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A Dialogue about Y2K and the Media

How it all began...

From: "Jean Wasp" <>
To: "Tom Atlee" <>

I am interested in what you have in the way of recommendations for dealing
with the media that I can give out to folks. I think seeing the media and
communities working together in a collaborative process, instead of them
standing back in a so called detached (and I mean "so-called") point of view
judging us is a process that is going to die with this issue. We are helping
to organize the communities that they live and work in. Time to get out of
the tower of journalism and get down on the ground with the rest of us. Have
you seen any writings on this?....Jean Wasp -
To Jean:

I will be creating a media page on my website and writing something soon, Jean. Your note got me to send out a query to my list (see below) and some interesting replies have come back....

Dear friends,

Sometime in the not too distant future, I plan to write something on how to deal with and work with the media around Y2K issues. Something about educating them, avoiding pitfalls, recruiting their higher selves to put aside journalistic "objectivity", cynicism, and conflict-obsession to work with communities to create a resilient, pro-social response to Y2K. Something along those lines.

I know a lot of you have thought about this, and had good and bad encounters with the media. If you'd like to share any of your experiences or insights, I'd appreciate it. I may post a bunch of them on my website, as well.


Tom Atlee


Date: Wed, 27 Jan 1999 10:22:00 -0500
From: Will Duggan <>
Organization: Interactive FrameWorks, Inc.

Note:Will Duggan is leading a team to develop a series of
13 half hour episodes on Y2K for national public television.
As someone who finds himself straddling both camps, I think Tom is absolutely
right to be challenging journalists to improve their craft. I believe it is
important not to dismiss the underlying principles of journalism but their
poor practice. The Internet and drive by 24 hour cable news coverage have
truly changed everything and like steady customers at a bad restaurant, we
keep settling for less.

How would Edward R. Murrow have covered Y2K? Or would a journalist of today
reporting back then spend all his or her time trying to present the Axis point
of view in all of one's pieces and then consider it a job well done?

How does a headline editor get *Y2K Czar Says US OK" from Koskinen's 1/20 testimony?
How is it that the smart people of the press haven't developed a personal
investment in what might happen to them, their families, their neighbors,
their country, their world? How is it they think that thinking things through
is somehow taking sides?

I think indifference is the problem. For whatever reason--denial, time
constraints, laziness, fear of embarrassment, lack of important people saying
this is important, the cool of the unconcerned --whatever--the media aren't
working to develop the right questions and haven't been able to think through
the issue in all its confounding complexity. Y2K hasn't been elevated to an
issue of national concern for which there is only one side--be safe rather
than sorry.

Our team is wrestling with all of this and find that the basics of journalism,
balance, awareness of impact, accuracy, thoroughness, etc. serve us well when
thoughts get frazzled. Balance doesn't mean neutrality, it means building a
case and justifiable inferences, reasonable suspicions and prudent recommendations.

It's difficult and challenging, right up there with trying to find underwriters.

Will Duggan
Interactive FrameWorks
39 Neck Road
Madison, CT 06443 USA
1-203-245-7820 (fax)

From: "Halim Dunsky" <>
Date: Tue, 26 Jan 1999 07:44:51 -0800

Tom - approaching reporters as humans, getting behind the mask, is
definitely the way to go. Responding to the professional journalistic
persona on its terms won't work.

Date: Tue, 26 Jan 99 10:49:43 -0800
From: Richard Wright <>


Our book has a 6000 word chapter
on this very topic. As a journalist it is a topic dear to my heart. I
was encouraged to write it after realizing at several community seminars
that most folks have no idea of how or why the media works and see them
as an adversary rather than an ally...Anyway I realized these folks needed
help in understanding the workings of the media.

As a former editor and a semi-retired (alas only from journalism)
journalist and one who writes a Y2K column for 42 BC and Alberta
newspapers, I feel strongly that with some team building and work we can
work with the media and make it effective.

At the same time I am working with the editors of these papers to bring
them along. Each time a column goes out I attach a note of interest to
the editors. I am also the Y2K advisor to the president of the chain.

