Members of the alternative media are desperate to be heard, but how eager are they to listen?

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Bill O'Reilly recently focused his ire on Minneapolis, where more than 3,000 people gathered last weekend for the National Conference for Media Reform, a group the Fox News personality called "real nuts."

Real angry is more like it.

The convention, which drew such luminaries as Arianna Huffington, Dan Rather and Phil Donahue, should have been an exchange of thoughts on how to upgrade journalism in all shapes and sizes. And while those conversations did occur, they were too often drowned out by voices dead set on overturning Rupert Murdoch, George Bush and anyone else who wears a suit to work.

While the event was sponsored by Free Press, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as nonpartisan, it was clear where most attendees' passion and politics lay. Panelists railed about stolen elections, called for the president's impeachment and poked fun at Sen. John McCain.

Many also ripped out a few pages of O'Reilly's playbook by taking molehill moments and turning them into the Andes. Before Rep. Keith Ellison's rousing keynote speech, the crowd was told they were going to see an example of how the mainstream press doesn't play fair. Then CNN talk-show host Glenn Beck was shown asking Ellison, a Muslim, to "prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."

"We cannot be informed if all we have to listen to is that guy," said Ellison in his speech, triggering a mighty round of applause. Uh, gang, seems to me that there are plenty of choices out there beyond CNN Headline News. Beck's interview was not the media's finest minute, to be sure, but it was also an anomaly.

I guess common sense takes a back seat when you're really upset. At no time was that more apparent than when dealing with the subject of the Iraq War. Speaker after speaker was eager to paint the mainstream media as early cheerleaders of the Bush plan and now third-string players who insist on riding the bench instead of exposing everything going wrong in Iraq.

In a heated exchange about the war with an "O'Reilly Factor" producer after a book signing at the conference, Bill Moyers said, "Everybody at Fox follows out Rupert Murdoch's instructions."

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, a Louisiana community activist who co-created the 2004 "Vote or Die" campaign, looked into a Fox News camera during a panel on the war and said that "mainstream media is complicit in the process of the war, complicit in the death of 1 million Iraqis, complicit in the people who are divorcing and leaving their wives, complicit in this madness."

"Corporate media is not a watchdog. It's a lapdog begging for scraps," said Free Press executive director Josh Silver, who pointed out that TV news operations used retired military officers as commentators for war coverage - many of them coached by the administration, it turns out. What Silver didn't point out is that revelation came from a mainstream powerhouse called the New York Times.

That nobody from the Times was on hand to point that out was disappointing. In fact, I had a hard time finding representatives of the mainstream media on any of the conference panels, with the exception of Eric Deggans, TV critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times; Ryan Blethen, a member of the family that owns the Seattle Times, and Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman, who got a last-minute invitation after he wrote a scathing letter to organizers about the lack of newspaper folks on a panel about - you guessed it - the future of newspapers.

The conference could have benefitted by having more guests from the "established" press, folks such as CNN international correspondent Arwa Damon, with whom I spoke by phone last week. She could have told them how frustrating it is to see ratings that prove viewers' interest in the Iraqi War has greatly diminished. She could have told them how difficult it is to cover a story where danger lurks around every corner. She could have told them that, during her five years in Baghdad, her bosses have never instructed her on how to cover a story. Most important, she could have told them about her own efforts to share human stories about Iraq, and given loads of examples of when she's succeeded.

There's no question that the mainstream press can learn a lot from those in the alternative media, but they could also learn a lot from us. An open, balanced, civil exchange between the two approaches would have made for an eye-opening, constructive weekend. Instead, too many attendees were disinterested in hearing from the other side.

In that way, those folks and O'Reilly have something in common.

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