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Robert H. Devine 2/21/13 Several months ago, DeeDee Halleck, founder of Paper Tiger Television and Deep Dish Television, and long time activist and advocate, sent out an e-mail blast detailing her difficulties with access at New York's Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Apparently DeeDee had dared to demand (a) access -- to Board meetings and organizational policies and records in addition to access to equipment, facilities and channel time; (b) inclusion -- of citizens and access producers in discussion and decision-making about the directions and priorities of the organization; (c) responsiveness -- of the organization to the needs and concerns of the communities served; and (d) transparency -- in the creation of policies, decisions, budgets, and procedures governing the organization. She had been denied access to a Board meeting, and with local citizens, she had been prevented from attending the grand opening of a new facility in East Harlem. She tried to put programs on the MNN channels, one of them showing her and Papoleto Melendez being refused admittance to the official opening of the MNN Barrio Firehouse Media Center. As a result, DeeDee was suspended from MNN, and with her usual flair for effective media, she posted the program in question to YouTube, as well as an early documentary from the nascent activism of Paper Tiger that brought MNN into being. DeeDee also posted her correspondence with a new MNN Board member to her list. I read the documents and watched the YouTube videos with a certain amount of nostalgia. I had been involved in the startup of MNN in the early 1990s and had served as the organizations interim Executive Director during an extended period of transition in 2005. In her letter, DeeDee said that she was "...worried that the organization has become cut off from some of its founding principles - especially that of transparency and accountability." Her concerns resonated with me. It seemed to me that those who had only recently come to public access -- staff members, and particularly board members -- might have a limited understanding of the origins and founding principles of public access, located as they were in the cultural context of the1960s, and might be unfamiliar with the vision of free speech, local community development and democratic participation that was at the heart of the public access project.
The American notion of public access to cable communication was derived from a utilitarian interpretation of the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment, was bolstered by public policy which had, since the late 1940s, favored localism in broadcasting, and was driven by a technology (small-format video) which allowed non-professionals to participate effectively in public discourse. Providing the platform and the means for citizens to "speak" and disseminating their messages via cable so that they may be "heard" as well was grounded in the concept of a "marketplace of ideas" as the strength of a democracy. In theory, an enlightened and informed polity depends on having access to a diversity of opinions and viewpoints, and being able to engage in public dialogue and discussion about such viewpoints1. The social invention of cable had seized the opportunity to protect the rights of citizen access to the marketplace and to implement public policy with regard to localism. Access was officially brought into being following the widespread urban unrest of the mid 1960s, and following the Kerner Commission Report (The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders). For some proponents, providing channels for citizen voice and dissent was seen as a safety valve, a way to co-opt the negative energy of our burning cities. The coalition of players that lobbied for public access provisions included policy wonks who saw access as a way of reframing and shifting the communications infrastructure and repairing imbalances of the existing system, artists who saw the potential of new tools, new venues and new means of distribution, liberal First Amendment pluralists who saw access as a way of invigorating local and national political dialogue and debate, community activists inspired by the work of the Canadian Challenge for Change project2 and saw the potential in access for organizing and empowerment, and business interests, particularly the self-interested cable operators seeking to break the stranglehold of the broadcast monopoly and side-step regulation. As a practice, public access called upon understandings, expertise and methodologies drawn from a wide range of the social sciences, and yet its practitioners, forms and models were most often derived from the fields of media production and distribution. In its early years, public, or community access was about expression and the practice and production of culture, particularly that which was grounded in the local community. It championed diversity,
Jacobs, Cook and Delli Carpini do a thorough job of excavating the limitations of the deliberationist approach, and describing the ways in which deliberation has been faulted as elitist, exclusionary, manipulative, divisive, oppressive and politically insignificant in Talking Together: Public Deliberation and Political Participation in America (2009), pp. 14-23. 2 A good summary of the early work of Challenge for Change can be found in Dorothy Todd Hénaut, "Video Stories from the Dawn of Time," Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 7, No. 2, Fall, 1991.
particularly as it related to permitting and sustaining a "multitude of voices" in a "marketplace of ideas". The work of access grounded itself in ideas about community, and the manner in which people reason together, air their differences, discuss their concerns, and build common understandings. It was informed by our precious democratic freedoms. The activity was formally designated as "public access", while the movement that supported it often referenced itself as "community access" or "community television". The "public" terminology was used in the sense of indicating a space for democratic deliberation that falls outside of the realm of the state or of market relations 3. The "community" terminology was employed in terms of the root which it had in common with "communication" -- communis -- which implies some sort of "holding in common"4. The sort of communication practiced through public access was very different from the hub-and-spoke model of broadcasting. As Hollander and Stappers (1992) point out, "community communication differs from the discrete roles of message sender and message receiver in broadcasting. Communicators in community communication address their audience on the assumption of the shared relevance that community issues have for both senders and receivers because they all participate in the same community" (p. 19). On some occasions a citizen is a sender of messages, while on other occasions they become a receiver, and through access, can move easily from one role to the other. The community provides a common frame of reference for the interpretation of the messages communicated within it. Attending to broadcasting, or to mass media in general, means turning away from the local experience and the local social organization. The information provided by broadcast and cable news, for example, has little to do with the specificity of the local situation, orients the viewer to events which are beyond both their experience and control, and provides little to analyze, learn, recall or act upon. Public access, on the other hand, was founded on the "cultural anchoring"5 of citizens, drawing upon their commitment to the local community, and relying upon the community framework for the interpretation of the messages that are circulated. At its best, access also gave voice to the conflicts, contradictions, differences and controversies within a community and provided a space in which those differences could be engaged constructively.
