When Corporate Media Fail, Independent Media Rise Up

Click here to read the article on ZNet.

Corporate media outlets have often furthered racist narratives, and do so even today. In contrast, independent media outlets have centered racial justice, offering platforms to marginalized communities.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Right-wing media outlets such as Fox News have long pushed racist narratives to further their goals. And, outlets like the New York Times—the so-called “liberal media”—do too little, too late, to push back; it falls to the ranks of independent media outlets to create and promote counternarratives based on racial justice.

This is not a new phenomenon. Pacifica Radio, where I spent nearly two decades as a radio programmer, houses in its archive a rich library of recordings of civil rights leaders who are considered iconic heroes today, but who, during their lifetimes, were generally ignored or even vilified by the establishment press.

From talks by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to James Baldwin and Angela Davis, and almost everyone in between, Pacifica Radio’s journalists painstakingly recorded speeches and interviews featuring movement leaders and activists of color considered too controversial for the white-dominated press. Meanwhile, their mainstream counterparts only found the courage to do the same decades later, after society had concluded that the Black Freedom movement was on the right side of history.

That trend continues today.

Believing Black Accounts of Injustice

On December 22, 2014, I invited Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, for an interview on my live morning drive-time radio show on 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles (also televised on Free Speech TV). Together with her colleagues Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, Cullors had helped to coin and popularize the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” in summer 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Cullors, now a best-selling author and a sought-after speaker, at that time was not as well known to corporate media outlets and was rarely offered a platform to discuss ideas that corporate media outlets felt uncomfortable tackling.

She told me the origin story of the simple, but powerful phrase “Black Lives Matter” in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal:

“I just lost it, I was crying and disturbed. We have all this evidence that this young man was hunted by George Zimmerman, and yet George Zimmerman still gets off the hook. So, what do our lives mean?… For me, it was this intense amount of grief that came over me. But I’m also an organizer, and so I quickly moved my grief into action, and I just started going on social media and started writing [to] Black people and saying that I love them and checking on other Black people.

“Myself and Alicia Garza got into a Facebook conversation and she said this thing—to Black folks in particular who were saying, ‘We should have known better, of course they were gonna treat us this way’—she started saying to folks, ‘You know, I’m always going to be surprised. I’m never going to let them numb me from saying that our lives don’t matter.’ And she said, ‘Our lives matter, Black lives matter.’

“And then under the Facebook thread, I hashtagged ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And so, from there, literally in that moment, it was like a light bulb for so many Black people, and on social media at that point. And I started tagging Black folks saying, ‘Your life matters, Black Lives Matter.’ I started tagging all my Black friends. I got on the phone with [Alicia] that night. We said we wanted this to be a project. And so, a couple of days later on July 15, riKu Matsuda from ‘Flip the Script’ here [on KPFK] called me up to be on the show and I was going to talk about Black Lives Matter. It happened very organically.”

When I asked her if there was a link between the police killings of Black people and the history of Black people being lynched in America, Cullors said, “I think Black Lives Matter [activists]… are making those connections. And I think mainstream media is not talking about this.”

Although most news media in 2020 temporarily and superficially embraced the idea behind Black Lives Matter—the simple notion that Black people are human—they largely ignored it for the first seven years. Luckily, in the meantime Cullors had a platform to speak about her crucial work: the independent press.

‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’

Cullors had brought with her to the 2014 interview a young woman named Jasmine Richards who had become newly politicized that summer when a white police officer named Darren Wilson killed a young Black teenager named Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Richards went on to lead a chapter of Black Lives Matter in Pasadena, California, where I live.

In what was one of her first live interviews, Richards made an astute observation about why protesters had engaged in property damage during the racial justice uprisings in Ferguson: “They weren’t looting and messing up things to take them. They were burning things and messing things up so people could pay attention, so CNN could pay attention, ’cause that’s the only way a Black life would matter, is if you mess up some stuff and go crazy… What you see on TV is not really what it is.”

The idea that “if it bleeds, it leads” has long been a corporate media mantra, one that activists have taken note of. But independent journalists have generally refused to succumb to such pressures. Freed from the yoke of ratings and market valuations, independent journalists were able to explore and embrace the idea behind “Black Lives Matter” years before the corporate media caught on.

