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Izzy Award Winner Jeremy Scahill: "We're At a Ground Zero Moment to Save Real Journalism"

The winner of the second annual Izzy Award, named after muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, discusses independent media and this critical moment in journalism.
 
 
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On March 24, 2010, the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, in Ithaca, NY announced that award-winning independent journalist Jeremy Scahill would receive the second annual "Izzy Award." The Izzy, which is named after the legendary muckraker I.F. Stone, celebrates outstanding achievement in independent media. Last year's winners were Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com.

Scahill is a two-time Polk Award winner, and a regular contributor to The Nation, Democracy Now! and AlterNet. His book, Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, is an international bestseller. In 2009, he published dozens of stories detailing Blackwater's secret presence in Pakistan; its involvement in 2007's Nisour Square massacre; and its CEO's alleged complicity in murder.

"The judges chose Scahill for his relentless efforts in 2009 to push these issues into mainstream debate," said Jeff Cohen, director of the Park Center for Independent Media. "We are awed by Scahill's success, and also by the sheer number of outstanding candidates for the award this year; both reflect the growing importance of independent media in our country."

Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, will appear at Ithaca College on April 19 to receive his award. AlterNet's Byard Duncan caught up with him Wednesday morning to discuss the award and the future of independent journalism (interview is edited for length and clarity).

Byard Duncan: What does it mean to be an "independent journalist?"

Jeremy Scahill: I would define an independent journalist as someone that's totally un-embedded when it comes to their relationship with the powerful. In other words, you don't get into bed with any political party. I'm not a Democrat; I'm not a Republican. I'm a journalist. It means that you don't get in bed with the military, with the CIA, or wealthy corporations, and you don't compromise your journalistic or your personal integrity in the pursuit of anything, including a story.

I believe that the way independent journalists are most effectively able to conduct their work is by maintaining their independence from the powerful. I don't hob-nob with the powerful. I don't count among my friends executives or other powerful people. I think it's important for independent journalists to not be beholden to any special interests whatsoever.

On the flip side of that, it's the role of independent journalists to embed themselves with the victims of U.S. foreign policy -- in the case of U.S. journalists -- or domestic policy. What I mean by that is to actually go out to where the people live who are most affected by these policies -- be it Afghanistan or the slums of the United States. You have to be un-embedded from the powerful and you have to embed yourself with the disempowered, because I think part of our role as independent journalists is not only to confront those in power, but to give voice to the voiceless.

BD: You've reported from all over the world. Talk about the relationships you've observed between the powerful and the powerless.

JS: You have this nexus of the iron fist of U.S. militarism that is backing up the so-called "hidden hand" of the free market. And so what we see is that the United States will economically target countries, then have that targeting of them with economic neo-liberalism backed up by brute military force -- by supporting military dictatorships, by interfering in elections.

One strain that has tied together the people that live on the other side of the barrel of the gun that is U.S. foreign and economic policy is that they always, out of the rubble, seem to emerge in some form of resistance. We've seen that in Iraq, and we're seeing it in Afghanistan. We've certainly seen it throughout Latin America.

Another thing that's important for people to remember: If we fail to stop the United States from targeting communities across the globe, we don't choose the kind of resistance that people offer up to wars that we should have stopped.

We in this country have an obligation to hold our leaders responsible, because if we don't, then in one way or another, we're responsible for the consequences -- either in terms of attacks on civilians there, or in opposition that rises up violently to the policies we had a moral obligation to try to confront and expose.

BD: What about some of independent media's limits?

JS: You have to fight for access to anything happening -- you're boxed out of press conferences; you're not given interviews with powerful people. If there's one thing that I've learned after years of working in independent media, it's that you have to work harder than corporate journalists. Because a corporate journalist's kid's godfather might be the secretary of the interior, or went to Harvard with this member of Congress. Or they go to yacht parties with that executive from Goldman Sachs.

People who are out there doing rabble-rousing journalism, we have to fight to get credentials to get into events; we have to actually ambush powerful people or officials because they won't return our calls. I've been to every Democratic and Republican convention since 1996, and still to this day feel like a kid in a candy store. Literally what I do from morning till night is run around trying to track down all of those members of Congress that would never give me an interview. I find them in the hallways and back them into a corner and ask them questions that they have refused to answer when I tried to do it through official means.

The other part of it: You are not in the lab of the powerful, so you have to file a lot of FOIA requests; you have to fight secretive bureaucracies. Oftentimes, you're pursuing stories that are not being pursued by the corporate media. And therefore it's easier for the powerful to sweep it away and say, "no one's going to care if it's just The Nation Magazine. No one's going to care if it's AlterNet."

So we are constantly fighting that uphill battle to pursue these stories that no one else is looking at, against the odds and against a network of individuals that have a vested interest in not having those stories come out.

BD: Barack Obama had big promises about transparency when he first took office. He campaigned on it. But according to a recent L.A. Times article, the Obama administration has denied FOIA requests 70,779 times in its first year (the Bush White House denied only 47,395 requests in the same amount of time). What's your take on Obama's transparency claims?

JS: I think I have six outstanding FOIA requests that have gone months without any response. I have had several document requests rejected from federal agencies when I've been doing my investigations of covert U.S. military and intelligence operations.

