• Mechanical engineering graduate student Arvind Narayanaswamy (left) addresses the panel at the first of a series of teach-ins organized by the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in response to the terrorist attacks.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Among the panelists on Sept. 20 was Professor Henry Jenkins (above), director of the Comparative Media Studies Program.

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  • Stephen Alter, an MIT writer-in-residence, makes a point at the teach-in on "The Role of US and International Media in Times of Crisis."

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Teach-in looks at world media response to terrorist attacks

The global village is dead--long live the global village!

That was the verdict of a panel of faculty and students discussing the American and international media behavior in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and airplane crashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

The discussion, the first of a series of teach-ins, took place in Room 26-100 on Sept. 20.

The seven panelists leavened serious analysis of recent events with appreciation for the diversity of media in the Internet age. They referred often to the global village, a notion created by Marshall McLuhan to denote a world unified by access to information.

The global village itself, they noted, was an icon of the post-World War II media age, an age in which American media dominated all others. Today, media arises from a thousand such villages, with millions of citizens involved in media expression.

Using poetry, video clips, computer screens, web sites, personal narrative and the cover of The New Yorker, speakers made their collective point that while US television dominates the world news market, the presence and reach of Internet technology has offered fertile ground and growth for grassroots and alternative viewpoints.

"This is not to downplay the power of corporate media ownership and the narrowing of viewpoints caused by competition within the media to maintain profits," said Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program (CMS). The vitality and honesty of the media can and should be enriched by an active citizenry, he added.

"We should educate ourselves on the conventions of journalism. We can protest biases as we encounter them. And once major events have passed, we have an obligation to remember media behavior and continue to analyze it. We must ask, 'What kinds of media does democracy need?'" Jenkins said.

Ingrid Volkmer, a CMS visiting scholar, commented on international media operations in the past two weeks.

She noted that with 400 satellites orbiting the earth, news reaches far beyond what was imaginable in McLuhan's era of the late 1960s. "The global discourse is not yet established by CNN or any other media," she said. The initial flood of images may come via CNN, but today that's just the first phase of coverage and interpretation, she said. The next phases occur at the regional, local and personal levels.

"Regional media set a local tone very quickly, framing US images and translating them to local cultures. In Spain, the images from New York are framed by references to Basque separatists; in Britain, by references to the strength of the US-UK alliance; in France, by references to their suffering from Arab and Muslim attacks," Volkmer said.

Jing Wang, the S.C. Fang Professor of Chinese Language and Culture, commented that superpower politics still dominate interpretation of international news.

"There are Muslim independence movements in western China which the Taliban has refused to hand over. A US attack on Afghanistan wins China hegemonic presence in its west," she said. An outpouring of sympathy from the Chinese for the American people went hand in hand with awareness that the US attack would advance and express its own hegemony by attacking Afghanistan.

Commenting on American media as propaganda, Stephen Alter, writer-in-residence in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, expressed concern for the media characterization of Afghanistan as a a "no-man's land, decimated by drought and famine. This makes military attacks seem necessary. Remember, there are farms and schools and teachers and children living there," he said.

Professor Peter S. Donaldson, head of the literature section, expressed gratitude for the Internet and for literary texts. He described a "widening circle of e-mails including family and friends" who expressed concern for his son, a New Yorker.

"I was surprised. These weren't comforting or solacing. They were poems like Yeats' 'The Second Coming'--poems about apocalypse--and speeches from King Lear, a blind man talking to a man who has ruined his nation. We found these consoling," he said. He read aloud "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," a poem from The New Yorker.

Mike Best, a research scientist at the Media Lab, discussed innovations in deploying "empowering grassrooots media technology. In the spirit of MIT, the problem-solver, we can use technology in new ways."

Political and social conflicts, not negotiable by ordinary media including law or diplomacy, had yielded in some cases to a process known as 'e-peace,'" he said.

Examples of "e-peace" in progress include an Internet connection, hosted by the Media Lab, between Greek and Turkish Cypriots (there is no land line to connect them); a photo lab and library in Bangladesh as well as a program for lower-caste adolescents to use digital photography as a journalistic tool in their communities.

The teach-in began with video footage of the reflecting wall and drop posters shot last week by CMS graduate student Robin Hauck. Participants also included David Thorburn, professor of literature and director of MIT Communications Forum; Professor of Literature John Hildebidle, who read a poem by a former MIT student; and graduate student Daniel Huecker, who introduced a web site created by the CMS graduate students.

The series is sponsored by the Center for International Studies in cooperation with the Department of Political Science; Boston Review; the foreign languages and literatures section; the Program in Science, Technology and Society; CMS; the Department of Economics; and the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

All teach-ins will take place from 5-7pm in Room 26-100. Upcoming sessions include:

  • "Technology, War and Terrorism"--Monday, Oct. 1
  • "United States Policy Options"--Thursday, Oct. 4
  • "Economic Implications of the Crisis"--Thursday, Oct. 11
  • "Middle Eastern Perspectives"--Monday, Oct. 15"

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 26, 2001.

Topics: September 11


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