Media Democracy Day shone a light on triumphs and challenges

Tony Burman, formerly of the CBC and now the managing director of Al Jazeera English, gave the opening address at Media Democracy Day in Vancouver. Photo: Mola Shahsavari

When I interned at the Walrus some years ago, then editor Ken Alexander and designer Bruce Mau collaborated on a special issue of the magazine about optimism.

It had a very shiny cover with a very pretty rainbow on it, and was followed by a swank and expensive fundraiser at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. Ken and Bruce had a dialogue about optimism; Eve Egoyan played the piano. It was delicate and congratulatory, and perhaps made some money for what I still think is a relatively good cause (one that is getting better and more relevant lately, if the recent feature in the magazine about the CBC is any indication).

Flash forward to Saturday's Media Democracy Day (MDD) in Vancouver. Without being so overt about it, the theme was clearly also optimism. Tony Burman, managing director of Al Jazeera English, opened the day with a good reminder: even at its peak time during the O'Reilly Factor, Fox News's viewership comprises only about three million Americans, or less than one per cent of the population.

It was one of those rare moments media reformers should savour, when we can actually believe our usual take on the world might be too cynical. Burman kept the momentum going by describing Al Jazeera's success, broadcasting now to more than 100 countries and granted a license by the CRTC when many predicted it couldn't happen.

The great thing about the day was the punctuation of that kind of optimism with analyses of the crisis, and an ongoing acknowledgement that in this context the word 'crisis' is not hysterical or tired.

Burman's opener was followed by a panel titled "Fox News or Democratic Communication? Media at a Crossroads" where SFU Professor Donald Gutstein reminded us that the advancement of neo-liberalism continues apace; during the panel on "Spinning the Environment" journalist and DeSmogBlogger, Richard Littlemore, described some of the ways that, as we light the world on fire, the mainstream media adds a little gasoline. The panel on gender pointed out that most of the increase in women in media is due to celebrity journalism and women's role as entertainers. (Thanks to @joeychopra for tweeting the event.)

Even Burman paired his deflation of Fox with another important reminder: the richest one per cent of Americans have tripled their share of national income, with little to no attention paid by the media.

Overall, though, this year's Media Democracy Day testified to something every activist working for a more just world can use a reminder of: outrage and hopefulness are not mutually exclusive. These two things can exist in tandem, and movements are made stronger through the presence of a healthy amount of each.

David Skinner, Chair of York's Communications Department and board member at OpenMedia.ca, described the ways that media activists have made progress even during these dark times, with the 1991 Broadcasting Act -- a progressive piece of legislation that came shortly after NAFTA and during a recession -- being a key example. While vertical integration represents a real threat, the regulatory and policy reviews it provokes also give us strategic opportunities to push change.

Amber Dawn and Lori Macintosh described the success of programs like Out In Schools, exemplifying the ways that media democracy and civic engagement can alter discourse. And Camyar Chai ended the day by declaring that sometimes, it's ok to preach to the converted -- to re-energize us, and remind us that we're not alone.

Some optimism really is just a technicolour dream; but some comes from staring at the crisis, recognizing its depth, and then continuing to work. It's Albert Camus' optimism ("One must imagine Sisyphus happy") not Candide's. This open-eyed optimism that is grounded, not airy, fueled MDD -- and credit must go to organizers Tyler Morgenstern and Gala Milne, who respected their predecessors, imagined something different, set the tone, and got to work in earnest.

Tyler and Gala were joined by many of their peers: young people made up a substantial proportion of MDD attendees. At a time when many movements are failing to captivate the next generation of potential activists, the movement to open the media is succeeding handily. The side panels weren't just standing room only, they were so full people had to be turned away. The Remixology event that followed at W2 was also bursting with people and energy, demonstrating that the community around media in Vancouver is robust and enthused -- yet another reason for optimism.

The really exciting thing about all this optimism is the way it prepares all of us to go further from here. If this year's theme was optimism, perhaps next year's could be imagination. Tyee.ca editor-in-chief David Beers gestured towards this at the end of the day, in his "Steve Anderson-y" moment on the closing panel, where he echoed my good friend and colleague's optimism about alternative models like crowdsourcing. Beers told us that we can go beyond editorial pages, which, he reminded us, we now have (congratulations all around), and imagine creating our own business pages -- ones that reject the logic of survival of the fittest and profit above-all-else and instead prioritize sustainability and well-being.

If we really believe we have reasons to hope for the future, we can start to conceptualize it, with panels guided by the big questions we still clearly have to answer.

Questions like:

• How can we mainstream gender, not just in the media at large but in these spaces like MDD that we have more power to shape, moving both women and the feminist critique to a prominent place?

• How can we model the diversity of voices we expect institutions like the CRTC to value?

• How can we unite the movement around the strategic opportunities provided by shifting landscapes?

• How do we reach out in a meaningful way to environmentalists and other social justice advocates to remind them that our issues are theirs (and, in fairness, remind ourselves that theirs are ours also)?

These are challenging questions, but after Saturday's event it's clear that we're ready to start answering them.

Reilly Yeo is the managing director of OpenMedia.ca. Follow her at twitter.com/reillyreads.

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