Archives for March 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Behind the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Ed.)
South End Press (2007)
Reviewed by Noel Hawke

This book review was originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2010 (© 2010) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.10011


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded confirms and explains the strings attached to philanthropic grants while presenting a global cross-section of modern political discontent. This book of sixteen essays edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence following their 2004 conference of the same name, lays out the history of the development in the U.S. of philanthropic entities whose eventual tax-favored status increased their size and influence worldwide. Revolution was published as George W. Bush’s second term was ending and the worldwide recession had begun. Progressive thinkers were reeling from years of conservative social policy, erosions in affirmative action and cultural backlash against multiculturalism.

The introduction by Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE!, includes a clear and concise history of the American non-profit system which provides essential context for the rest of the book. Missing from the introduction is guidance as to who besides social justice organizers and activists should read this book. Though it is not a blueprint for action, the book could benefit socially conscientious investors, workers in social service organizations, and students of political science. How strongly and clearly the writers make their case isn’t uniform, which affects the book’s impact. Readers must persist through essays less well organized, some of which imply but do not substantiate significant assumptions, and abandon the opportunity to offer guidance or issue a call to action.

Part I, titled “The Rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” begins with Dylan Rodriguez’ polemic essay connecting the racist state designed to maintain brutal inequalities with the incorporated organizations of the alleged Left, between which he sees symbiosis that supports the state’s ongoing absorption of organized dissent. His emphatic concern is that the assimilation of “the establishment Left” into a non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) enables more vicious forms of state repression. Citing two dozen books, articles and speeches, Rodriguez lays out a pattern of criminalization and repression of people of color through federal and state initiatives from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program to the more recent California anti-gang statutes. He decries George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, despite acknowledging its “breathtaking number of left-of center grants over 20 years,” as “formulaic, naïve and conservative” because it marginalizes radical forms of dissent and exerts a disciplinary force on social movement organizations. Rodriguez does not comment on how the Open Society Foundation does this, but implies that it is by selective funding. Rodriguez lists the incentives available to the NPIC including postal privileges, tax exempt status, and quick access to philanthropic funding apparatuses. Ties of financial and political accountability keep the NPIC’s organizations tethered to the state. The state, in turn, uses clandestinity and deception to persuade people that violent enforcement are necessary to preserve a free way of life, and teaches them that consent is necessary. Further, control of social movements by neoliberal state and philanthropic organizations is accomplished by forcing upon them reactive planning due to policy changes, and stringently quantified monitoring, which compels organized dissenters to replicate the bureaucratic structures of businesses and government agencies. The murkiness of Rodriguez’ writing nearly undoes points he wants to make. He shrugs off the opportunity to present a guiding conclusion, asking instead what activists, scholars, writers and intellectuals enmeshed in the disciplinary restrictions imposed by the NPIC should do. Just before closing with five more pages of polemics on colonialism, he suggests that “We might, for a fleeting moment, conceptualize the emergence of the NPIC as an institutionalization and industrialization of a banal, liberal political dialogue that constantly disciplines us into conceding the urgent challenges of a political radicalism that fundamentally challenges the existence of the US as a white settler society.”

“In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, expands our understanding of the NPIC by discussing other industrial complexes, military and prison, which have been promoted by ideologists who wish to gain or keep state power, becoming “antistate state actors.” Gilmore says these aggression agencies become so accepted that “people imagine that locking folks in cages or bombing civilians or sending generation after generation off to kill somebody else’s children is all part of human nature.” She points to the increasing shift of non-profits away from supporting people’s pursuit of full incorporation into the body politic and toward supporting people in the throes of abandonment, using “twice-stolen wealth – (a) profit, sheltered from (b) taxes.”

In a chapter reprinted from his book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert L. Allen contributes a history lesson on the takeover in the late ’60s of black political momentum by the Ford Foundation. Allen describes coalitions and struggles among groups representing both black masses and the black middle class. The new liberalism endorsed black power, black separatism and black capitalism as a means of sidetracking revolution. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) published a radical agenda including revolution, but by 1967, CORE’s agenda had been recognized and dismissed as angry words that were not accompanied by conspiracy to commit violence. “The reformist or bourgeois nationalism…will not ease the oppression of the ordinary ghetto dweller.”

