At the Sundance Film Festival’s Moving the Masses panel, which considered how the media can best be utilized for progressive change, Naomi Wolf had a message for her fellow activists: Ur Doing It Wrong.
Despite the headlines generated by her Occupy Wall Street arrest, Wolf was arguably the panelist with the least amount of hardcore on-the-ground activist experience: Omar Shargawi directed the documentary “1/2 Revolution,” which looks at the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, while Lois Gibbs was a Love Canal environmental activist featured in the environmental doc “A Fierce Green Fire” and AIDS activist Peter Staley is a signficant voice in “How to Survive a Plague.”
But Wolf, who is the bestselling author of “The Beauty Myth” and “Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries,” was the panel’s agent provacateur (a phrase whose plural form Wolf took the time to pretentiously mispronounce in French).
Shargawi, Gibbs and Staley were activists with no prior experience as spokespeople, called to action by their immediate surroundings and situations. But, as much as it pained her, Wolf was compelled to tell her panelists the truth: They need to spend less time in the streets and more time on CNN.
“I’m sorry to have to play this role,” said Wolf as she scolded the Occupy movement for not harnessing the mainstream media as well as they could have.
Her position made for a lively if not occasionally awkward panel. It was hard to count how many times Wolf began a statement with a variation of “I think I’m being misunderstood.”
All of the activists had hands-on experience with the media through their actions. Said Shargawi, “We were working on another project, and we put everything on hold [when the uprisings in Tahrir Square happened] to document it.”
Gibbs and her community held two EPA representatives hostage in an event covered widely by the media: “We gave the President of the United States an ultimatum. They had until Wednesday at noon to relocate us all. And at Wednesday at noon, they called up and agreed… They didn’t do it because we were sick; they did it because it was politically advantageous.”
Staley and ACT UP took on a government bureaucracy, the FDA: “That action led all three national news programs that night… It was the first time a patient group had demanded attention and demanded to be a part of the process.”
But it was Wolf’s contention that those achievements weren’t good enough: activists need to frame the media conversation.
“Filmmaking and journalism haven’t caught up with what is the new reality: Everyone in the world has to learn how to report things,” she said. “Be a publicist, documentarian. It’s not rocket science. If you’re going to be in the media stream, reporters and editors need certain things.
“I remember trying to get some media attention for Occupy and no one would be a spokesperson. I don’t care if you have a million spokespeople. [The other side] has their think tanks; they have their op-eds that are streaming into their news editors faxes and emails. Get your spokespeople, and train them.
“There’s this disdain for media communications. You learn how to speak in soundbites, not to generalize.” She cited the ACT UP slogan “Silence = Death” as an effective soundbite.
Wolf did not mention citizen journalist organizations like Indymedia or New Left Media; nor did she mention things like CNN’s iReport. She did plug her new venture Daily Cloudt (now in beta and on Twitter), though.
Making a direct connection to the media artifacts that brought the other three panelists to Park City, Wolf said, “Documentaries have to be a part of the news media rather than a part of the film industry, to show up and stand there with their message.”
If Wolf was arguing for a more professional amateur activist, she did not completely have the other two American panelists on board.
In what seemed to be a response to Wolf’s hardline stance, Staley explained the machinations of ACT UP: “There were members of the women’s movement and the early gay rights movements. It was interesting; those who came with attitude of experience, I can assure you, people [with no prior experience] like me were like, ‘Fuck you!’ Training for moderating a demonstration was incredibly helpful. But professionalism is not what you need to build a movement; energy is what builds a movement.”
To a certain extent, Gibbs agreed with Wolf, but she qualified herself: “I think the outside [of the mainstream media] work should definitely continue. To be crass about it, play to the media. Put a new angle or a new twist on it. It’s a really hard problem; you can’t always do the same thing… If you churn out 500 people, the journalists will come. I don’t think you need a press release.”
Perhaps all Wolf needs is a better way of presenting her message; much of the audience seemed to agree with one of her last points: “People should be as radical and outspoken in their message as they can be… I’m not saying don’t do the small radical things, but be bilingual. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a bestseller of her day [“Vindication of the Rights of Women”]… You didn’t need a college degree to read Thomas Payne’s “Common Sense”… There’s nothing tacky about going mainstream. I’m saying be really radical… be in the belly of the beast.”