I am indebted here to Nancy Fraser's (1993) discussion of the manner in which "public" might be used to conflate the state, the official economy of paid employment and arenas of public discourse (p. 2). 4 Robert Devine, "Notes on Access as an Alternative Media Practice, Community Media Review, volume 18, No. 3, June/July, 1995. 5 Lundby (1992) clarifies that "Cultural anchoring is determined by the degree of social interaction (which entails both action or participation and communication) and identification with or commitment to the community" (p. 36).
Public access attends to the local rather than the global, relies upon the diverse codes, conventions and values in the immediate community that it serves, and benefits from, reinforces and strengthens the beliefs and practices of that local community. Senders and receivers of messages are within the same social system, with little division of labor and minimal boundaries between the two roles, and are able to interact freely within that social system. Communicants are able to initiate communication actively, rather than receive messages passively, and are facilitated, through public access, in building collaborations and coalitions and participating in the construction of meaning. Public access provides the means for members of a community to speak for themselves and participate in public discussion rather than being spoken for or spoken about. It allows diverse groups to practice, preserve and transmit their unique cultural traditions -- crafts, stories, music, dance, history -- to the broader community and to future generations. It allows traditionally disenfranchised populations to enter into the community's marketplace of ideas without the usual barriers of socioeconomic class, race, age, education and language. It "transforms private individual experience into public collective experience" (Hollander and Stappers, 1992, p. 21) by permitting members of the community to discuss its problems, debate its issues, voice its viewpoints, vent its frustrations and air its grievances. The forum created by public access allows community members to give and receive feedback that is direct and immediate. It's location within the local culture, its functions in circulating community meanings and structuring public discourse, and its emphasis on holding-in-common distinguish public access as a unique communications medium. These structural characteristics provide a sharp contrast to broadcasting and have profound implications for the practice of access and for measuring its effectiveness. Years ago, on a keynote panel at an NFLCP conference in San Francisco I asked those assembled whether the national organization was one of professional local programmers, or whether it was an organization of professional trainers and facilitators. If it was the former, I wondered out loud whose First Amendment rights were protected by access? Those of a professional group of programmers speaking for, to and about a community? If that was the case, I continued, it would only be a matter of time before the cable industry would make the case that yielding its own First Amendment rights must be in the service of the protection of the rights of speech of the public writ large, and not of a particular segment that "speaks for" by providing programming that was merely an "alternative" to broadcasting or other cable programming. It was the speaker we were protecting, I insisted, NOT the listener. How
could we know, I asked the group, if access providers were professional? Was it the numbers of programs produced and cablecast, or did it have to do with the extent to which access activity generated community interaction and supported public dialogue and debate. What were the barriers that limited participation of the broadest range of speakers? What sorts of standards might be developed to demonstrate whether or not an access operation was delivering on the mission and goals of public access in providing protected First Amendment speech to all those who were seeking a channel for expression? In hindsight, the trends of urban access organization and delivery that were of such great concern to me all those years ago have persisted, while the vision, mission and principles that inform the access enterprise have withered substantially. In the intervening years, access and its professional organization -- the Alliance -- have become much more Gesselschaft than Gemeinschaft6. What I mean by that is there seems to be more and more of a focus on professional networking and development and less and less of a focus on community development and the interrelationships among those committed, through voluntary association, to working at issues of social change. I'm reminded of Warren Bennis' differentiation of Leadership and Managing: -The manager administers; the leader innovates -The manager maintains; the leader develops -The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people -The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it -The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why7 The trends toward the professionalization of workers in access centers seems to me to orient their activities toward production FOR rather than production BY and dialogue AMONG. The access organization becomes a "station" rather than an agora, a means of distribution rather than a network of interaction, a site for the origination of programs rather than a center for citizen agency and a catalyst for change. Access organizations seem to focus on networking within the very hegemonic infrastructure that access was designed to challenge. Those parts of conferences that are not dealing with technical and operational issues and methods, appear to be focused on seeking legitimacy by appearing to be a
This differentiation was put forward by Ferdinant Tönnies in Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), first published in German in 1887. An English edition was published by Michigan State University Press in 1957. Gemeinschaft is interpreted as "community-ship", the spontaneously arising organismic social relationships characterized by strong reciprocal bonds of sentiment and kinship within a common code of tradition. Gesellschaft is interpreted as "company-ship", or rationally developed types of social relationships characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons. 7 Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader. Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1984.