The Chapter is entitled Enrolling the Media and goes into considerable
detail so I think it will answer a lot of the concerns.

The book, by the way, will be a "living book". We intend to do updates
on our web site, chapter by chapter. The whole book won't be there, but
this will allow us to update examples and links.


Action Y2K: A GrassRoots' Guide to Year 2000,for Communities and Small Business
GrassRoots Consulting Group Inc.--Research,Communications,Community
Development--Richard Wright & Cathryn Wellner.
Phone 250-296-4432; Fax 296-4429.
Box 15, Miocene, Williams Lake, BC, Canada V2G 2P3
Web site:

From Doug Carmichael's Y2K letter #49:

Most reporters who called me this week wanted to know about the psychology
of "the public" Public is a diminishing percent of the population I notice.
Its those who otherwise are not somebody. I asked them to think also about
the psychology of the management hierarchy which starts with "we've got
problems" to "they are making progress" to "our people will have it done" to
"Its fine, we've solved it." I also said you need to look at the motivation
of the press which has been more interested in polarization than looking at
underneath issues of how we make technical decisions, and what this tells us
about technology and capital and careers." Not very interested. So they
accept the management structures which turn mixed into positive, and go
after those who would "irrationally" attack the system. Reporter don't
realize they are watching the game from the bench of the winning team.

Date: Tue, 26 Jan 1999 11:17:40 EST

Hi, Tom -

As one who has "done" pr since 1975 (not nearly all the time, tho) I've found
that media is really just people. You can spot trends, of course, but when
you want a story out it will get there if it has relevance to more than a
handful of people and IF YOU WORK REALLY HARD TO REACH

I always find kind, sensitive writers who understand my point of view on any
subject once I work through a few calls following the mailing of a good press
release. The first point is to get the basics in good form down on paper or
page - most people don't write well - so that is essential and format makes it
understandable to journalists who receive tons of info. Then get hyped up
with energy and break through the shyness barrier to reach people who can
write about you and yours personally. You will make friends - I guarantee it.

- Connie Madden

Date: Wed, 27 Jan 1999 20:44:00 -0700
From: "Paul Andrews" <>

Dear Tom,

With regard to your questions about the media, government secrecy, etc.
There are people in the progressive community that have long experience at
challenging the government to tell the truth. I'm thinking particularly of
Fairness in Media, the Public Media Center (on Green Street in San
Francisco) etc, who know how to put out a very focused and forceful message
that shapes the way public issues and policy develops. Y2K needs this right
now. All the intelligence is there, but we haven't really sharpened the
message to a fine point yet, with an image that can't be ignored.

For example, when the oil companies were trying to open up the North Slope
for oil, there was an ad in the New York Times. Over a picture of an Eskimo
elder it said "Our way of life has endured for 100,000 years. Do we now have
to die for 6 months of oil?" Now that's an ad that changes the discussion.
We haven't had that in Y2K. That's partly why the media have gotten away
with the way they've covered it. We have a lot of information on our side,
but no great and powerful story tellers to transform the discussion.

This leads me to my second thought. I was at the telecast at Henry Dakin's
last week, and greatly valued the chance to hear Meg Wheatley et al talk
about the current status of Y2K. But it also made me more aware of the lack
of clear and coherent leadership in the "sustainability/ community/positive
response to Y2K" movement. There are great and even brilliant individuals
who have been taking the leadership and doing excellent work, but they are
relatively invisible. Might it be timely now to create a strong, challenging
and coherent statement around which a broad group of folks could coalesce
into a visible coalition with an actual name? A statement that would
articulate a clear set of best principles and choices?

I can imagine this coalition including an excitingly improbable group of
folks -- not only Meg Wheatley, you, Paloma, Eric Utne et al., but also
business leaders, the mayors of the Y2K responsive communities, business
leaders, government folks, celebrities, etc. If people saw this as a truly
definitive statement of principled leadership, I can imagine a lot of folks
who would want to sign on.

Best would be to get it as an op-ed ad in the New York Times, but there
would be other routes to get it out there too .

