The Public i: Countering Hegemonic Mass Media Narratives

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I have always wondered how the Public i, which operates under one of the few Independent Media Centers (IMCs) that still exist in the United States—the UCIMC—has been sustainable for two decades despite the growing dissolutions of Indymedia centers worldwide. Hence, in fall, 2021, I conducted an ethnographic study (interviews and observations) to examine the resilience of the Public i vis-à-vis the worldwide decline of IMCs. I found that the commitments of the collective members through various efforts to counter hegemonic mass media narratives is one of the main reasons why the Public i is still vibrant. In this article, I present some of the findings from my study.

Most of the Public i editors/facilitators are scholar-activists who engage in social justice and human rights activism through scholarship and media at both the national and local level. Most of my participants indicated that they became involved with the Public i through local antiwar protests against the US invasion in the Middle East in the early 2000s. For instance, one of my interviewees said, “I joined in the early 2000s after using the UCIMC as a space to prepare protests against the US war in Iraq.” Similarly, another interviewee said:

“I started getting involved with the Public i because of the local antiwar movement. So, when the US attacked Afghanistan, we had a major meeting over there [UCIMC space] with, like, a few hundred people. And we formed and we had a number of really big meetings at the beginning. And then we continued, we did it. We worked for years in that antiwar movement; we still exist in a sort of very low-key way. But we did a lot of antiwar work, and we used to demonstrate every Saturday on Prospect Ave . . . this was when I started getting involved with the Public i.”

Indeed, most Indymedia volunteers were antiwar protesters, and the decline of IMCs in the US came partly because of the US government’s reconstitution and solidification of its campaign against domestic and global activism after 9/11. Nonetheless, the Public i resisted and sustained itself because of the commitment of members who were and are adamant that Indymedia is crucial to counter and contest hegemonic narratives that emerge from corporate mass media.

The Public i collective members are fundamentally against corporate mass media. They are committed to provide alternative narratives on social justice issues that impact local communities and provide a space for marginalized voices. For instance, one interviewee noted the following:

“Alternative media is critical, and the mass media is always bringing the country in the wrong direction. We have to counter the mass media. So, it’s really crucial . . . it gives me the kind of perspective that I need. And people who don’t have that kind of exposure, they’re just, you know, looking at the News-Gazette [the main corporate media outlet in Urbana-Champaign] or they’re watching Fox News for instance . . . then they just have such a different view of the world. And no, they’re not views that’s going to get us anywhere . . . I think that it’s very hard to change the political culture if the majority of people read corporate media, and our job is to counter that, so I guess that’s why we do it.”

Another interviewee commented:

“I had very high regard for it [the Public i] before I joined the collective. You know, it was an important piece of literature that was an alternative source of information and news, and it is still the case. Things are covered that have global and national implications.”

These sentiments against corporate mass media are in line with Chris Atton’s 2007 argument, in his article “Current Issues in Alternative Media Research,” that the value of alternative media projects lies not only in the content they produce, but also in the educational and political empowerment they offer to their communities. My participants view the Public i as a political empowerment tool for themselves, but also for society in general.

The Public i not only works on local initiatives to counter corporate mass media narratives, but also at the national level. For instance, one interviewee discussed the importance of the UCIMC’s involvement in a national project on disinformation organized by MediaJustice:

“Well, there are a couple of things that I think are important. One is from the IMC, the disinformation project, I think, is a really important dimension of the work that the IMC has been doing the last couple of years, more or less parallel to the commentariat [the Public i]. And then, you know, one thing I think we should be lauded for is on that disinformation project at the national level that now expressed interest in Janice[ Jayes]’s series of articles on the Shamar Betts case.”

Shamar Betts, a young African American man from Urbana, was indicted for the federal offense of inciting a riot on June 5, 2020, after he posted on Facebook regarding the death of George Floyd and then-ongoing nation-wide protests against police brutality. While awaiting trial, he was not permitted to be released on bond because he had been labeled a “domestic terrorist” by President Trump, and a “threat to the community” by the prosecutors. This was in conjunction with the News-Gazette’s coverage of the case with headlines such as “Urbana Man Gets Probation for Burglary at Mall During Riot He Incited”—as opposed to the Public i headline “Shamar Betts: Caught in a Legal Drama that Started Before He was Born.”

Mass media along with state narratives deemed Shamar Betts a “rioter” and a “domestic terrorist.” The Public i, on the other hand, counters these narratives by widely covering the ongoing case from a social justice perspective by providing a broader socio-economic context for Shamar Betts’s case as a local marginalized African American. As suggested by Dorothy Kidd in her 1999 article “The Value of Alternative Media,” alternative media are valuable to the communities they serve when they advocate and work for social change in the communities and the larger society. Thus, The Public i advocates for local communities as in the case of the criminalization of a 20-year-old African American shunned by media narratives that advance state and federal hegemonic discourses.

In addition to normative counter-hegemonic narratives through publications, the Public i used to explicitly write exposés on the News-Gazette’s narratives. According to one interviewee, “David Prochaska used to write about the News-Gazette . . . he did all these exposés about the Gazette in the Public i.” For instance, in 2016, he wrote an article entitled “The World According to the News-Gazette,” where he discussed issues such as how the News-Gazette commercialized narratives by “selling a commodity and calling it news.”

Another important requirement of the Public i is that writers must be affiliated with the Urbana-Champaign community, either currently or in the past. One interviewee said, “The emphasis on the local dimension, I think, is important as well. Almost all our authors either [are] presently in the community or were in the community at some point.”

Lastly, the commitments of founding members fostered restructuring that sustained the non-hierarchal elements of the UCIMC and the Public i. Certainly the UCIMC provides a space for alternative media: a critique of corporate mass media through the Public i publications.

Fatou Jobe is a Ph.D student in Sociology at UIUC.

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