War of words: virtual media versus mainstream press

WTO provides a glimpse into the future of media coverage - information la carte.

By

Deep Dish Television. RealNetworks. Free Speech TV. Paper Tiger. Just to name four.

When network television comes to mind, these names don't. You certainly won't find them in TV Guide. But do not feel ill-informed; a Nielsen rating they have never had.

Yet by the end of this week, as people across the planet watch the World Trade Organization try to sidestep the masses protesting its auspices, these tiny news organizations and others like them may have made more actual history than the free-trade ministers, or even the Seattle police.

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They are part of the new virtual media and, without the help of the mainstream media - ABC, NBC, Reuters, Associated Press - they are sending hundreds of accounts from the riotous streets and orderly seminars to thousands tuning in around the globe.

If the mainstream media are like elephants, then these eclectic independents are like mosquitoes, buzzing their messages through cracks and virtual crannies too small and insignificant for CBS or The New York Times.

Unlike the mainstream press corps, they make no claims of being neutral or objective. They are part-activist, part-journalist, and say their coverage will not only help balance what they see as biased coverage by the corporate media, but also serve as a role model for a kind of democratic reporting made possible by new and emerging technologies.

It's their presence en masse, at what is being called the "Protest of the Century," that many say is historic - a prototype for the vast democratic media of the future.

"It opens up all kinds of avenues to people," says Eileen Quigley, director of Real Impact, a local company that specializes in streaming technology. "You're no longer just restricted to what gets fed to you on the evening news. Individuals are able to access content on their own."

Streaming sting Ms. Quigley supervises two video crews: one following the street protests, the other covering the daily press conferences. Yet it isn't the video that is revolutionary; it's the streaming that gives the mosquito media their sting.

Ordinarily, to get information off of the Web, you must download a file. Depending on the speed of your modem, this can take minutes or even hours.

However, streaming makes it possible for your computer to take in the digital information and show it on-screen at the same time. It could make the evening news obsolete. Why wait till 6 o'clock? At this very moment, you can go to www.wtowatch.org and review the week's anti-WTO press conferences, Tuesday's debate between Ralph Nader and Jagdish Bhagwati, or footage of demonstrators squaring off with police.

"We just let the camera run," Quigley says. "It's unedited. Some critics may not think that's particularly good, but we just want people to be able to see what really happened."

Inside the downtown war zone and shrouded in tear gas is the Independent Media Center (IMC). More than 400 reporters and producers are officially registered and covering the WTO conflict.

Since Labor Day a cadre of Seattle activists has worked to create the IMC in the Glen Hotel. Now the place is filled with computers, telephones, special transmission lines, and state-of-the-art streaming technologies.

"The streaming was donated by encoding.com, a Seattle Internet company," says Dan Merkle, a local attorney who put his practice on hold to help create the IMC. "In fact, they were an integral part of the overall strategy."

Ironically, encoding.com, as well as RealNetworks and its subsidiaries, are part of local high-technology and software industries leading America's charge toward the kinds of free trade so despised by the protesters.

RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser made his millions while at Microsoft, which only increases the irony because Microsoft, and Boeing, are the leading local proponents of the WTO agenda.

Video wizards Such generosity, combined with the sweat equity of many others, makes it possible for these activist-reporters to create their stories and file them for use around the world. An IMC Web site broadcasts a live audio stream, downloadable video text and photo files, and much more.

Indeed, a large house north of downtown has been turned into an editing suite. Video wizards have installed an AVID digital-editing system and each day turn footage into 30-minute and 60-minute programs. These are then shuttled to the IMC and streamed to satellites that feed everything from public and cable-TV stations to your home computer. You can access the IMC Web site now at www.indymedia.org.

"From the standpoint of all these independent media, the WTO couldn't have picked a worse place to hold their meeting," chuckles Bob Siegel, another local who spent weeks preparing for this event. "I mean, it's Seattle - we've got all the techies you'd ever want and all these companies specializing in everything they need to stream these stories all over the world.

"It's perfect that the WTO came here. Perfect."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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