In the final essay in part I, “Democratizing American Philanthropy,” Christine Ahn quantifies the widening gap between the richest and poorest in this country. She calls piecemeal volunteering no substitute for a systematic public approach to eliminating poverty because inequality, not scarcity, is at its root. The wealthy escape a disproportionate share of taxes through creating and contributing to charitable foundations which are, in turn, allowed to distribute only 5% of their assets annually. She quotes a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: “It is as though philanthropy exists for its own sake, rather than for the communities it is intended to serve.” Ahn cites cases of negative outcomes of the use of philanthropic power – conservative foundations’ influence on the media, the undoing of a traditional agrarian model through its replacement by scientific farming techniques, and the prevention of shipments of free AIDS drugs to Africa due to U.S. intellectual property rights laws. Ahn concludes with a few proposals: requiring foundations to pay out more of their assets, providing closer government monitoring, and diversifying foundation boards and staff.

Eight essays in the second part of the book, “Non Profits and Global Organizing,” are the distillation of years of experience within movements for social change and organizations for social service. Writers draw on experience in both settings as they describe the nfluence on mission and methods exerted by sources of funding. Of these eight, Madonna Thunder Hawk states in “Native Organizing Before the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” how the American Indian Movement operated without grants, accepted in-kind donations, traveled without expectations of comfort, shared resources communally, did not organize on the basis of single issues, developed links and traded support with other groups. She observes, “Once you get too structured, your whole scope changes from activism to maintaining an organization and getting paid, [and] people start seeing organizing as a career rather than as an involvement in a social movement that requires sacrifice.”

Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande explain in “The Filth on Philanthropy” how people of color are used to maintain the status quo by progressive philanthropists, and that philanthropy is not and never has been progressive. Amara Perez, in “Between Radical Theory and Community Praxis,” narrates how SPIRIT in Portland, Oregon, struggled with funding dependency with a resulting clarity of mission and methods.

In an upbeat, short article, “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word,” Stephanie Gilloud and William Cordery describe Project South, an Atlantabased organization founded for racial and economic justice which balances grassroots and foundation funding sources with fees for service and non-foundation dollars. Forty percent grassroots funding mitigates exposure to the fickleness of foundations’ grant-giving and the competitive pressure among applicants. Project South shares the cost of community events with other local groups. Building a support base committed to social justice is key to their ongoing success.

A different voice, that of Ana Durazo in “We Were Never Meant to Survive,” takes the stand that all violence toward women is political, interconnected, and an attempt to mark domination. In her work with battered women’s groups over more than a decade, Durazo calls it an act of racism to sequester concern for a particular population in one program of an organization. She also warns that treating violence against women of color as an intracultural phenomenon ignores the source, which is the racism of the state and of society. Furthermore, forcing doctors to report domestic violence exposes immigrant women to instant impoverishment and deportation. Durazo’s essay does not put forth remedies or alternatives.

Social service workers may pay special attention to “Social Service or Social Change,” by Paul Kivel. As a worker for 30 years in agencies addressing men’s role in domestic violence, Kivel questions whether such work will ever effect lasting change. He draws an economic pyramid, at the bottom of which 80% of Americans get by on 9% of the nation’s wealth while producing wealth retained by others. This 80% includes the middle and working classes, the unemployed, welfare recipients and the homeless The average annual household income of this 80% is $41,000. Of the rest of Americans, 19% of households average $94,000 annually and 1% average over $374,000 a year. Kivel says, “The role of the NPIC is to keep our attention away from those in power and to manage and control our efforts to survive in the bottom of the pyramid.” He posits the  existence of a “buffer zone” of people at the bottom who are employed in jobs which carry out the agenda of the ruling class and keep them from having to deal with those on the bottom. Kivel urges struggling for a redistribution of wealth and power, and refusing to serve as buffer-zone agents against our communities. Throughout, Kivel poses questions to raise awareness of work, roles and opportunities for change, and he closes with a call for accountability.

