By Sophie Kruse
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
(Editor’s Note: The following is the full text (some might say “very full”) of an interview with me published in the tenth anniversary edition of The InterActivist, the Athens, Ohio / Ohio University based magazine I helped found, wrote for and edited for several years. For another perspective on the magazine, see the tenth anniversary edition interview with Eric Sandy, another former InterActivist staffer who currently writes for Cleveland Scene magazine.)
1. What years were you involved with InterActivist?
From 2003 through late 2008. So five or six years. That’s the first half of the magazine’s existence thus far, during which nearly two thirds of the issues were produced.
The idea of The InterActivist was first conceived by Sara DeAloia, who had co-founded Ohio University Students Against the War and its successor, the student and community activist group InterAct. She first proposed InterAct create its own publication in the spring of 2003. This was very soon after InterAct itself had come into being. Sara’s proposal was timed so that InterAct could secure OU Student Activities Commission funding for the production of issues to be released in the fall of 2003.
So that Spring I was a member of InterAct and one of the people who voted on Sara’s initial proposal to create what eventually became The InterActivist. In that sense you could say I was a co-founder of The InterActivist, just as a little earlier I was a co-founder of InterAct, and that I was involved from the magazine’s very beginning. But there’s a little more to it than that.
Initially, I thought The InterActivist was a waste of time. I didn’t vote against Sara’s proposal, but I was not supportive, either, for several reasons.
First, when it came to independent media, I was more interested in public access media as an empowering forum for community dialogue – like a magazine I had created in my high school, like the publications I had helped develop with high school students in Athens County through my earlier work with Free Student Press, and like the short-lived Athens Agenda magazine, which I co-founded in 2001 – as opposed to specifically progressive media for a mainly progressive audience.
Second, I thought it made more sense for progressive writers to try to get published in the established local newspapers because the circulation of those papers was far larger than what we could achieve on our own, and it was relatively easy to get the established papers to publish your work.
We’re talking about Athens, a city of about 30,000 people with three major newspapers. Plus, The Post and especially The Athens News run many more letters and guest columns than typical newspapers. On the one hand, that’s an easy way for The Athens News and The Post to get free content. On the other hand, it makes local media substantially more accessible and participatory as far as the general community is concerned, and that’s wonderful. In my own experience, probably 90-95 percent of my submissions to the major Athens newspapers got published, with the same piece frequently running in two papers simultaneously.
And then on top of all that, a decade ago (and probably now, too) it wasn’t very difficult then to get a weekly column at The Post. I had a weekly column in the fall of 2002 – and I was shocked how much feedback I got from readers, even years later. Several of my activist friends had columns over the years, as well.
So why not focus on the opportunities provided by the local established newspapers instead of trying to create our own publication? Why work harder to reach fewer readers?
Third – and most important – this was right after the Iraq war was launched, and I thought that instead of speaking out against the war, progressives needed to be acting out in ways as concretely disruptive as possible in order to raise the domestic costs of that war of U.S. aggression to prohibitive levels as far as U.S. elites were concerned. Given that the U.S. government was then slaughtering significantly more innocent people than usual, the urgency of that issue at the time outweighed everything else for me. Anything else just seemed like a distraction.
The funny thing is, looking back, I still think all of these criticisms are valid. Nevertheless, I gradually came to believe that other aspects of The InterActivist made it – and continue to make it – a very worthwhile project.
So by about the third issue of The InterActivist, produced either in late 2003 or early 2004, I became directly involved in the magazine’s production. Then from mid 2005 through late 2008 I was the person primarily responsible for the magazine. It was during this second period that I led a major expansion of The InterActivist and oversaw production of issues #14 through 39, I think – about 25 in all. Which is pretty ironic given my initial impression of The InterActivist.
2. What year did you graduate?
I finished OU in the summer of 2003 and then focused on anti-war and other grassroots organizing efforts while trying to support myself on consecutive part-time food service jobs at Bagel Street Deli, Casa Nueva and the Burrito Buggy – as well as a theoretically paid position as People Might’s executive director, from 2005 through 2008. Along the way I got a little boost from a small settlement in a wrongful arrest lawsuit related to an anti-war demonstration in Kent, Ohio. I did organizing work in Athens until the end of 2008, which is when People Might folded and I left The InterActivist. So all of my work on The InterActivist actually happened after I was a student at OU.
