24 October 2011
What place does “indie media” such as The Occupied Wall Street Journal hold in the larger media universe? What is its function with respect to the present Occupy Movement? How are the collective representations, imagery, and ideological frames of the Occupy Movement, as publicized by indie media, communicated to the so-called mainstream media?
To answer these questions, one must clear away the underbrush of popular terminology used to talk about the media. It is common to hear a distinction raised between the mainstream media (MSM) and indie media. What counts as the MSM is not the product of any ideological consensus, since the boundaries of such an entity are largely defined by the viewer’s ideological standpoint. For example, conservatives consider Fox News to stand in opposition to the MSM, understood to be the major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC), cable networks (MSNBC and CNN), public media (NPR and CPB), and newspapers such as the NY Times and Washington Post. From a structural perspective, however, Fox News occupies a place within the field of the MSM. Hence, to avoid analytical confusion, it makes sense to dispense with the term MSM; what one is confronted with is not a situation of mainstream versus marginal but rather a single media field in which different journalistic entities can be identified as dominant or dominated within the field itself.+ The dominant and dominated positions in the field are determined by the economic and symbolic capital attributes of a particular media concern. In this case, what Fox News may lack in symbolic capital (i.e. it represents points of view that are, for the journalistic tastes of MSNBC, the NY Times and the Washington Post, “outside the mainstream” of “legitimate” public opinion), it more than compensates for with its economic capital, which it uses to transform the field itself, primarily by incorporating Republican politicians, strategists, and pundits as experts and paid analysts (e.g. Palin, Rove, Huckabee, etc.), or by acquiring a dominant “mainstream” newspaper like the WSJ and reshaping its editorial outlook. In other words, Fox News’s media strategy has largely succeeded in moving formerly marginal political perspectives into the mainstream of public debates.
Hence, with their vast economic resources “liberal” and “conservative” media wage a struggle over symbolic capital in the media field, a struggle which also depends on accruing economic capital. The former wage a preservationist strategy (to preserve its dominant position as the legitimate definition of journalistic taste, as “objective”) against the transformative strategy of the latter (which claims for itself the legitimate definition of journalistic taste, as “fair and balanced”). In this competitive struggle, representations of the Occupy Movement by the dominant and dominated media concerns are skewed towards the spectacular, the shocking, and the outrageous, since such representations are proven to hold an audience’s attention, which drives ratings and, thus, advertising revenue. (This is verified, for example, by perusing the reportage of “embedded” journalists from the NY Times). The moralizing attitude expressed by pundits towards the movement — either advocating for or admonishing it — is less significant than the structural tendency to present provocative images of movement actions and participants as provocative.
Indie media’s relationship to the media field as just described is best understood as an externality: it is outside the field at present. However, this means that its structural exclusion or positioning outside the media field, its position outside the game, renders it powerless to transform the media field. Thus, its representations of the Occupy Movement make little impact on the field itself. Whereas one can find presentations of the mundane and the ordinary in indie media journalism (discussions of consensus building as a political strategy, the organization of the provision of food, clothing, and books for demonstrators at Zuccotti Park, and the like) along side the shocking (typically, instances of police violence against demonstrators), when indie media interfaces with the media field, or rather when the media field incorporates the products of indie media, there is a tendency to emphasize representations of shocking rather than the mundane, which only legitimates the journalistic gaze of the dominant and dominated media within the field. Consequently, the relationship of indie media to the movement is actually fraught with political risk.
Indie media has been referred to as a people’s media, indigenous media, insurgent media, counter-publics, and wild publics. However, its self-defined oppositional position with respect to the “mainstream” is undermined by being outside the media field: because it is outside the game, it is not a player in its own right. Indie media’s lack of economic capital means it must rely on the dominant and dominated media concerns to present its collective representations as it wishes them to be understood. Lacking the capacity to impose its weak symbolic capital on the media field, indie media is also unable to impose its journalistic taste or perception, which brings together the mundane with the extraordinary, on the producers and consumers of the products of the media field. This does not mean that it serves no positive function for the Occupy Movement; such a positive function is its role in representing the movement to itself, of digesting and reflecting back to the movement its own, diverse understandings. As such, indie media serves as a repository of social knowledge and collective memory for the movement, reminding it where it came from, why it came into existence, and what it is doing.
In order to bring the fully rounded representations of the indie media covering the Occupy Movement into the media field itself, the movement must generate its own representatives, who can articulate the complexity of the movement to the media field without falling into the trap of highlighting the strange, the different, the radical, and the revolutionary. Social movements are ordinary occurrences in much of the world, which have always co-existed with the institutionalized political process. In my view, what the Occupy Movement should avoid at all costs is allowing itself to be represented to the media field by philosopher-journalists (e.g. Noam Chomsky and Cornell West), writer-journalists (e.g. Naomi Klein), all-purpose, intellectual-journalists (e.g. Noam Chomsky), activist-journalists (e.g. Al Sharpton), who are reflective of already existing structural positions in the media field and who play scripted roles in this field for the dominant and dominated media concerns.
+my discussion is indebted to Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (1998)