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Posted by MTW at 05:00PM, Sunday, October 31st, 2004

Interview with the founder of Guerilla News Network, Stephen Marhsall, on the Democratization of Media (Part 1)

Part 1 of 3: I interviewed Stephen Marshall, founder of GNN.TV, and film director (see: The topic was "Democratization of Media," though we covered tons of materia

MW: I’m with Stephen Marshall of the Guerilla News Network. We’re at the Bioneers conference honoring the fifth year anniversary of the GNN. What can you tell us about GNN? What are its goals, its intended audience, and its intended message?

Stephen Marshall: GNN was founded out of a reaction to what we perceived as a lack of targeted media for youth. When you look at the average age of CNN, CBS, NBC, the average age is around 59 or 60, and that has been going up each year since I’ve been in the industry, which has been 10 years. So, we thought we could combine our talent in producing videos, and the MTV esthetic production, with our love of documentaries, and our belief that an informed republic is a democratic republic, so that’s what we did. In the summer of 2000, we produced our first video, which was about diamonds, called ‘Diamond Life’ with Peter Gabriel. This was the template for how we wanted to move forward. To work with mainstream artists, and to take that music video esthetic, and to marry this to information and target it at young people.

In the past five years, we’ve grown to embrace text because we couldn’t sustain the output of video to keep our audience happy. That actually harnessed and built a community, which became the core of our site. We came to find that these people were producing good content in the forums. You have to imagine that there are around 8,000-9,000 people who comprise the core community of GNN. There are about 30,000-40,000 people visiting our site each day, but of those, only certain individuals are composing content. This content was excellent, but it was in the back-end of our site. We really wanted to bring this to the front and built a communitarian journalistic enterprise, and this is really what the new GNN is about. We launched this about 8 months ago, and its about bringing young people into the site, giving them a voice to communicate through blogs, and providing them a means to ‘vote up’ to the front of the site, their own sort of media, the form of media they believe is most important.

MW: A form of meritocracy?

SM: Exactly a meritocracy, and that’s a great word. The idea is that people vote on issues they find online. People will vote on issues and headlines. The more headlines that are voted up, the more power you have in the meritocracy, so it builds that way. This extends to articles, to videos, and to investigations, which is a citizen muckraking enterprise.

MW: Stephen, you’ve been very harsh in your book “True Lies” on the left-wing independent media. You described the left wing media as “bland,” “conservative” and “DIY.” You write that you don’t believe they’ve captured the esthetic that the newer generation was raised on. Can you comment on this?

SM: Sure. There is a long standing complaint, which also serves as a justification, for the inability of the left-wing and progressive media to attract a wide audience. That complaint is that they’re marginalized and compartmentalized by the mainstream media monoliths owned by large corporations who are ideologically opposed to their messages. I believe there is a great deal of validity to that. At the same time, those offerings from progressive media really consist of a handy-cam of Noam Chomsky talking about the same things he’s been talking about for fifty years. And I think that’s a self marginalizing element. So, when we criticized the sites, this is what we had in mind. For example, even Amy Goodman, who is one of the most important journalists today – and no one questions this – yet, her television is woefully lacking the same type of spectacular elements that are in Fox. Now, some people would say ‘we’re more about content than those elements.’ I would say, let’s get serious. We’re in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people and for whatever reason it is, advertising and mainstream media use these spectacular elements to draw in their audience. We have to compete with them. We can no longer just complain about not being allowed. And, we can’t just serve our own audiences by spewing out the same old conventional wisdom. We need to attract those who don’t believe what we believe, and that’s what we try to do with our work.

MW: So, to create a spectacle, on par with Fox News, to help to spread a message that is different, that is alternative to Fox?

SM: Yes, but I don’t always buy into the dualism. George Bush has his dualism “its us vs. them.” And our establishment on the left has the same. I want to get away from this entirely.

MW: What alternative do you propose? What message do you seek to disseminate?

SM: It’s a message that questions power. That questions anyone who seeks power. And, anyone who stands in front of us and says “this is the truth,” and “this is the way.” This to me is the primary avenue of achieving an enterprise that is focused on social justice. Social justice is about ending hierarchies. Wherever a hierarchical franchise is being offered to the world, or to the public, this is what we want to question. This isn’t about left or right. So, we have the spectacle on one side, but we also have the offering of messages that can embrace the complexity. My next ten years of work will be about how to bring young radicals into embracing the complexity, to move beyond polarization. This will be complicated work.
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