Similarly, independent media did not need to see videotaped proof of racist police brutality to understand that it was a systemic problem. In the era before smartphones, police claims (“he reached for his gun!”) countered those of Black survivors, and corporate media readily accepted law enforcement’s word. But independent media outlets, understanding the power dynamic between police and their victims, did not require proof of Black people’s word. If Black folks said they experienced racist police brutality, that was reason enough to investigate and report.

Although there are exceptions, the narratives at work in independent media spaces have generally questioned authority and been mindful of Black people’s humanity and truthfulness, whereas corporate media outlets have tended to reproduce an internalized narrative that police—and all other authorities—are almost always right.

Connecting the Dots to Build Racial Justice Narratives

Reluctant to connect dots and identify patterns in the public interest, corporate media outlets have often presented stories as if they are isolated incidents unconnected from one another. Malkia Devich-Cyril, founding director of MediaJustice, noted, “In stories about people of color, about Black people, in particular, the [media] coverage ends up being episodic versus thematic. History and context are lost in these stories.” For consumers of this type of programming, the political landscape can appear bewildering and overwhelming, best left to the “experts” to make sense of.

But context matters, especially in the case of Black Lives Matter. When presented in isolation, the phrase can appear jarring to those who enjoy white racial privilege. It can suggest that Black people are asserting their sovereign right to live in a way that’s confrontational to notions of racial hierarchy. It should not have surprised us, then, that the defensive rejoinders of “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” emerged soon after #BlackLivesMatter was formulated.

When contextualized within the historical arc of racial violence facing Black America—tracing back to the barbarity of enslavement, the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, the systemic and institutional racist structures that persist—the meaning behind the phrase “Black Lives Matter” becomes crystal clear. Black Americans are demanding that the nation start valuing their lives, history, and rights, for it simply hasn’t done so.

It is common practice within independent media to invoke history, to link seemingly disparate phenomena via common threads, to see the patterns that emerge, and to be unafraid to craft narratives with long historical arcs. This is one aspect of what sets us apart from corporate media. And it is what helps readers and viewers of such media to make better sense of the world and its injustices.

In contrast, by reporting isolated stories with little background or historical framing, corporate media outlets rely on the internalized racist narratives promoted by right-wing media outlets to fill in the blanks for readers and viewers.

Click here to read the article on ZNet.

This excerpt is adapted from chapter two of Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice by Sonali Kolhatkar. Copyright © 2023 by Sonali Kolhatkar. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books. www.citylights.com. It was produced for the web by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How Corporate Food Monopolies Caused the Baby Formula Scandal

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on Struggle-La Lucha.

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The fact that a handful of companies produce the majority of our food means that small disruptions will have big impacts. This time the impacts are borne by American babies.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

It’s a tough time to be the parent of a newborn in the United States today. Not only is child care prohibitively expensive, but the cost of all things including baby products is rising, COVID-19 poses a threat to children too young to be vaccinated—and there has been a months-long shortage of baby formula.

The formula scarcity began when the COVID-19 pandemic led to a disruption of ingredient supply chains and transportation delays. Then, this past February, the Food and Drug Administration found that several leading brands produced by Abbott Laboratories were contaminated with dangerous bacteria leading to a recall and a temporary closure of Abbott’s main Michigan factory where government inspectors found “shocking” conditions. Then, just as the Michigan plant reopened, torrential flooding forced it to shut down again.

There is nothing more important to a parent than providing for their child, especially during the most vulnerable, early years of their child’s life. As a mother who was unable to breastfeed when my children were newborns, I relied on formula and remember once having to drive quite far to a store in a neighboring town because my local store was out of the brand I relied on and that my child was used to. It was a stressful experience, one that is a mild example of what millions of parents are feeling right now as they face store shelves emptied of formula.

The shortage has driven prices up—yay, capitalism! For a variety of systemic reasons that include economics, geography, and health, Black and Latino parents are disproportionately more likely to rely on formula feeding. To add to that, low-income parents of color are also disproportionately impacted by the formula shortage, as they may live in food deserts with fewer options for formula, and they may be unable to drive long distances to search other stores or pay premium prices for online shipping.

There is a simple reason why such a shortage has transpired: global capitalism and the food monopolies it has fostered.

Read more at Struggle-La Lucha.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

How a Group of Starbucks Workers Emerged Victorious in Their Union Fight

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on Pressenza.