3. What made you interested in InterActivist?
Despite the drawbacks I mentioned earlier, I gradually came to see where The InterActivist could really excel.
First, The InterActivist was a great recruitment tool for InterAct. It made the group more accessible and more impressive.
These days, if I understand correctly, InterAct essentially is The InterActivist. But that’s not how it used to be. From mid-2003 through the end of 2005, InterAct was the primary social justice activist group at OU and as active as any of its community-based counterparts in Athens. In 2006 InterAct was voted over all Best Student Organization in the Athens News Readers Choice Awards, beating out the International Student Union and OU College Democrats – which are obviously two very large, long-running organizations, one of which is affiliated with the political party currently occupying the white house. And during this time InterAct carried out all kinds of projects besides The InterActivist – everything from guest speakers, study groups and conferences, to bus trips for rallies in Washington D.C., fundraisers, local protests, an alliance with a coalition of regional labor unions, and even acts of civil disobedience. Oh, and for a while we did a public access television show, too, called “Left Out.”
But what made The InterActivist especially useful was that it provided a less intimidating way for people to get to know InterAct in comparison, say, to attending a demonstration or even coming to a meeting. And whereas a one-time lecture by a visiting speaker might conflict with a students’ class or partying schedule that night, there was always a copy of The InterActivist lying around somewhere just waiting to be picked up and read.
So that’s the accessible part. As for the impressive part…
Even though, in many respects, the quality of the publication was embarrassingly bad in its early days, it was still good enough to show that InterAct’s members could do more than just bring in a speaker or hold a picket sign; they could also articulate compelling arguments and produce a publication. A former president of the College Republicans once admitted to me that the group was jealous of our accomplishments with The InterActivist. During the past decade at OU there have been several right-wing student newspapers and websites, but all the ones I’m aware of came and went pretty quickly. By the time The InterActivist was a year old it had already outlasted any of its right wing counterparts and by now I’d say it’s outgrown or outlasted all of its counterparts – period.
Anybody who cares about conducting outreach in order to build an activist group that’s large enough to carry out effective campaigns for change knows that accessibility and street cred matter – and The InterActivist helped InterAct with both. In contrast, one of the first student activist groups I joined was made up of about a dozen radical activists. These were super smart, passionate, committed people. But most were so snobby and cliquey and catty that they basically did negative outreach. They were walking advertisements for why people wouldn’t want to join their group. The InterActivist was one part of a multifaceted and very conscious effort to move beyond that sort of thing – just like InterAct explicitly defining “progressive” as a range of political views that encompassed everybody from liberal Democrats to radical leftists.
And it wasn’t just rhetoric. Over the years the group’s members included two presidents of the College Democrats, lots of New Deal liberals, a couple communists, some anarchists, a bunch of socialists, and lots of people who didn’t identify so specifically. We always drew attention to the fact that InterAct’s members didn’t agree about everything, and we had a written decision making process and group structure. All of this left a whole lot open to debate and prevented the most popular or articulate members from covertly exercising control of the group. It also meant that The InterActivist published a range of progressive opinion, and further demonstrated InterAct’s openness in this regard.
Something else I should mention about The InterActivist and the role it played within InterAct: Typically, InterAct had between 15 and 20 active members regularly attending meetings, plus up to about 200 more people connected through our listserv. In terms of active members, that’s about the size of most student groups. But the difference is that most student groups are directed by only 1 to 3 of their members – the “executives” – with most groups’ meetings looking like a typical classroom: one person is at the front of the room, speaking and facing an audience that is quiet and passive – listening attentively or daydreaming, who knows? This kind of hierarchy is easy, simple and totally inefficient. It’s the kind of social organization that’s good for capitalism and bad for most other things. People within InterAct recognized this and, as a result, the group looked and operated very differently.
