This Television Will Be Revolutionised: the media and civil society

It’s a commonplace that as the ownership of North American news media has become more concentrated, the public is receiving less diverse news and views, and that a topic that threatens the status quo-be it a protest march or the damning results of some environmental study-receives scant attention, buried among apologias for big business. This Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a recent documentary about a coup in Venezuela, points out how bad a media oligarchy can become-and at the same time, gives hope to those who pursue changes the media does not endorse.

For people who are trying to create change, the major media often feels like a brick wall against which they hurl themselves, trying to reach a broader public, to raise consciousness, to get people to engage in an issue.

We at Dogwood Initiative, with our vision of fostering a true civil society, often feel frustrated by the amount of media attention paid to land reform issues.

So when I recently saw the movie This Revolution Will Not Be Televised, I left the theatre feeling rather galvanized.

The film started out as a documentary about Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, a man popular with the majority of the public but unpopular with the country’s economic elite who control not only the country’s industry, but all of its six private television networks. It soon became a fascinating chronicle of how those networks became tools of a military coup, and how public support for Chavez was, in the end, able to overcome even the mighty media.

After about two years of steady vilification of Chavez on those six private channels (against which stood only the state-run television network, on which Chavez appeared regularly, giving speeches, and taking calls from the public in a sort of cross-country check-up, sans Rex Murphy), Venezuela’s elite opposition made its move.

On on April 11, 2002, certain industrial and military leaders produced a riot at the state palace (complete with their own snipers to start violence), broadcasting manipulated film of that riot that portrayed Chavez’s supporters as the violent ones, and paving the way for a military coup, in which the first victim was the state television station.

The movie has some stunning moments. Watching the leaders of the coup hold a press conference, in which, to their own applause, they repeatedly emphasized the “profoundly democratic” process of transition from Chavez’s government to theirs.

Keen on specifics, they went on to announce some of the profoundly democratic changes, which included the abolition of the democratically elected legislature, the abolition of the Supreme Court, and the shutdown of the state television network.

A more extraordinary scene followed. While the innocent little film crew followed events throughout the coup from within the palace, members of the public, the not-so-comfortable working and middle class people who saw Chavez as someone with their interests at heart, gathered around the palace to demand his return.

As their numbers grew, the palace guards, always supportive of Chavez, arrested the new government, and laid the foundation for a popular uprising within the ranks of the military, opposing the small number of generals who had used their positions of power to support the coup.

A, you might say, profoundly democratic moment.

And one that happened in spite of a steady stream of carefully crafted television propaganda supporting the new regime.

The last third of the movie felt truly inspirational. In response to the seemingly complete coup, instantly supported by the United States (in announcements from the White House and, one can’t help but believe, by more direct means) and bolstered by local media coverage, the pubic rose up, knowing this was wrong, believing the private media must be lying to them, and demanded the return of democracy.

The film upturned the cynical sense of resignation that sometimes steals over me, making me pessimistic about Dogwood Initiative’s vision of a true civil society. It’s one to seek out in repertory theatres, on video, or, yes, on television.

A footnote: while our news media continue to bury stories they don’t like, and promote those they do, and to control their editorial content, the news isn’t as bad as it was (and, on six of seven television channels, still is) in Venezuela.

There are still a range of views appearing in our papers, and there are scraps of genuine investigative journalism left. In Canada, the CanWest Global chain of papers, which in cities like Vancouver owns all the major dailies, no longer controls editorial content as dogmatically, and centrally, as it did while Izzy Asper was in charge.

Indeed, this chain of papers is showing signs of incorporating more liberal views, realising the neo-conservative tone of the papers is alienating a large segment of the public. (Rumours are growing that some of the CanWest papers, such as the Vancouver Province, are going to take a marked turn to the left of the political spectrum.)

And, as a final note: the uprising in Venezuela was aided by news coverage from international media, which got into Venezuela through cable and satellite reception. The lies of the new government were partly exposed. So things haven’t gotten as bad in most places as they were in Venezuela.

Those of us who want real news will, however, have to continue to search for it, to seek answers the media continue to be reluctant to give, and to strive for that dream of a civil society.

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