One of the unfortunate but predictable realities of the political moment that we're living in right now is that the Obama administration has continued some of the most atrocious policies of the Bush administration -- and unfortunately has implemented policies that, in some cases, are worse than those of the Bush administration. If you look at the Obama administration's position on prisoner rights issues, on civil liberties issues, on domestic spying issues, on issues of war and peace, the Obama administration in some ways is worse than the Bush administration.

They claim to preach from a gospel of open government. And in some cases, you do see that federal agencies are more responsive to journalists now than they were under the Bush Administration: You can actually get someone on the phone in the State Department or the Defense Department in a way that wouldn't be possible under the Bush administration. But the information they're willing to give you hasn't changed much at all.

BD: According to a recent Pew poll, newspaper ad revenues have dipped 43 percent in the last three years. Magazine revenues are drying up, too. How does this affect what you do?

JS: When I started out in journalism, Amy Goodman was paying me $40 a day out of her pocket to come in and write news headlines for Democracy Now! when it was on, like, 20 radio stations.

I basically spent much of the first six or seven years I was in journalism making nothing and writing for Common Dreams and AlterNet and Counterpunch -- scraping together what I could from Pacifica Radio and from Democracy Now!. I never was working for an outlet that depended on any sort of corporate sponsorship or ad revenue.

What's really impacted the work of journalists like myself or institutions like AlterNet and The Nation that rely on the generosity of individuals -- or in the case of the Nation Institute, foundations -- is that the economic crisis has meant that there was an almost overnight reduction of almost 40 percent of all the money that was available to support independent media.

There's a real crisis right now in journalism, because a lot of the best journalists are struggling to make ends meet, and I think we're in a moment where corporations are more dominant over newsgathering and news production and disseminating information than they've ever been.

Contrary to that, though, you also have this sort of "citizen journalism" rising up, where you have people that are staring their own blogs or their own web sites.

I think that you have a danger when we lose that old-school, fact-checking operation where you have peers critiquing your work. Those with the resources to do fact checking and build an old-school journalism bureaucracy -- which in some ways is very good -- are unfortunately those that are funded by corporations and have an agenda.

I think we're at a moment where we have a lot of really good independent journalism that's being produced by bloggers and independent journalists, but we also need to not go far away from that tradition of peer review, editing and fact-checking. We're at a ground zero moment of how to save real journalism without succumbing to the ownership desires of large corporations or other corporate forces.

BD: Given the political divisiveness of issues like health care, there's a lot of pressure for progressive publications to fall into what you have called a "blue state" mentality. What are the hazards of this?

JS: I was talking about a liberal equivalent of Fox News, where you had all these liberal journalists that were sort of gaga over President Obama because he was President Obama. I think you had quite a substantial amount of intellectual dishonesty from people who were holding the Bush administration accountable for actions that the Obama administration was taking from day one, and even announced on the campaign trail.

Health care is a perfect example of this. Obviously, we want to have pre-existing conditions covered. Obviously, we want young people to be able to continue on their parents' health care plans. There are many things that are going to be improvements.

But let's be clear here: This is a complete and total sellout to the interests of the insurance lobby by the Obama administration. This is, as Michael Moore has said, a complete victory for the ultra-capitalists. Yet, if you look on the liberal blogosphere, people like Jane Hamsher are attacked mercilessly for having the audacity to stand up and say "this is a Democratic sellout."

So you have this blind allegiance to ... what? To Obama as a man? To the Democrats as a party? To me, it's very dangerous when you start going down the road of unquestioning support for any powerful individual or any politician. The moment you cede your conscience to a politician is the moment you stop struggling for a better society.

BD: You won this award in part because of your ability to elevate stories to front-page news in the mainstream media. Talk about independent media's relationship to the mainstream.

JS: I've gotten many e-mails and phone calls from friends and colleagues where they'll say "the New York Times just ripped of this story of yours," or, "did you see that piece in the Washington Post? They didn't even give you credit." I've almost never had a reaction of anger, or saying, "why wasn't I credited in that?" That's not the point of this kind of journalism -- editors can get mad about that stuff. To me, if the New York Times picks up on a story and puts it on the front page, that means that something is probably going to get done about it. It should be taken as a very positive thing when these corporate media are forced to cover an issue because independent journalists have driven it with drumbeat coverage.

I remember how proud I was when I saw the New York Times forced to credit Marcy Wheeler, who was an online blogger, for picking up details on the Bush administration's torture program. They had to credit Marcy Wheeler, and put a quote from her, and cite her in their newspaper. That to me was a great moment in the recent history of independent media, because what it did was shame the corporate media. It said that a blogger with very little resources can out-scoop the New York Times on a very important story that was catching headlines at that time.

Part of what we're doing is trying to fill the void that is left from corporate media. We either shame them, or force them to cover it, because we make it a major issue.

When my book first came out, I thought I was going to be running around the country selling it out of my backpack, which was fine with me.

What I've learned from doing this story is that if you go around the country, if you keep at it, if you beat the drum, if your facts are all in order, and you just keep going, you can have an impact. But you can't give up.

We live in a very exciting time in independent media. Corporate journalists are less powerful now than they were 10 years ago, but their owners are much more powerful. Still, the journalists themselves -- they're no longer these sort of regal kings on a hill. Peggy Noonan represents a dying generation of people that pontificate from a golden palace somewhere, hoping the poor will never get through her gates.

The poor are now journalists around the world. The question is: how do we fund it? How do we keep it viable? How do we keep it credible? And that is our challenge right now.