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Labor Lessons From A Disney Musical, Part 2: Make Your Own Media

September 27, 2011

Part 1

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As with most mainstream tales of the oppressed fighting back (see, most recently, The Help), in Newsies our young working-class heroes enlist the aid of a White Savior: New York Sun reporter Bryan Denton. Now, obviously, most of the newsies are white themselves, so the importance of the White Savior doesn’t lie in a racial differential in this case. But it matters, all the same, because Denton’s whiteness positions him to represent at least a modicum of institutional power. When he takes a sympathetic interest in the newsies’ organizing, he cinches their place in the mainstream media, otherwise impenetrable because Pulitzer has ordered a blackout on the newsies strike story among all the other local papers. Denton’s coverage not only keeps the pressure on Pulitzer and Hearst, but also gives the formerly nameless, faceless newsboys, accustomed to being treated like the scum of the earth, a nice little ego boost — and a set-up for one of the film’s most delightful musical numbers.

Lyrics here

But the euphoria of fame and fan-twirling soon evaporate and, in a brilliant and illuminating twist, the newsies discover that the White Savior won’t actually save them. When Pulitzer bribes the owner of the Sun into dropping the story, Denton is reassigned — back to his previous role as the Sun‘s “ace war correspondent.” Feeling betrayed and furious, the newsies try to convince Denton to shrug off his orders, but he explains (accurately): “I’m a newspaper man. I have to have a paper to write for. I’d be blacklisted from every major newspaper in the country . . . you know, sometimes they don’t fire you.”

In other words: as a full-time professional activist, you’re only as radical as your indispensable funders. An apt lesson for today’s non-profit economy, no?

Which brings us to . . .

Lesson Two: Make Your Own Media

In order to win, the newsies need to generalize their strike, to include all the child laborers of New York. And to do that, they need a paper of their own.

Transcript here.

Remember when I said that Newsies is a love story of solidarity? These lyrics say it all:

This is for kids shinin’ shoes in the street
With no shoes on their feet every day
This is for guys sweatin’ blood in the shops
While the bosses and cops look away
This is to even the score
This ain’t just newsies no more
This ain’t just kids with some pie in the sky
This is do it or die
This is war!

Once and for all
We’ll be there to defend one another
Once and for all
Every kid is our friend
Every friend a brother

Five thousand fists in the sky
Five thousand reasons to try
We’re goin’ over the wall
Better to die than to crawl
Either we stand or we fall
For once
Once and for all

Part of the mechanism for building widespread radical solidarity has to be independent control of our own literature and media. Because although mainstream media can come in handy as a short-term tool, there’s no way we can consistently rely on it to advance our program for systemic change at the root of capitalism, racism, patriarchy and political economy.

Clearly, there are a million examples of important stories of progressive struggles that don’t make the mainstream headlines. To focus on just one, let’s take the ongoing Occupy Wall Street thing.

Honestly I’m not totally certain, but it seems like the mainstream media was a little slow to pick up on this story. Broadcasts and documentation came to me, personally, through Facebook connections with people who were there, participating, from day one. Eventually, after some police brutality, big news centers started to cover it. And then we got this gorgeous aberration:

* * * * *

But as Newsies teaches us, don’t hitch your wagon to the Major Journalist’s star. As lovely and impassioned as O’Donnell’s piece is, the truth is he’s employed by MSNBC, and the minute they tell him to cut the shit, he will. (Or get canned.)

But that’s no reason to despair. After all, half of that segment consists of on-the-ground media made by people who are not journalists. Even before YouTube, radicals were scrounging for printing presses, strategically taking over community college media organs, and cultivating discourses locally and internationally. And these days, alternative media justice collectives are popping up left and right — while radical collectives continue to blog their hearts out.

Even better than a White-Savior journalist? Media for the movement, by the movement.

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