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They didn't like the news, so they made their own

Sunday, March 30, 2003

The guy who wants to put me out of business is a skinny 19-year-old with short hair, Nana Mouskouri eyeglasses and a legion of correspondents who write when they feel the spirit and make bail.

Few readers in Pittsburgh yet know about the Independent Media Center. By all business models it would seem destined to sink into the abyss of so many other dot-com enterprises, but for the fact that it is a dot-org. Not only is it not supposed to make a profit, one suspects that if it somehow did so, Mulkerin and his colleagues would retire to a monastery and do penance until the sun expired.

"We're not goin' dot-com anytime soon," Mulkerin said, sipping an iced chai at a sidewalk coffee bar in Oakland. Forget dot-com. They don't even bother with a "www" in the front of the address. It's simply "pittsburgh.indymedia.org." Mulkerin's correspondents are, for the most part, activists on the left who gather up their stories, log into Indymedia, and post them.

It is a news site edited by consensus and read by its own community. If that sounds insular, keep in mind that American newspapers began essentially as party and factional organs. Why else do papers have names such as "Tribune-Democrat," or "The Waterbury Republican"?

When the era of cyberspace arrived a decade ago, media corporations spent millions to stake out prime turf online. They soon discovered there is no manifest way to make money out of an Internet that is, by definition, an exercise in free and instantaneous access.

In the months since Mulkerin and his editorial collective -- "don't characterize me as some sort of leader, because I'm not that" -- fired up the Web server, Pittsburgh Indymedia has become an obligatory stop for anyone following the hard left in town. This includes journalists zig-zagging their ways through the confusing layers of ideology in the anti-war movement. It includes, Mulkerin and his comrades suspect, police seeking tips on the next street action by anarchists eager to tie up traffic in the name of global comity.

Recent offerings on the Pittsburgh site included firsthand accounts by demonstrators rounded up and jugged during the March 21 anti-war protests that snaked through town, into the South Side, and ended with more than 100 arrests near the federal building.

Other items have included exchanges on the use of "a diversity of tactics" -- that would mean everything from sit-ins to window-breakings; analyses of economic systems; and more recently, a piece calling for demonstrators to disrupt business at area gas stations as a statement against American policy in Iraq.

"The whole idea is participation in the creation of media," explained Emma Rehm, who helps run the shop. "That's our whole problem with corporate media -- that all you get to do is consume it. You don't have any say in creating it."

After local conservatives noticed the site, a sort of back-and-forth began in its latest news section, with leftist correspondents suddenly flamed by rightest readers.

"Jim Quinn has just posted recently," Mulkerin told me. "Or someone posing as Jim Quinn."

And therein lies the quirky charm of Pittsburgh Indymedia: Ccorrespondents can list any name and, because some Independent Media Centers have had records subpoenaed by police, Pittsburgh Indymedia keeps no record and makes no attempt to see who's logging on.

Correspondents post under names ranging from the political, such as Rovin' Workman, to the anarchically whimsical, such as Summoner of Death.

Mulkerin, along with three Carnegie Mellon students, Rehm (pronounced Reem), Matt Toups and Quinten Steenhuis, and a cadre of others put together the Web-based news center. It is modeled on an array of loosely affiliated Indy Media Centers around the country. The computer program that allows visitors to post their own, unedited stories, video and sound, was developed in San Francisco. Log onto an Indy Media site anywhere in the country and it will look and act pretty much the same. An Indy Media center gets the go-ahead and the software when the organizers show they're serious, and agree to a set of "principles of unity" that guarantee a democratic system for running it.

"It's sort of the bylaws," Mulkerin said. "Except that it's an anarchist community, so you don't have bylaws."

A group of 10 to 15 members of the collective gather around a table at Rehm's apartment for about 90 minutes every two weeks and discuss direction. Sometimes they'll simply e-mail among themselves to reach a consensus on what to put online or, more properly, what to take offline.

Postings that are deemed sexist, racist, advocate direct violence against a person or are simply off topic are "hidden." That is to say, their link is taken off the board, although the message is left in the computer.

Why don't they just purge the message if they don't want it seen?

"Well, because that would be censorship and we're really not into that," Mulkerin explained.

Instead, the site includes a link allowing those who insist on it, to view all hidden posts such as this one: "Death to Hippie Scum."

Precisely how long Pittsburgh Indymedia will thrive is hard to gauge. Recently the group rented office space from an art collective on Penn Avenue in Bloomfield-Garfield. The move is, in part, an effort to reach out beyond the student base from which it draws both contributions and readership.

"Indymedia's not just for college kids and that's kind of our big concern," Rehm said. "The frustrating thing right now is that a whole lot of people are reading but aren't creating media."

The long-term goal is to get ordinary folks to attend community meetings, file stories, and let readers fire back.

"People reading Indymedia are automatically skeptical of everything they see there," he explained. That, Mulkerin says, is how everybody should read everything. That's not a recipe for profit, unless you count openness as wealth.


Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965).

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