Closely embracing a radical vision of social change while holding onto government funding was the accomplishment of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) in Seattle. Alisa Bierria writes that CARA found ways to represent the organization to funders by creating a dual identity and by developing solidarity with other community groups who advocated for them during critical funding campaigns. Acknowledging that there are contradictions inherent in their practice, Bierria defends it as resistance and creativity which enables continuation of a program that employs, empowers and transforms the lives of people in their communities, rather than just dealing with isolated incidents of assault.

Readers unfamiliar with the personal impact of sudden landlessness and voicelessness will find insight in the essay, “The NGOization of the Palestine Liberation Movement.” Interviewing four Middle Eastern activists who work and write in the U.S., Andrea Smith provides a history of the Palestine Liberation Movement, then asks how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have impacted it. Most Palestinians can barely find paid work except in NGOs, where donor dollars shape policy in favor of allowing Israel to control land Palestinians used to own and inhabit. International law securing the rights of refugees to return to their homeland, which was upheld in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, is being ignored in the case of Palestine. The Left movement has become stagnant there, leaving an opening for the promises of Hamas. Meetings of NGOs are closed under the excuse of concern over infiltration, which cuts off access to decision-makers and blocks dissent.

“Rethinking Non-Profits, Imagining Resistance” is the third and final part of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Four essays address ways to remain progressive despite the hegemony of the NPIC. “Radical Social Change: Searching for a New Foundation” by Adjoa Florencia Jones de Almeida declares the need to return to being accountable to constituents, not funders; to diffuse solidarity to all involved; to opt out of the state’s systems (as with the Zapatistas’ creation of their own schools in the peasant revolt in Chiapas, Mexico); and to avoid replicating the damaging, hierarchical behaviors of corporations and the state when crafting policy and practice in social change movements. Paula X. Rojas lays out in “Are the Cops in Our Heads and Hearts?” the spirit of inclusive responsibility and sharing (“entre todos, todo” – among everyone, everything) that permeates recent Latin American uprisings. Rojas warns against internalizing capitalist notions, and offers the contrasting Latin American model of diffused and consultative consensus-building achieved in the streets. She espouses compensating paid staff according to need only, and reminds organizers to avoid a patriarchal, hierarchical style in a confused drive for militancy. “Ultimately,” she holds, “political involvement that comes at the expense of our relationships with loved ones and the larger community is not truly liberatory.”

Eric Tang identifies in “Non-Profits and the Autonomous Grassroots” the ways in which social change has been derailed in organizations that have adopted a management style which is antithetical to the base. Board liability, limits on tactics due to terms of a grant, and coverage limits on an organization’s insurance are but a few examples of the funding ties that bind the hands of a movement which accepts the red tape that comes with foundation funds, posing as many challenges as it does solutions. Tang delivers a capsule history of changes wrought by the availability of funds from family foundations begun by “baby boomers with loot,” to fund antipoverty programs in the Kennedy-Johnson “Great Society” before being cut off by Reagan. The Left then tried “donning a suit and grabbing a seat at the table to win big.” Tang mentions a resulting burnout felt especially by women faced with the internal politics and sexism of self-identified revolutionary movements. Tang takes the example of Project South (described in the earlier essay, “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word”) as an organization resistant to foundation funding for its first ten years, then resistant to changing its mission or methods despite obtaining 501(c)(3) status, insistent on salary parity for all staff, and bent on publishing ideas in bold and unequivocal language which cautious nonprofits might eschew. Jerome Scott, of Project South, declared, “We made a conscious decision to keep on doing the work in the way we believe it needs to happen. If this means that we’re not following the 501(c)(3) rules, well then they can just come right over and take our status away from us.”