You all would write such a manifesto much better than I -- but here are some
rough ideas that could be fleshed out:


1. Here's what Y2K is and why it's a serious issue with a deadline.

2. And it's more than a technological problem.

3. It's foreseeable that there will be social as well as technological

4. While it is serious, it need not paralyze us.

5. We have choices about how to respond to this situation. And we'll
have to choose before we know exactly how serious it will be.

6. The first and deepest choice for each of us (and our organizations)
is this -- are we going to respond from our best values, or from our fear?

7. Are we going to cooperate or focus only on looking out for #1?

8. The basic choice for government is to let go of secrecy, tell the
truth, and operate at all levels as a partner with the people and with other
organizations working on Y2K. As Harry Truman was fond of saying, "Trust the
people. They can handle it".

9. The basic choice for the media is to focus less on the zany and
outlandish stories of a few individuals which are of little lasting value,
and choose instead to serve the public interest and and tell the stories
that will have real value to people trying to understand what they can do.
Those stories are out there, and they make good copy.

10. Underneath the hype and the apocalyptic fear, there are a whole LOT
of people acting with extraordinary decency and neighborly concern, working
to see that their communities work through this problem and come out
stronger for it. Want to be part of a community like that?

11. Etc. "

I would want a statement where someone finishes reading it, puts down their
paper and says, "this is absolutely GREAT. I had no idea this was going on.
These folks represent EXACTLY how I would want to respond to this."

What do you think?


Tom Atlee responds:

Two things come to mind, Paul:

1) Do you know Jerry Mander? I hear on the grapevine that he knows about Y2K but it overwhelms him. He doesn't know what to DO about it. He's someone who could craft that ad you were talking about.

2) Do you know how The Natural Step started? Swedish Dr. Karl Henrik Robert created a statement of what he felt were absolute ecological truths. He sent it to 50 academics and scientists with the question: What is wrong with this statement? Being academics and scientists, they were only too happy to tell him. He took their answers into account and recrafted his statement, sending it to them again with the same question. He went through 21 rounds of this, I believe, before they all replied "Nothing is wrong with this statement." Out of the resulting principles he crafted the Natural Step (which live alongside you in the Presidio, I believe). He called this a consensus process.

I suspect that something much like this could be done with Y2K, using the thinkers, activists and officials you describe. However, I disagree that it is primarily a job for an eloquent writer like me. It is a persistence job for a dogged, clear thinker (as you clearly are, from the draft you crafted) -- and a matter of choosing the right participants.

Once the statement was crafted, put through the consensus grinder and agreed to, it could be turned over to PR geniuses like Jerry to come up with the imagery, the story, the media.

Date: 26 Jan 99 11:50:54 -0500
From: Tom Callanan <>

Hello Tom,

I applaud your thinking about the media and how all of us might better utilize Y2K as an opportunity to shift those ways of operating in our culture that no longer work for anyone. One of the interesting dynamics with the media is how we have objectified them as "the media" and they've objectified us as "the public." We've set up this dynamic similar to the Democrats and Republicans where the dynamic itself puts normally rational and compassionate people on either side of an imaginary divide. How do we best bridge this divide?

Last summer we at the Fetzer Institute (a Michigan-based foundation) held a contemplative retreat for members of the mainstream media. The three day retreat invited participants to reflect on the relationship between the deeper dimensions of their lives and their craft. In attendance were journalists from mainstream places such as CBS, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal, and more alternative publications such as the Utne Reader and Tricycle. We practiced mindfulness meditation, participated together in a contemplative Shabat ceremony, and talked a lot about the state of "the media."

I learned through this experience that the public and, at least this select group of media, share the same questions and concerns about the media. And this gives me hope. Joan Konner, the Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote about the experience in their September/October issue. I include a goodly portion of her column here:
"The questions themselves told a story of the deeper uncertainties many journalists feel about journalism today. Here is a sample:

What is the story we are missing?

What is the role of the media? And of the journalist.

Are there other words for "the media" to help express our purpose? What would compassionate journalism be like?

Can we be as considerate and compassionate with the people we deal with -- sources, for example, (and subjects, I might add) -- as we are with our neighbors and friends?

