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Common Wonders

Be the Media

Camera, lights, mike-in-the-face. Hey Bill Moyers, what are you doing at a left-wing, partisan media conference?

That was how Fox News producer Porter Barry tried to ambush television's most venerable voice of sanity this past weekend, after Moyers spoke eloquently -- "Journalism can only exist in a vibrant, democratic culture" -- at the fourth annual National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis.

But Moyers would have none of it. By standing his ground, reframing the "gotcha" idiocy of the encounter (a bully-boy, "say yes or we'll crucify you" summons to appear on Bill O'Reilly's show) and turning it into a dialogue for which Barry was unprepared, he managed to shove the ambush oh so figuratively back down Barry's throat. What goes around comes around, guys. As the producer retreated, he himself was filmed and peppered with questions by a reporter for the American News Project.

Be the media! This was a real-time demo of the core imperative of the four-day conference: that it's up to us to turn things around. The flailing and desperate corporate media have prostrated themselves ever more irredeemably before the altar of organized money and, in their compromised allegiance, purvey not actual "news" any longer but a simplistic military-industrial patriotism to a country sick of war and hungry for truth. They're not going to change; they're just going to keep staggering, so it seems, toward total irrelevance.

The serendipitous poke in the eye to Fox News notwithstanding, the message of the conference was not part of the zero-sum paradigm of left vs. right and Whose Ideology Is Better? What's at stake -- i.e., human survival -- is far bigger than that.

And perhaps no presentation at the conference demonstrated this with more urgency than the screening of "Body of War," a documentary by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue that, in its unblinking honesty, scrapes the platitudes away from "the most sanitized war ever," as Donahue put it.

Allard, yea. Allen, yea. Baucus, yea . . .

The film, which portrays the day-to-day struggle of Iraq war vet Thomas Young, who became paralyzed from the chest down after he took a bullet above the collarbone in Sadr City in 2004, begins filling in what I call the hole, or responsibility void, at the center of the Iraq war and every war.

It begins with the slow intonation of the Oct. 11, 2002 vote that authorized the use of military force against Iraq: Bayh, yea. Bennett, yea. Biden, yea. This vote, indeed, serves as the backdrop, the canvas, on which the film unfolds. We cut away from the names and suddenly here's Thomas Young in his wheelchair, sitting at his computer, typing a letter to a paraplegic Q&A Web site. He's getting married. He wants to know how to avoid having an accidental bowel movement when he's in his tux.


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Brownback, yea. Bunning, yea. Burns, yea.

"The vet's choice," says Young, who has become an anti-war activist, "is to tell the truth and be called a traitor or internalize and self-destruct."

The thought could have served as a catchphrase for the whole conference, sponsored by the organization Free Press (, which 3,500 people attended this year. What I felt not only during but between the breakout sessions was an intense concentration of . . . intelligent passion, you might say -- creative determination not to self-destruct and not to let this country self-destruct. This may be what a movement feels like, or what the future feels like.

"Every day that Cheney and Bush do not bomb Iran . . . is because of that greater force -- all of us working together," said Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.

While there was plenty of urgent anger at the failings of the corporate media, and plenty of incisive analysis of the government-friendly propaganda they push and call news, what I felt was not despair but an extraordinary sense of purpose. Upheaval is in the air. Maybe it's partly because of what has happened this year in the Democratic primaries.

On Saturday, as the conference was in full flower, Hillary Clinton conceded to Barack Obama. "What happened today is that someone paid a price at last for supporting the Iraq war," said author Naomi Klein.

Carper, yea. Cleland, yea. Clinton, yea. . . . Lott, yea. Lugar, yea. McCain, yea.

The accountability is just beginning. But, as Klein noted, weapons companies have given more money to Democrats than Republicans this year. The old system, even with a President Obama at the helm, is geared to perpetuate inequality and generate conflict. A new media is forming, on the Internet and in our hearts, that will be beholden not to the interests of oil and war but to a just, sustainable future.

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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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