St. Paul forum focuses on citizens and the media

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In the wee hours of Saturday morning, three semi-celebrities arrived at Hamline University’s Sundin Hall teetering between Fashion Misfit and Political Nostradamus.

Caribou coffee in hand, Lizz Winstead, co-creator of the Daily Show, took the stage in thigh-high boots with dapper NYU Professor Mark Crispin Miller and public television executive producer John Forde. As the three sat down to face the crowd, Forde’s red plastic basketball shoes peeked from below his dark gray suit as he introduced his two guests and acted as moderator for a heated discussion about “The Future of News.”

Presented by the Twin Cities Media Alliance, publishers of the Twin Cities Daily Planet, the three-hour event in St. Paul was developed to bring the Twin Cities community together to discuss local and national media in an attempt to encourage people in and out of the media profession to engage in citizen journalism. The discussion was broken up into three parts, with panelists from national news sources, local mainstream journalism, and small, community-based media. A moderator was chosen for each panel to keep discussions on track.

“There is extreme laziness in the media.” Mark Crispin Miller stated, as the day began with talk of corporate-run media and the need for media reform. Miller, author of several books, including, Boxed In: The Culture of TV, spoke with venom of the state of journalism in the country, lacing his comments with politically liberal overtones and inciting near-rage from several audience members. Writer and comedian Lizz Winstead seconded his comments, saying that it is journalists’ job to look at both sides of an issue and then investigate, which isn’t happening now, particularly in television journalism.

“There is no investigative journalism [on TV],” said Winstead. “[Journalists] are just rehashing, they’re not reporting.” Part of the problem, said Winstead and Miller, is the fact that large corporations pay big money to media houses for advertising, which keeps certain publications afloat but also makes them dependant on a Big Brother watchdog. One example is NBC, which is owned by General Electric, one of the wealthiest companies in the nation. What corporations say, goes, which affects the stories being published—or not. “If you look at corporate-run media based on advertising, you’re not going to get the truth,” says Winstead.

Another obstacle in publishing the truth in national newspapers and magazines is governmental control of the media. Of course, America has the right to free speech, but reporters have been known to get calls from the president himself, urging them to tell a story with a particular bent, or not at all. Saying “no” to big corporations is possible if you’re willing to forego the money, but it’s a bit trickier to say “no” to the president. “The government will do what it wants to do,” said Miller, “They’re there in spite us.”

Miller went on to say that the best years of journalism were between 1880 and 1912 when journalists were solely responsible for exposing corruption that directly led to change. This pure journalism, oftentimes referred to as “objectivity,” is relatively non-existent now, according to Miller and Winstead. Miller reiterated the thought of many present-day journalists in saying, “there’s no such thing as objectivity.”

What can be done to change the one-sided, corporate and government-run news of today? Miller suggested that “things are going to be intolerably bad” in the near future and that the only way to rectify the situation is by treating the source: U.S. politics. There needs to be election, campaign finance and media reform so that important, equal journalism gets to the public without running through a filter first. Winstead understands how many people are getting their news from the Internet and believes citizens can take a more active role in informing themselves. By asking questions about the news, readers can do Google searches for things they want to know more about, and find news themselves. Although the internet does take readers away from print media, it opens doors to information in ways print media never will be able to do.

The discussion ended with a livelier than usual question-and-answer session where the more conservative members of the audience were able to voice their discontent with the direction the discussion took, and others could learn the secrets of the media world. One man asked why anchors constantly dodged and glossed over questions posed to them on the news. John Forde laughed while explaining that to “avoid the question” is a large part of media training. “It’s a PR tactic.”

As the three panelists left the stage, they were swarmed by audience members eager to share their thoughts and ask more questions. After a short break, Marco Fernandez Landoni of LCN Media led the second panel in “Citizens and the Mainstream Media,” featuring the Star Tribune’s Kate Parry, KARE 11 photographer/editor Jeff Kraker, former columnist and business editor of the Pioneer Press Dave Beal, current editor of the Pioneer Press Thom Fladung, and Bill Wareham, deputy news director for Minneapolis Public Radio.

