New Orleans Jordan Flaherty in recent years has been based in New Orleans and has developed a singular, progressive voice and wide ranging critique of public affairs. Jordan was the driving force behind “Left Turn” for some years until it ceased regular distribution. He was the author of Floodlines which looked at post-Katrina New Orleans and events like the Jena-6 controversy in Louisiana, and more recently he acted as a producer of some shows on Al Jazeera television’s respected documentary “Fault Lines.” As a self-described author and community organizer, Jordan was a perfect fit for the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Dialogue series. Jordan was offering his perspective on contemporary movements and their meaning as well as developments in the media far and wide, and many are worth sharing.
Interestingly, Jordan began his remarks with several observations about the “nonprofit industrial complex” and the debilitating and destructive impact of foundation funding in trying to use their support to direct the programs of groups on the ground and having succeeded in shaping programs of so many nonprofits who saw funders as their ultimate source of accountability. Quoting everyone from Marcus Garvey to Ella Baker, he was making the argument essentially that too many nonprofits were allowing donors to de facto direct strategy and determine direction of their organizations and their programs. As an example, he cited the unique storm of money into the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the paradox that virtually none of the top 25 recipients of such funds were actually located in Louisiana, so unmoored in the area even as they presented themselves as vehicles for recovery and change. He quoted Jay-Z that “charity was a racket” binding the poor to the rich and a disaster survivor’s comment on too many nonprofits that “our misery is their job” and the disconnection and alienation that produces. Many of these points though were preamble to Jordan’s core observation that the defining movements of the last year in Occupy or the Arab Spring were both prime examples that the “end of history” has not arrived and that change is not driven on the ground by philanthropy and the “nonprofit complex.” No argument there.
The other major discussion in the dialogue was the state of the media. Much moaning here in the wake of local events with the Times-Picayune as well as the problems of “aggregator” models like Huffington Post and other on-line options. Jordan offered that Al Jazeera and several other television and web operations were offering interesting perspectives on world and US issues and the opinion that “state” funding because it was public was preferable to corporate or foundation funding in the media, but he had little enthusiasm or commitment to his own position, so no one bogged down there.
The problem was that no one could see where future support was going to come for long form, deep investigative pieces that had marked the best of journalism. The Times-Picayune claimed that it had assigned a reporter and support for their series on incarceration recently. The diminished capacity and interest for such efforts by papers seemed obvious yet there was no belief that a substitute or business model was available that might change the bleak picture ahead. Correctly, Jordan argued that many of the web-based and foundation funded efforts were neither replicable, sustainable, nor distinct than what they were replacing, since many seemed to be retreading the same people, journalism models, and conventions gained from the papers they had formally served.
This part of the conversation was somewhat bleak. Jordan and others had an analysis but no antidote and were frank about it. There was some nostalgia and almost some wistful, unspoken romantic wish that there were sugar daddies, private or public, that might be able to solve the problem, but that fit no one’s view of what was realistic.
Conversations like these and forceful critique’s like Jordan’s are important as they keep hacking away at the hard rock of these issues, but clearly we will be digging for awhile before we find gold.