Is the language we use adequate to express what we want? Can it be refreshed? Renewed? Expanded beyond the literal. Are there new means for connecting the storyteller to the public? Are there new delivery systems? How can the media be the reflective mind of the culture? How can we break down the fierce resistance of the public to the good work the media are doing? How do we tell the public what it doesn't want to hear? The media are informing and directing the public. Can there be more of an exchange? How can we become a more respectful listener (to the public)? How do we as journalists learn to ask questions and learn to hear the answers? Can we resist telling every weird thing? Why does readership increase when we report despicable news? How do we keep from being discouraged? How can we get back to the spiritual core of what we do, why we went into this business in the first place?

"Why did we go into this business? Although journalists are often perceived to be cynics, I believe that most of us are idealists. We see journalism as a way of participating creatively and constructively in the life of our society and our times, and we see it as a public service and public trust.

"What are the deadening impulses that keep us from that creative core? So many things -- the gods of profit, competition, power, vanity, etc. The material gods have always been a value in this business, but more and more they are becoming the only values in this business, separating us from the sacred gods of service, justice and now, more often in the mainstream media, of truth.

"How do we keep from being discouraged by a journalism that even for the best is becoming in some dominant stories the amoral equivalent of war? The message of this four-day weekend pointed a direction by connecting our inner selves with our outer work, by returning to our origins, our passions, and our ideals, to creative, construction participation in our life and times, including the search for answers to these many questions."
Joan Konner

This offering is evidence that the media may be changing from the inside out as we work from the other direction. And, with help from outside influences like Y2K that shake up our reality, we may just be able to budge our collective consensus trance in a positive direction!

The Fetzer Institute is currently planning another retreat for members of the media. In you know of mainstream journalists who would like to participate, please have them contact me at Or if you know of similar media efforts or organizations who we might join with as partners.

Thanks for your good work,

Tom Callanan

Date: Tue, 26 Jan 1999 11:38:47 -0800 (PST)
From: Wendy Tanowitz <>

Very timely, Tom. Just yesterday Marin Y2K was approached
by TWO television stations. (More on that below)


One thing we've been tossing around for a while is to
send out regular press releases which include rock-solid
sources and examples of what Y2K is about. I still think
this would be a good idea. If there are two or three other
people in the Bay Area who might want to work on this, I'd be game.


I was downright rude to one of the media folks who contacted me
He wanted to bring a camera to my home and film me with my food storage.
I told him "no," but I was unusually crude and rude in how I did it.

When he called several weeks ago, I referred him to Valerie
Quigley of the OES. She told him point blank that she wouldn't
cooperate with him if he was going to make her look foolish.
(She'd already had the experience of giving an interview
.... and they showed flying saucers in the background!)

When she asked him what his "story" was, he replied something like:
"Is the fear/panic that people are spreading going to
be worse than the actual events of y2k? In other words, the
self-fulfilling-prophecy angle.

I think he's tempered his "angle" by now, but I really don't
know. I referred him to Carol Skandera in Santa Rosa, who
gives regular, well-attended workshops on long-term food
storage for Y2K-savvy folks. She's very articulate, calm, and very
photogenic. He contacted her but never came by. If he
were serious in doing an in-depth story and not some fluff,
I feel he would have pursued that angle. But he hasn't.

We were also contacted twice yesterday by another station
(maybe two....). They were responding to Jay's
series on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of Y2K.
They wanted to come on Thursday and interview people about their
fears. We discussed it among ourselves and decided NO WAY!!!

What we are concluding is that if they want to come to someone's
home, we will hand-select the people who will be interviewed
and we will, to a certain extent choreograph our sound-bites.
I would say the reason I am afraid is that I heard Senator Bennett
talking about the vulnerabilities Y2K poses to our infrastructure
(or something like that). Someone else could talk about the EPA
document issued to water districts in which they are telling
them to make contingency plans for disruptions in power,
fuel, supplies, etc. In other words, we'd get some powerful
factual material out there that might open up people's thinking.
It may or may not happen.