Those 15 to 20 people at an InterAct meeting all sat in a circle. A different one of them volunteered to facilitate each meeting – that is, called on people who raised their hands to speak, helped keep discussion on track, took notes at the white board and helped group members work through an agenda they had all constructed collaboratively. And instead of a group of 15 to 20 people with 2 or 3 active members, we were much closer to being a group of 15 to 20 people with 15 to 20 active members. That is, different people initiated and executed different group projects and everybody had a hand in directing the group’s course through a very effective, very efficient process of direct democracy.
Now, getting back to my list of areas where The InterActivist could really excel…
Second, even though The InterActivist didn’t have the circulation of the major local papers, it was controlled by local progressive activists.
Initially, this meant we could offer readers two things besides our own news and commentary. The first was a directory of various progressive campus and community groups that included each group’s description and contact information, and the second was a calendar of upcoming events put on by those groups. Thus not only was InterAct concerned with a broad array of social justice issues – sex, gender, race, economic, environmental, war/peace, environmental, etc. – but we provided free support to all of the other local social justice groups that chose to specialize in any of these areas. Several other local groups published their own newsletters to promote themselves, usually mainly to their own members as opposed to the general public. But no other group besides InterAct – on campus or in Athens – used so many of its own resources to support other organizations and the local progressive movement in general.
Keep in mind that, in The InterActivist’s early years, we got no material support from any of the other organizations the magazine was supporting. It wasn’t until People Might began bottom-lining the project that we rounded up a coalition of co-sponsoring student organizations and the grant from Campus Progress. Unfortunately, I think the community groups – Appalachian Peace and Justice Network, United Campus Ministries – have really missed a great opportunity. The InterActivist has given them tons of publicity on campus. Since they work in a college town and depend a lot on student volunteers, I think it would have been – and still is – in these groups’ best interest to help with the magazine’s funding.
Of course, it’s not that these group’s never showed an interest. Sometime in 2007 or 2008 I was invited to apply for a job as one of the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network’s two paid staffers. At my interview with the hiring committee, I was told that if I was hired APJN wanted me to bring The InterActivist with me to their organization. I said I wasn’t interested. I had been struggling for years to build People Might, which, frankly (although I’m sure I didn’t tell APJN this at the time) I thought could be more productive than APJN. Plus, I didn’t think APJN’s board knew enough about what it took to produce The InterActivist back when it was a monthly magazine, running 30+ pages per issue, with a staff of 25 people, and distribution all over town. The InterActivist alone required me to work 20 to 40 or more hours per week, and APJN was interviewing me for a 20 hour per week job that I think would pay about $10,000 or $15,000 per year, and for which I assumed they wanted me to do more than just The InterActivist. So I turned them down, and APJN hired someone else.
In retrospect, assuming that The InterActivist was the deal-breaker for APJN, I probably made the wrong choice. APJN’s support would have been… I’ll say “less insufficient”… than what People Might was ultimately able to provide. And who knows, maybe working from APJN would have enabled me to do more fundraising for The InterActivist. On the other hand, it was far from an ideal scenario, and there just wasn’t any substantial grant money out there to fund what The InterActivist was doing, anyway.
But especially after People Might had to fold, APJN or UCM: Center for Spiritual Growth and Social Justice could have taken the initiative to step in and try to keep The InterActivist running at something closer to it’s 2007/2008 level. If I could do it with next to zero organizational support and essentially no pay, then in theory these groups should be able to do the same with multiple paid staff, a larger membership, a longer presence in the community, and more grant funding.
Granted, as progressive as Athens is, it’s still not exactly overflowing with resources to support progressive organizing and activism. But that’s what makes it all the more important to wisely invest scarce resources. Given how much The InterActivist was supporting progressive campus and community activism back then, and how much it was developing the skills of progressive writers and activists, I think it would have been, and still would be, a very wise investment for these groups to make.
But I digress… again. Getting back to your question about what interested me most about The InterActivist, probably the single most exciting thing for me is what comes from the magazine being controlled by progressives and therefore being an alternative medium.
A vital part of what makes alternative media “alternative” is an alternative medium’s ability to critique, confront and challenge mainstream media – be they major media like Fox News or NPR, or local established media like The Athens News, Athens Messenger or The Post.
