orange banner on the stage, with the words "Chicago Media Watch" in bold. Beneath it was a prominently displayed URL – -- which that morning had been a source of pride since I set up the website. But by evening it had been a source of shame since I set up the website.

I then heard and saw Liane approach Chris, who told her words to the effect of, "You're out of the conference. I'm calling security."

Chris and a handful of other folks accompanying her left the main conference room. I joined along.

Many of the folks who had left after Liane's missive to the audience to Take It Or Leave It stood in the lobby outside the main hallway at the Crown Center. The anger in the lobby was palpable; we wait years for a Chicago conference on critical media issues and we get this? A group that has been around for ten years, and after all that time all it does is this switcheroo? And what kind of media group goes for three years without a website? (If I hadn't made that website, I wonder if the group would ever get a website.)

As Chris was being expelled, she took a moment to address many of those still standing around in the back, incensed at what Liane had done. Chris then said something that amounted to the laying down of a new gauntlet:

"You know what, we are starting a new group. Join us at Chicago Indymedia's offices, 3411 West Diversey, next Sunday at 1pm."

She was giving handshakes to many folks in the group when Loyola University campus police arrived and ordered Chris to leave the building and leave campus. She had done so and had been walking off campus.

We had been walking away from the Crown Center. Along the way, Chris asked me to announce to others, on Indymedia and elsewhere, that this new group was forming. I agreed of course. And she was asking me to shepherd this new group, and we had stopped walking for a moment, maybe no more than 30 seconds. A Loyola campus police car had then arrived from behind us. A police officer emerged from the car and told Chris: "You were ordered to leave campus and disobeyed a police order. Therefore, we're placing you under arrest." Police then grabbed her shoulder, put her in the back seat of the car, and sped off.

Those of us accompanying Chris started asking: "Where is she being held? Can someone get a car?"

I didn't say a word during Chris' arrest, but I was feeling guilty even though what transpired had little to do with me. Still, I had been effectively handed a newborn project, and I silently vowed to myself to see it through, to ensure that this new group would grow and thrive and achieve great things. I was in graduate school at the time, pursuing a master's degree in computer science, but I vowed to make the time to do everything I could to help this project would succeed.

Curiously enough, even though Chris had stared down armed police barricades at high-profile global justice protests from Washington DC to Genoa, this marked the very first time she was placed under arrest. My own arrest record had emerged unscathed, and yet I think that I was far more impacted by Chris' arrest than Chris herself was.

I walked back to the Crown Center to inform some other folks including some who had been leaving the conference of Chris' arrest. I didn't actually return to the main conference hall itself. The final panel on media activism at which Chris was a scheduled participant never happened; the conference ended shortly thereafter.

I left the conference to meet with my friend Gina who lived nearby and whom I had previously agreed to meet after the conference. Gina was the first person to hear me tell the entire extraordinary series of events that had just transpired, and my feelings about them.

I went home thereafter – distraught and unable to sleep. About midnight, Chris called me. She had been released from lock-up and she asked me to write a report and post it to the Chicago Indymedia website about what transpired. The following evening, Sunday November 3, I wrote a quick article and posted it. I also posted a separate announcement:

Announcement: A New Group of Progressive Criticism of Chicago Mainstream Media

Amid the controversy surrounding the 2002 Chicago Media Watch conference, there is the seed of a new dynamic left-and-progressive-oriented media monitoring group for Chicago. Much like the New-York-based FAIR, this group would engage in regular and frequent systematic monitoring of mainstream broadcast and print news, but with a particular focus on Chicago.

Individuals interesting in laying the foundation for this group should come to the inaugural meeting of this as-yet-unnamed group at the Chicago Independent Media Center's offices, 3411 W. Diversey, November 10, at 1pm. For more information, contact msszcep (at)

The following morning, Monday November 4, I opened up my email inbox to discover a blizzard of emails about what happened and about my article; some email came from activists who did not attend but were still furious over what had transpired. One email suggested that I contact Michael Miner, media columnist at the Chicago Reader, Chicago's most-widely-read weekly newspaper (a la the Village Voice or the LA Weekly), since what happened arguably merited additional coverage.

I didn't contact Miner – Miner wound up contacting me first, and he would interview me over the course of three days the following week to write a column which was published two weeks later in the Hot Type column of the Chicago Reader, headlined "Man Bites Watchdogs". I consider that article the authoritative resource to learn about the incident and all the players involved.

The following Sunday, November 10, twelve people, myself among them, agreed to formalize and launch a new group themed to the media activism that CMW should be doing, and didn't. Chris attended the meeting and basically assigned the twelve of us who attended that meeting to write up and approve a group mission statement. We also needed to figure out a name for this project, and agreed on the temporary and unwieldy name "Chicago Progressive Media Working Group", and the more unwieldy acronym "CPMWG".

Most of that coterie of a dozen or so folks with CPMWG met on alternating Sunday afternoons at the same office thereafter. The arguments and edits that would ensue around the group's mission statement and a better, more permanent name would be a consistent meeting agenda on the subsequent weekends. And finally – on January 19, 2003, we arrived at an agreed mission statement and a permanent new name for the project – Chicago Media Action, a counterpoint and dig of sorts against Chicago Media Watch. Ironically, this key meeting on January 19 wasn't made at the Chicago Indymedia offices, since the door to the offices had been locked out that day and nobody with a key was around. Instead, this epochal meeting was made just next door at a Dunkin' Donuts where seven of us had huddled to escape the cold and to formalize a group that would help make history.

Chris Geovanis wound up leaving what became CMA after the first two meetings. She felt (perhaps correctly) that what became Chicago Media Action shouldn't be thought of as the Chris Geovanis Revenge Project, and so once the ball started rolling on the project, she didn't take part anymore thereafter. To my knowledge, she only attended one additional CMA meeting in the subsequent five years thereafter. She remained active in the Chicago political activism scene, being involved with antiwar work, public interest media outreach, and of course continuing her work with Chicago Indymedia.

In the next five years, CMA rarely worked on Middle East policy issues, and wound focusing more on domestic U.S. media policy. Chicago Media Watch, by comparison and in contrast, did very little thereafter. In 2004, CMW had organized another conference on commercial media and its effects on children, but a letter said that it was going to suspend its quarterly newsletter and focus on issues involving advertising and children -- exactly how CMW did this remains unannounced. The website had lie unchanged, save for a single edit made in the 2004 election, since the end of 2003 [NB: the domain is at this writing broken]. CMW's website, like the group itself, was effectively defunct.

At the time of CMA's founding, the most pressing media-related issue was what the Federal Communications Commission was about to do to change the country's media ownership rules.

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