Conference envy & censorship

Conferencing and conventioneering must rank among the foremost professional diversions. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing and being seen, whispering to allies while smiling frostily at those who look down their noses in your direction. Just thinking of all the schmoozing possibilities makes me wish that I wish I had $1,200 (plus travel expenses) to attend the Online Publishers’ Association “Forum for the Future” that will be held in London in March.

But it costs nothing to look over the program or can the speaker’s list. Which is fortunate, because while the OPA event is not unreasonably priced, it’s still beyond my budget. More importantly, because it’s not all that difficult to scam the cash, the level of discourse and the business concerns are way beyond what small or independent media would find useful.

So let me put in another plug for the idea of creating a cooperative organization for independent media producers. I call this class of producers mini-media. But that’s just a term and if there’s a better banner under which to unite these disparate producers, I’d embrace it without hestitation. Perhaps OPA has a way to accommodate small producers and their concerns? I’m in favor of anything that might help members of this emerging business category find each other. I still think there are other purposes, beyound comparing notes, that would warrant the formation of a professional association of small media folks, but that remains to be shown.

Meanwhile, on the different subject of censorship . . .

Project Censored at Sonoma State University has published its latest compilation of 25 stories that were overlooked or under-covered by mainstream media in 2006. The group excites some annoyance even among the alternative press, such as evidenced by a six-year-old commentary in Mother Jones that called it “predictible and boring,” and added:

“Censorship is a big, scary word. It’s dangerous to toss around the concept casually . . . Censorship implies that some covert cabal somewhere is conspiring to keep The Truth from The People. But that’s hardly the case with Project Censored’s latest picks . . . These stories are allegedly “The News That Didn’t Make the News” — except, of course, for the ones that did . . .”

And according to this line of reasoning the latest list is similarly flawed, but I’m less annoyed at the hyperbole implicit in the title than I used to be. For one thing the whole style of Web communication is over-the-top. The Web is about initiating some sort of viral messaging. When you’re trying to rouse the colonial militia, you don’t e-mail the Declaration of Independence and the whole bill of particulars. You shout: the British are coming. So if the title of Project Censored overstates the case, and has always done so, get over it. The medium has finally caught up with the message.

Secondly, I heard Yahoo traveling correspondent extrordinaire Keven Sites talk at length about self-censorship at a recent lecture at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (I blogged on his talk but chose to hit on other themes.) Sites, however, dwelled at length on his own decision, which he regretted, to withhold the video he took as a pool reporter in Iraq of the Marine who shot an unarmed captive inside a mosque. (Here’s a Guardian story to refresh your memory.) Sites explained that he had initially consented or suggested — it’s not entirely clear to me whether he or NBC, the network for whom he worked as a freelancer, drove the decision to withhold the actual footage from U.S. audiences — that the video of the shooting not be shown, as it might arouse passions in the region. As it was, Sites said, the video was disseminated on Arab stations because he shot the footage as a pool reporter and all pool video had to go out. This, he told us, meant that Arab viewers saw the footage without any mitigating information (such as the state of mind of the shooter, of which Sites was aware.) Meanwhile, few Americans ever saw the brief video that Sites showed the class. I’m not anybody’s jury but, having seen the footage, it’s hard for me to see the shooting as justified.

Anyhow, I think there’s plenty of such soft-pedaling the news, and I’ve done my share of it over the years. So when press critics smack the news media with harsh words like censorship because news media tend to equivocate I think this comes from an understandable frustration.