When The InterActivist critiques Fox News or NPR, The InterActivist is most likely duplicating the work of countless other progressive journalists and media outlets. Being redundant in this way isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means The InterActivist is helping in some way to expand the reach of progressive analysis. Someone who happens to pick up The InterActivist may not have already been exposed to similar critiques via other progressive media.
Nevertheless, I think it’s more important for The InterActivist to provide progressive critiques of local established media. For one thing, there’s nothing redundant about this work. Usually, no one else is doing it.
True, local established media can choose to publish letters critical of their coverage. In Athens they do this pretty frequently. Over the years The Post and The Athens News have published some of my own pieces directly criticizing the papers or particular pieces they ran. But these papers publish criticism at their own discretion; they can just as easily decide not to publish it – which also happens. Plus, whenever a publication runs content produced by its own critics that critical content is secondary to the publication’s standard content. Thus letters to the editor and even guest columns typically have much lower word limits than are applied to the publication’s own content. At best, this gives the publication a major home court advantage over its critics. At worst, it means critics don’t have sufficient space to argue their cases compellingly.
In situations like these it’s very important for progressives to have their own media – and these situations come up pretty frequently. I’ll outline a couple specific cases between The InterActivist and other local media in a minute. But first I want to point out something more basic.
As critics of our society’s dominant mainstream institutions, progressives are by definition critics of mainstream media. There’s no way to be a progressive and be OK with a commercial media system that exists merely to sell audiences to advertisers and which is controlled by an increasingly small number of increasingly large corporations – the managers and shareholder of which usually having no more interest in the particular value of news, communication and public dialogue than they do in any other cost of accruing profit. It’s a screwed up system, which is also subject to additional pressure from the state, the public relations industry and a myriad of powerful groups. As a result, I think it’s fair to say that this media system more often produces garbage than valuable journalism.
One very stark illustration of this is the U.S. media’s coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War. It was so bad that a University of Maryland study showed that the more a person watched Fox News, the more likely he or she was to falsely believe that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was threatening the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction and had ties to both Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, both the New York Times and Washington Post felt compelled to offer weak, partial apologies their own failure at journalism and very real complicity in the invasion.
Interestingly, if you go back to the first Gulf War, you see the mainstream US media (as well as Congress and even Amnesty International) falling for something similar: the Kuwaiti baby incubator hoax that was constructed by the U.S. public relations firm Hill & Knowlton acting at the behest of the Kuwaiti royal family and in conjunction with the administration of George H.W. Bush.
But we don’t need to go back 10 or 20 years to see this sort of thing. A couple months back Glenn Greenwald gave an excellent talk in June at the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago. Echoing Dean Baker’s pronouncement that the recent NSA spying scandal has done as much to show the corruption of U.S. journalism as the corruption of the U.S. government, Greenwald contrasted two opposing ideas of journalism. Everybody – especially journalism students – should watch the talk in its entirety, but here’s one excerpt to illustrate the point.
“A lot of journalists and editors and the like have debates about what is the most prestigious journalism award. Is it a Polk award or a Peabody or a Pulitzer? And those are all prestigious awards, but I actually think the one we got yesterday is a significant level above them all, and I am very humbled and honored to have received this award. The U.S. army announced that it was blocking access at all army facilities throughout the world to The Guardian website in response to [our coverage of the NSA scandal]…
“And the reason I say that this is flattering, and it is actually flattering, is that I’ve long looked at journalism through this prism that defines the two polar opposites of what I consider journalism to be.
“And one of those polar opposites has long been defined for me by this speech that the great war correspondent David Halberstam gave in 2005 to students at Columbia Journalism School, and he was asked by the speech organizers to speak about the proudest moment in his career, and what he said was his most proudest moment in his journalism career is when he was stationed in Vietnam in 1963 and 1964 as a very young war reporter, he would go out into the field and see what was actually happening. So when he went to the press conferences of the US generals that afternoon and they made all sorts of claims, he knew that those claims were lies, and instead of disseminating those lies as truth he was standing up at these press conferences in the middle of a war zone and very aggressively challenging these generals, saying to their faces that he knew what they were saying was false, to the point where those generals went to the editors of the New York Times and demanded that he be removed from his position covering the war. That was his proudest moment in journalism: when he so angered the government officials that he was covering.