The final essay by Nicole Burrowes, Morgan Cousins, Paula X. Rojas and Ije Ude, “On Our Own Terms: Ten Years of Radical Community Building with Sista II Sista,” provides a summation of the book’s message in describing Sista II Sista (SIIS), the Brooklyn, N.Y. organization that combined social change with social service by providing a space in which young women of color take leadership in transforming themselves and their communities. SIIS evolved from an all-volunteer organization to an incorporated non-profit which received its first grant in 1999. They saw their constituents faced with a “braid” of oppression—racism, sexism, capitalism, ageism and more—which was complex to challenge and required creativity to cut through. They learned to offer many types of actions and activities to engage constituents in their own liberation and put into practice how communities should address violence, childcare, health care, education and other pressing issues. For ten years they accomplished community projects with the help of foundation grants, expanding their reach and their staff. After Sept. 11, 2001, however, the funding world changed. SIIS decided to stop pursuing foundation grants in favor of continuing their work against war and police brutality, which some foundations found distasteful if not downright “unfundable.” Its organizers gradually acknowledge the drain on their human resources of grant writing, administration, site visits and reports, “the rejections, the waiting, and the constant explanations of our work to people who just didn’t get it, yet greatly influenced its direction.” SIIS returned to their roots as an all-volunteer organization, operating again through grassroots fundraising and the support of those who believe in their work. Slower, smaller, still extremely busy, SIIS with its core organizers and volunteers credits this conscious return to the grassroots with the deeper satisfaction they feel once more. Leaders continue to emerge from their programs. They continue to enjoy occasional support from a few program officers with foundations, but spend fewer days on the chase for dollars and devote more time to the mission of social change.

With volunteerism being supported by the Obama administration’s agenda, and foundations’ loss of endowment value in chaotic global markets, the insights and counsel contained in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded can help a new generation of activists stay true to their missions and decide carefully before seeking funding which can undermine them.

The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

Robert W. McChesney
Monthly Review Press (2008)

Reviewed by David Weiss

This book review was originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2010 (© 2010) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.10013


“There is an opportunity before us to reinvigorate journalism and, with that, democratic governance in the United States. But we need to correctly understand the source of the problem to prescribe the solutions… [W]ithout viable journalism we not only make democracy unthinkable, we open the door to a tyranny beyond most of our imaginations. I argue herein that the political economy of media is uniquely positioned to provide the insights necessary for constructive action.”
Robert McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, 118.

Robert McChesney opens his 589-page tome by acknowledging that “whereas some readers may devour the book from beginning to end…many readers will be as likely to read only a handful of chapters, or read the chapters out of order” (8). For better or worse, and despite having separately read and taught sections of this book, I chose to read The Political Economy of Media (henceforth, TPEOM) from front to back.

Doing so revealed the book’s flaws as a collection (as I detail below), yet also its strengths—or, more accurately, the strengths of its author’s ideas, the depth of his copious research, his profound and broad knowledge of media and economic history and theory, his personal and professional devotion to education in all the best senses of that word, and his commitment to bringing the fruits of his academic labor to bear on the process of social, political, and policy change. For Robert McChesney is not merely a brilliant scholar and perhaps the foremost political economist of media of our time; he is a passionate advocate and tireless activist for media reform, embodying personally the claim he makes (repeatedly) throughout TPEOM about the study and critical analysis of political economy being inextricably linked to political and social action and reform. In McChesney’s words, “the political economy of media has always been about the task of enhancing participatory democracy; media and communication systems are a means to an end, with the end being social justice and human happiness . . . It is only in the context of people coming together to struggle for social change that depoliticization is vanquished and victory becomes plausible, even inevitable” (151, 153).

McChesney, an endowed professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also host of a weekly radio show, Media Matters; the co-founder of Free Press, a leading media-reform organization; and a fixture on the public radio and live lecture circuits, where he speaks regularly about media, journalism, and politics—and most recently, about net neutrality, an issue for which he is a tireless advocate. His writing frequently informs speeches and position papers on issues of media reform and regulation delivered by U.S. senators and representatives. Fittingly, TPEOM reflects, even exemplifies, McChesney’s approach to media political economy as a field of study that inevitablyimbricates theory and political and social action.