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It is hugely significant that even one café out of thousands in the iconic Starbucks coffee chain has beaten back the company’s union-busting tactics to choose collective power in the workplace.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

The iconic American coffee chain, Starbucks, employs hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 9,000 cafés nationwide. And yet, the news that a handful of Starbucks employees at one café in Buffalo, New York, recently voted to join Workers United—an affiliate of SEIU—made headlines nationally. The New York Times called it a “big symbolic win for labor,” while the Washington Post hailed it as a “watershed union vote.” Social media feeds were replete with joyous posts celebrating the vote. The café, located on Elmwood Avenue, was the only one out of three union-voting Starbucks locations in Buffalo that successfully chose to unionize.

“It is significant,” says Cedric de Leon of the Starbucks union vote. De Leon is the director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is an associate professor of sociology, and he is the author of several books about labor organizing in the U.S. “The employer knows it and the workers know that establishing a beachhead in one of the largest corporations, and really an iconic brand in the U.S. hospitality market, is a major accomplishment.”

Ahead of ballots being cast, Starbucks tried to delay the vote and even stacked the Buffalo cafés with new staff to try to dilute “yes” votes. It flew in external managers to closely watch workers in what was seen as brazen intimidation. The company, which has long resisted union activity, brought its former Chief Executive Howard Schultz to Buffalo to discourage workers from unionizing, even shutting down its cafés during his Saturday visit so they could attend what was essentially a captive-audience address.

Given that Starbucks would go to such lengths to stop just a handful of stores from joining a union, it’s no surprise that it took 50 years after its founding for a single café to unionize. And it’s no wonder that commentators are shocked by what is a potentially groundbreaking event.

During his address, Schultz, who remains Starbucks’ largest shareholder, reportedly spoke of the company’s health insurance benefits and tuition assistance as reasons why a union was unnecessary. Believing he knows what is best for workers, Schultz had written in his first memoir, “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

Yet there is evidence that Starbucks workers could indeed use the collective bargaining power that a union confers. A study by Unite Here of thousands of Starbucks employees working at airport locations found a racial pay gap with Black workers earning $1.85 less per hour than their white counterparts. Nearly one in five of those workers reported not having enough money to purchase food.

Read more at Pressenza.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

In America, Business Profits Come First Over the Pandemic

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on Newsclick.

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Blaming the deadly virus surge on individuals and their risky behavior ignores that the real fault lies with a government that chooses to prioritize the health of businesses over that of humans.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

January 10, 2021

Los Angeles, California, is now considered one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the nation. LA mayor Eric Garcetti assessed grimly that there is one new infection every six seconds and a death every 10 minutes from the virus. Hospitals are turning away ambulances, and health facilities in LA County are quite literally running out of oxygen. But last spring, as the pandemic was first declared, the city was an early adopter of mandated mask wearing and benefitted from California enacting the first statewide shelter-in-place order that helped curb the worst spread of the virus. So, what happened?

There is a possibility that the deadly surge in cases may be a result of a new, more transmissible strain of the virus circulating in the area. But more likely the spread is the result of the message that authorities are sending of a premature return to normalcy. As social media platforms are filled with angry Angelenos blaming and shaming one another for brazenly vacationing and flouting social distancing guidelines, in truth, the burst of infections is the price that officials are willing to pay for ensuring that corporate profits are protected.

California’s latest shelter-in-place order is quite different from its first one. Whereas in March 2020 the state ordered all non-essential businesses to remain closed, in early December, at the peak of the holiday shopping season, all retail stores were allowed to remain open, even as outdoor parks were closed. So outraged were Californians by the obvious double standards that state officials caved and reopened parks—instead of shutting down retail stores.

Predictably, infections at malls soared as shoppers, eager to salvage Christmas, rubbed elbows with one another in their rush to fulfill holiday wishes. After all, authorities had okayed such actions, so they must be safe, right? Rather than enact strict rules to prevent such congregating, some Californians rightfully terrified of the disease simply blamed the shoppers. Even LA County health services director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season… then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across LA County. Though they may seem benign, these actions are extremely high-risk.” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said to Angelenos, “stay home,” but has refused to consider shutting down non-essential businesses.

In other words, officials kept retail stores open but then chastised residents for shopping. There are two ways to interpret the muddled messaging. If authorities are allowing all businesses to remain open, surely it must be safe to frequent them. Or, authorities are being driven by financial stakes, not public health, so surely it is not possible to trust them.

Read the rest at Newsclick.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.

Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer, (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr