Friday, 2 October 2009

Ecumenical Media

On 9/30 I had the honour of attending  the annual Everett C. Parker lecture on ethics and telecommunications and awards reception, organised by the United Church of Christ, to honour the courageous pioneer of the US Media Reform Movement.

I had initially met Rev.  Dr. Parker at Fordham University a few years ago -- where he used to teach until recently. His legacy, however, goes way back. For those not familiar with the US media reform in its early days, consider this:

In 1954 Dr. Parker founded the Office of Communications of the United  Church of Christ, the main goal of which was to use media for the public good in education. However, the Office ended up playing a key role in the 1960s civil rights movement in terms of addressing the issue form the perspective of media policy making. 

Regarding unfair representation of people of colour on TV, and backed with empirical evidence, the UCC was the first organization to demand that those holding Federal Communications Commission licenses and authorizations act on behalf of the public interest. Thanks to its efforts, organizations and individual citizens were granted the legal standing to  address these issues, e.g., to participate in TV licence proceedings. 

The Parker award and lecture event was now organized 27th time (27!) The main lecturer was Rev. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A.. Listening to this engaging speaker, I was once more reminded of how useful it is to hear perspectives outside of one's own field / even comfort zone...

Rev. Kinnamon, a major figure in World Council of Churches, discussed the issue of diversity in unity, paralleling the ecumenical movement with the media. 

Recognizing that the media are not included in his field of expertise, he started with what is: he gave serious, and seriously humorous, examples of how, within current Christian ecumenical encounters, different views flourish. The problem, he argued, is no longer the lack of the expression of diversity. The recognition of marginal, formerly neglected voices and their specific contributions to the Church is becoming more and more mainstream. 

But while every fragment/movement is looking out for its right to be heard, safeguarding its position, the common language and unity may be forgotten in that process.

Let me be clear: Rev. Kinnamon did not in any way argue that the alternative, diverse voices should be silenced. He simply asked: how can these segments, groups, ideas speak with one another to realise unity in diversity?

Is that the case with the media? Is there anything in media contents that truly unifies us as communities (beyond the one formed by tweets and Facebook statuses of your 11 most active virtual friends)? And, I was thinking, is this fragmentation in some ways also reflected in today's media justice and reform movements? As Phil Napoli has argued in his excellent review of the academic literature on the movement, based on the analyses it might be a big part of the truth. 

So are we so issue-driven, segmented and specialised as audiences, prosumers, advocates, activists and/or researchers, that we lose the ecumenical ideal; the one that, in a way, is the underlying normative hope and promise of the media in support of a functioning democratic society / community.

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