As McChesney explains in the introduction to TPEOM (and elsewhere, many times, in only slightly varying ways), political economy of media is

a field that endeavors to connect how media and communication systems are shaped by ownership, market structures, commercial support, technologies, labor practices, and government policies. The political economy of media then links the media and communication systems to how both economic and political systems work, and social power is exercised, in society. (12)

However, while many scholars who categorize themselves as political economists of media limit their work to merely the (critical) study of those issues, McChesney sees—and enacts—the direct connection between his scholarly specialty and direct political action. Indeed, his definition of political economy of media does not stop with theoretical concerns and questions, but, rather, only begins there:

The central question for media political economists is whether, on balance, the media system serves to promote or undermine democratic institutions and practices. Are media a force for social justice or for oligarchy? And equipped with that knowledge, what are the options for citizens to address the situation? Ultimately, the political economy of media is a critical exercise, committed to enhancing democracy.

Given this “mission statement” at the center of a discipline that, in other scholars’ hands, is purely an academic pursuit, it should be no surprise that TPEOM serves as both a virtual encyclopedia of the theory of political economy and also a call for, and practical guide to, taking direct action.

TPEOM consists of twenty-three chapters, most of which were published as either book chapters or journal articles between 1984 and 2008, usually in somewhat different form, and often as co-authored pieces with other activist-scholars in the fields of political economy, media reform, and/or journalism. As McChesney warns in his book’s preface, TPEOM “brings together what I regard as the best elements of much of my research in the political economy of media over the past two decades. It is not meant to be representative.” This non-representative “bringing together” approach captures what is both praiseworthy and problematic about TPEOM, an excessively large even if not strictly exhaustive assortment of the author’s writings between 1984 and 2008. For, despite McChesney’s grossly understated claim that he “edited out as much repetition as possible, because I tend to return to a number of familiar themes in my articles” (8), the degree of repetition—and, in too many cases, overt recycling of content—in the book is, in fact, rather mind-numbing.

Repetition notwithstanding, the quantity and importance of the topics covered in TPEOM, and the consistent, direct application of theory to practice in the coverage of those topics, is impressive. The book’s contents span articles and chapters about the current, sorry state of journalism both domestic and global; the history of the development of the broadcast media system in the United States (and its tragic hijacking by corporate interests); explorations of the inevitably insidious intertwining of corporate, political, and media power; ruminations about the role the Internet might or might not play in the democratization of media control and content; critical analyses of media reform movements around the world (and comparisons to the virtual non-existence of such movements in the U.S.); systematic deconstructions of neoliberalism and, in particular, the neoliberalist claim that the only truly “American” media system is an unregulated “free-market” system (despite the fact that, as Mc-Chesney repeatedly demonstrates, U.S. media systems have always and only been beneficiaries of government policies granting media owners not only massive subsidies but also near-monopoly licenses); and comparisons between Left/labor movements in the U.S. and abroad—among many, many other topics.

Of particular relevance to readers of Theory In Action, McChesney consistently and expressly links virtually every historical fact, theoretical explication, philosophical argument, critical analysis, and statistical data point to a call for action (including, in many cases, specific directions to follow in the process of building or revising a platform for change)— even in those sections of his book not ostensibly devoted to the cause of reform. What inevitably results, though, is a reading experience that is useful but redundant, despite McChesney’s intention to segment his volume into different areas of focus.

The first of three large sections, entitled “Journalism,” has as its stated purpose the presentation of “research that is to assist us as we attempt to establish a media system that we can rationally expect to generate the journalism we need to engage in self-government” (23). Specific topics critically addressed in the section’s five chapters include the gutting of newsroom staffs (and the inevitable result: shoddy journalism) in the pursuit of corporate profits; the “exhuming” of the century-old tradition of radical media criticism in the United States, touching on the work of everyone from Upton Sinclair to Noam Chomsky; the failure of the American press to challenge the Bush White House’s claims and rationalizations during the 2002-2003 run-up to the Iraq War; and the media policies and subsidies historically and currently in place that encourage the maintenance of the status quo. This section of the book is most successful as a cohesive, thematically unified collection of essays. Still, given the repetition of what McChesney calls his “familiar themes”—most important, the critique of contemporary journalism’s failure to serve as a “rigorous watchdog of those in power and who want to be in power,” to “ferret out truth from lies,” and to “present a wide range of informed positions on the important issues of the day” (25 and elsewhere), it is not necessary that an interested reader tackle all five of its chapters, nor that she read them in order.

“Critical Studies” is the name of section II. As this amorphous title suggests, the issues covered in this nine-chapter section are rather diverse—everything from the history of public broadcasting and a warning about the dangers of advertising and hyper-commercialism, to a detailed statistical exegesis of the “new” digital economy, a critique of the globalization of media corporations and content, and a survey of the centuries old interrelationships between the worlds of media and professional sports. It is not always clear why some Section II essays were placed where they were—or, in some cases, included in the book at all. Chapters six and seven, for example, both explore the struggle between commercial forces and educational/social reformers for control of radio in the 1920s and ‘30s; in doing so, they tackle many of the issues addressed in Section I (“Journalism”) and would have therefore been just as effective there. More problematically, the two chapters cover nearly the same ground, actually including identical sentences and some nearly identical paragraphs. (The chapters’ titles alone should have raised a red flag for McChesney’s editors: “The Battle for the U.S. Airwaves, 1928-1935” and “The Payne Fund and Radio Broadcasting, 1928-1935.”) Surely a more forceful editorial team might have succeeded in convincing McChesney to leave one of these chapters out of TPEOM—or, failing that, in merging the contents of the two into one non-redundant essay that would still “provide a tradition to draw from as we face important questions of the relationship of communication to democracy” (212). Chapter eight (“Media Made Sport: A History of Sports Coverage in the United States”), while interesting reading, might also have been omitted from TPEOM, as it—uncharacteristically for a McChesney essay—offers little or nothing in the way of recommendations for leveraging its historical content into pragmatic guidelines for reform. Still, the middle section of the book provides evidence that the pressing concerns of McChesney’s activist political economy of media reach well beyond the confines of journalism, extending into nearly all aspects of popular culture and entertainment, government policy, and First Amendment law.

The final section of the book is “Politics and Media Reform.” A reader scanning only the table of contents of TPEOM might assume that it is only (or primarily) here that she would encounter proposals for effecting meaningful change in the service of participatory democracy. But she would be wrong. Indeed, by the time the reader reaches this third section, she will have already encountered McChesney’s prescriptions for change (policy reforms to strengthen or enforce journalism education, media literacy progams, student media, the public broadcasting system, net neutrality, enforcement of antitrust laws, community broadcasting, and a host of others) and, in most cases, steps that must be taken by Left, labor, and other social change-minded factions to move these media policy issues to the center of their broader reform agendas. Still, in Section III, she will encounter a few new topics, such as a particularly insightful explanation for the dearth of debate in U.S. political culture about the legitimacy of corporate media, a fascinating account of the (sadly) anomalous 2003 citizen uprising against the Federal Communications Commission in the wake of that agency’s attempt to further loosen media ownership regulations, and a stunning criticism of the Left’s failure both to use the media effectively and to recognize media reform as central to its broader mission of social change. (“The Left can use media as an educational tool to explain the flaws in the existing social order and to present its vision of what a more democratic society would look like [and] can also use media reform as an issue that unites its disparate elements” (388)). Of course, if the reader is smarter than I was, and approaches TPEOM in a piecemeal fashion rather than reading it in its entirety from front to back, she will find in just about any Section III chapter the same useful blend of history, theory, critique, and call to action (and variations on McChesney’s favorite “familiar themes”) that can be found in just about any section I or section II chapter—again, for better or worse.