mainstream professional organization, and dealing with methods of non-profit management rather than leadership on social issues and the solution of community problems. For example, a friend described a recent Alliance conference roster to me as "A Chamber of Commerce confab". Purpose gives way to tactics, and access becomes confirming, rather than catalyzing. It seems to me that a central question for access organizations to consider is whether the work that they currently are doing sufficiently reflects the original mission that compelled cable operators to yield channel space, revenue and equipment. If an access organization is not developing critical abilities, bringing private citizens into public life and the discourse of the community, or is not engaged in doing community development work, is there a compelling need for a cable operator to be putting money into it? Is the organization helping the community to set an agenda for addressing its problems, issues and concerns? Is the organization using its convening authority in bringing together various community groups and organizations and helping them build the relationships necessary to address those problems? Is the organization actively building networks, coalitions and alliances to help move the community forward? Is the organization an active player in the community's planning efforts? And most important of all, is the organization cultivating and engaging a broad range of constituent groups and voices in the life of the community? If an access organization is not contributing to that sense of "holding in common" through the communication and interaction of local citizens, then it seems to me that the rationale for sustained cable company or municipal support is seriously jeopardized. Finally, let me return to DeeDee Halleck's grievance with MNN in New York. She sought to gather evidence of the disenfranchisement that she experienced, and so used a combination of home video and cell-phone video and sound. She sought to have her grievance heard, both locally in Manhattan, but also nationally to a wider audience, and so used a combination of YouTube and email to upload her current and historical video documents to the internet and to notify specific networks of friends, neighbors and colleagues regarding the availability those documents. The tools that DeeDee used to record and circulate her grievances weren't obtained from an access organization, and they are perhaps more ubiquitous and accessible today than video cameras and cable were when public access first launched. For example, as of August 2011, the U. S. internet population included 78% of adults and 95% of teenagers8, while internet access via broadband has been extended to 94 percent of Americans9. While
Pew Project on the Internet and American Life, Report on Internet Adoption Over Time, 2012.
there are significant disparities of internet access and use, most often stratified by income, race and education, a growing number of Americans have access at work, and libraries struggle to provide adequate access to that segment of the population that depends on public sites for internet technology. As of December, 2012, 87% of Americans had a cell phone, while 45% of American adults had a smart phone10. Ironically, DeeDee's efforts to address her grievances regarding MNN proved out, very effectively, an alternative sort of communicative "access" -- one that did not depend on the equipment, training, approvals or channels of cable-provided access.
Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader. Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1984. Joanne Brenner, "Pew Internet: Mobile," Pew Internet and American Life Project, January 30, 2013. Robert Devine, "Notes on Access as an Alternative Media Practice, Community Media Review, volume 18, No. 3, June/July, 1995. Nancy Fraser, "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy," in Bruce Robbins, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Dorothy Todd Hénaut, "Video Stories from the Dawn of Time," Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 7, No. 2, Fall, 1991. Ed Hollander and James Stappers, "Community Media and Community Communication," in Nick Jankowski, Ole Prehn and James Stappers, eds., The People's Voice: Local Radio and Television in Europe. London: John Libby, 1992, pp. 16-26. Lawrence R. Jacobs, Fay Lomax Cook and Michael X. Delli Carpini, Talking Together: Public Deliberation and political Participation in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Knut Lundby, "Community Television as a Tool of Local Culture," in Nick Jankowski, Ole Prehn and James Stappers, eds., The People's Voice: Local Radio and Television in Europe. London, John Libby, 1992, pp. 27-41. Pew Project on the Internet and American Life, Report on Internet Adoption Over Time. 2012.
Allison Terry, "Got Broadband? Access now extends to 94 percent of Americans," Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2012. 10 Joanne Brenner, Pew Internet: Mobile, Pew Internet and American Life Project, January 30, 2013.
Allison Terry, "Got Broadband? Access Now Extends to 94 Percent of Americans," Christian Science Monitor. August 24, 2012. Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society. Minneola New York: Dover Publications, 2002.
Bob Devine taught Media and Social Change at Antioch College for forty years, and served as that institution's President from 1996-2001. He has been involved with community media since 1969, and his background has included the startup and leadership of the Dallas, Milwaukee and Manhattan community access systems. He has served on the Editorial Board of Community Media Review a number of times, and has contributed to that journal for several decades. He has also served on the Boards of the Alliance for Community Media and the Alliance for Communications Democracy. In 2005 he served as Interim Executive Director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and in 2008 he served an extended term as an Executive Consultant for '‘Ōlelo Community Media in Honolulu, these organizations being the two largest community media centers in the country. Bob is the 1994 recipient of the Alliance for Community Media's George Stoney Award for Humanistic Communications, recognizing his national contributions to the field of community media.
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