Fending off criticism about their white male, middle-class newsrooms, the panelists worked hard to defend themselves in front of a merciless crowd. Disagreeing often with the first panel, they explained the difficulty in broaching language barriers within the Twin Cities community, developing a diverse reporting staff and working to open a dialogue among all Twin Cities citizens so that the news is about the people ingesting it.

“People in communities should be highlighted in papers in a way that is meaningful to them,” said Kate Parry of the Star Tribune. Instead of telling those communities “who they are,” the Twin Cities media should be working to explain their issues to the public and giving them a voice because they are the Twin Cities.

Thom Fladung, former managing editor of the Detroit Free Press, agreed with the audience about the lack of diversity in Twin Cities newsrooms and in the Twin Cities in general. “You’re more diverse than you ever were…but you’re not that diverse.” At the Star Tribune, groups are brought in to work with editors on cultural sensitivity, and editors from small community newspapers often come to give advice about how to get the voices of minority populations into mainstream media. Parry realizes, however, that one discussion can’t attain total competency in knowledge of diversity.

“The whole staff has to have a cultural education that’s complete,” said Parry. “You can’t have one ‘ethnic’ person speak for everyone in that community.”

The discussion touched on similar topics from the first panel, including the lack of investigative journalism in the mainstream media today. Investigative teams are being reduced and newspapers are expected to crank out stories like machines, instead of taking the time to do thorough reporting on specific issues.

In a session that seemed more about defending oneself than working for greater journalistic change, the panel of mainstream media professionals ended with a question and answer session. The group moved off the stage, seeming somewhat defeated, to let the final panel arrange themselves for a discussion on “Citizens and Community-Based Media.”

The last panel included six charismatic members of the local media community: Ann Alquist, News Director at KFAI Radio, Abdi Aynte, writer and editor of Hiiraan Online, Anne Bretts of Northfield.org, Ramon Hough, co-host of the Filipino-American National News on KFAI, Mike Wassenaar, executive director at Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, and Tracey Williams, president of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder newspaper.

Although the panel represented very different populations, including the Somali, Latino, Filipino and African American communities, they all shared similar difficulties in reaching their target audiences. Moderator Fernandez Landoni expressed the challenge of trying to reach an ever-growing Latino community in the Twin Cities with people moving in various directions. Some Latinos have just arrived in the U.S. and speak no English, others have lived here for years and are fairly immersed, while others were born here, have dispersed throughout the Twin Cities and hardly associate with the Latino community at all. LCN Media struggles to find a way to communicate with all these sub-communities within the larger Latino community without losing anyone.

Abdi Aynte agreed that reaching out to the Somali community has been difficult. His Web site, Hiiraan Online used to be mostly in Somali but is now being read more and more by English speaking Somali-Americans. Because of demand and a desire to serve the community better, the Web site is publishing more articles in English than ever before. There is always the fear, however, that some members of the community won’t get the information they need because of language problems or a lack of internet availability. Tracey Williams of the Spokesman-Recorder understands that not all African Americans, who are the focus of her publication, have Internet at home and therefore, may not be able to access certain information. Because of this reason, small community newspapers have to work extremely hard to decide what they will publish and how they will reach their target audience.

After a day of media analysis, there was a slight sense of hopelessness. With all the issues surrounding the media today, it seemed as if there was no way to pull the media up by its bootstraps and out of the doldrums. It wasn’t until an audience member fished for optimism that the panel was forced to end the day on a positive note. A young woman asked if journalism was a worthy career field to pursue or if the only outcome was to become disillusioned. Here, the panel fought for airtime and became immediately impassioned by this threat on their profession. Mike Wassenaar asked, “Do you want to make a change in the world for the better?” If so, he said, journalism was still the preferred choice. By making contacts with people from different communities and sharing their stories, others are able to learn about important issues that may otherwise go untold. Journalism, like so few fields, uses the power of words to create change, and the first place any citizen journalist can start is with themselves.

Lizz Winstead said it best when she stated that it is every person’s responsibility to take part in creating the news, regardless if he or she is a paid journalist or not. With the influx of blogging and the internet, everyone has a voice.

“If nothing else,” she said, “we must always ask questions.”