The advantage of the repetition (or, depending upon your perspective, the consistency) of the contents of TPEOM is that its facts are important, its arguments persuasive, its connections insightful, and its recommended actions appropriate and necessary—meaning that a reader who decides to peruse even just one chapter of TPEOM is more than likely to encounter something both convincing and useful, usually an essay that combines fascinating (and often surprising) historical background about the development of media systems and their intricate relationships to government and society; insights from political economic theoreticians and other critical scholars of the media, including but by no means limited to

McChesney himself; a practical rationale for being aware of said history and theory; and, finally, recommendations for specific actions that can and must be taken to raise public awareness, challenge and change current media systems, and agitate for reform of government media policies. Indeed, McChesney’s defense of his predilection to repeatedly explore past movements, struggles, defeats, and occasional victories can be applied to the project he urges into action by the publication of his own book: “Studying the structural press criticism across numerous eras [and societies] amounts to locating the indisputable common denominators of the current crisis. It is a tool for greater understanding, stronger critique, and a robust movement for that elusive goal: change” (82).

 1 David Weiss is Assistant Professor of media studies at Montana State University-Billings. His research encompasses critical approaches to mediated and other public discourse, particularly debates over identity and representation; political communication; religious rhetoric in the public sphere; and governmental/legal language. He is currently editing a book about religious discourse in Democratic Party politics and co-editing a collection of essays about the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. Address correspondence to: David Weiss; e-mail:

Becoming the Media: A Critical History of Clamor Magazine

Jen Angel
PM Press (2008)
Reviewed by Sarat Colling




Becoming the Media provides an in-depth analysis of the intersectional radical and left wing publication Clamor, which emerged with the Independent Media Centre movement after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and was a staple read for do-it-yourself revolutionaries during its seven year run. In this concisely written case study, Clamor co-founder Jen Angel shares the inner workings of the award winning, nationally distributed magazine. She offers useful suggestions and analysis for media projects, the evolving publication landscape, and the importance of understanding how media functions within social movements for social movements. 

As a form of participatory movement media, Clamor created space for social activists to reflect and served to support political and cultural writers, artists, and projects. Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma started Clamor on an iMac in their spare room, envisioning a “hip, young magazine that would speak to the Progressives and radicals…and that would attract new people to social justice work and ideas.” With roots in zine culture and an openness to publish many new and diverse voices, Clamor had a fresh and vibrant outlook. It covered a wide range of interests from environmentalism and feminism to hip-hop and punk culture.

In the pamphlet, Angel analyses the challenges and successes of running the magazine, touching on issues of diversity, decision-making, community, sustainability, finance, successfully “branding” a magazine, working groups and more.

She looks at the current state of the North American independent media movement, and discusses the need for a radical restructuring that moves towards “collaboration, shared resources, and joint publishing efforts.”  While facing challenges in a capitalist driven society, the movement must make an effort to work together and examine what voids need to be filled. One such gap is mapping the movement’s history: as Angel notes, “Many organizations and movements are poor historians.” This recording can enable lessons to be learned from past successes and mistakes. Another is the need for a new widely distributed intersectional, cultural and political magazine that functions as a space to discuss strategy and reflect on the anti-capitalist and alter-globalization movement.

Another important issue addressed is the relevance of print publication, especially magazines, in the digital age. Along with referencing, sharing and archiving, Angel identifies accessibility as a significant component of print: “Until there is free wireless everywhere and everyone has a laptop, tangible objects you can take on a bus, into the woods, and on an airplane will remain relevant.” While there are exciting new possibilities to be utilized with digital communication, print is still highly relevant. As with books, magazines will continue to play an important role in disseminating information and organizing.

With careful critical analysis of the life of Clamor, this unique pamphlet exemplifies the self examination necessary for movement growth. It provides an insiders perspective on role of media within social movements and useful tips on accomplishing successful grassroots projects. Further, it brings to light the need for continued dialogue on how independent media can grow in a capitalist society: exploring which new forms of media and collaborative efforts have a role to play in the movement for social change.

Becoming the Media is part of the PM Press Pamphlet Series. A solid contribution to independent media history, it will benefit anyone interested in movement analysis or working on a grassroots media or organizational project.