“And that event, that episode, stands in stark contrast to what I consider to be the other polar opposite, which was [expressed in] this interview that Bill Keller gave, who was the editor of the New York Times throughout the Bush administration, in which he was talking about the newspaper’s publication of some of the materials that they received from Wikileaks. He was giving a BBC interview, and he was very eager to distinguish what the New York Times did from what Wikileaks does – which makes sense on one level, since I don’t recall Wikileaks ever publishing a bunch of false articles that led the nation to war.
“But that wasn’t actually the difference Bill Keller was referring to. Bill Keller was trying to say the New York Times is radically different than what Wikileaks does because, unlike Wikileaks, that simply publishes whatever it wants, the New York Times under Bill Keller went to the Obama administration ahead of time and said, ‘These are the things that we want to publish; do you think we should?’ And if the U.S. government said, ‘You shouldn’t publish this, and you shouldn’t publish that, and you shouldn’t publish this other thing, because to do so will endanger national security,’ Bill Keller proudly said then the New York Times wouldn’t publish it. And he was beaming like a third grader who had just got a gold star from his teacher when he said in this BBC interview, ‘The Obama administration has continuously said that we have been very responsible in how we publish.’
“And the reason why that seems to me like polar opposites is that David Halberstam viewed the measure of good journalism as defined by how much you anger the people in power that you’re covering, whereas Bill Keller defines good journalism – and I think most modern establishment journalists define it this way as well – by how much you please the people in power that you’re covering.
“And for me, if you are pleasing the people in power by the things that you’re disclosing, you may be very good at your job, but your job is not journalism.”
So while a British newspaper reports a major U.S. spying scandal, and the international group Wikileaks reports various other sordid machinations of the U.S. government, the mainstream U.S. media is more concerned with cheerleading for the persecution of whistleblowers like Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden and people actually doing what the U.S. media doesn’t do much of – that being vitally important journalism. And as a related aside, if I remember correctly, I don’t even think Glenn Greenwald has a journalism degree. I’m pretty sure he just has a law degree.
But that’s the journalism industry in the U.S. And it’s worth remembering that this is the very industry which holds the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism in such high regard. And that, furthermore, this is the industry which Scripps is preparing people to enter. So I don’t think Scripps students have a lot of good role models. And as a result the local Athens media, which is heavily dependent on Scripps students, far too often ends up replicating problems of major U.S. media on a local level.
And this is why it’s so important for The InterActivist to confront these problems when they arise. It’s a cliché to talk about Athens like it’s insulated from the “real world.” But really, Athens is very much part of the larger society — and that’s especially true when we’re talking about the culture and output of U.S. news media.
Unfortunately, there are only two situations I know of in which The InterActivist directly confronted the Athens media establishment, and I was personally responsible for both of them. One resulted in flak from the journalism school – not just a pretty weak piece of written criticism from one professor, which we published, but also efforts to get at least one of our Scripps majors on staff to resign. In the other situation, we ran a piece that not only directly criticized The Post’s leadership at the time, but revealed much of the hidden institutional relationship between the newspaper, OU and Scripps. Publication of that piece was immediately followed by a rather dramatic reduction in The InterActivist’s quarterly SAC funding, from $10,800 in Fall 2007 to just $2,000 in Winter 2008.
It bears noting that, at the time of this dramatic de-funding, The InterActivist was co-sponsored by more student organizations, reached a wider audience and benefited a greater number of different student organizations than any other student project then requesting SAC funding. So SAC had to invent new guidelines in order to de-fund us. What’s more, SAC failed to notify us of its new rules before we submitted our funding request, but then penalized us further for not following those rules. It was a pretty underhanded thing to do, and I doubt the timing was a coincidence.
Then, shortly after SAC’s attack on The InterActivist, a journalism professor began meeting privately with one of People Might’s board members, making pretty serious and totally false accusations about me in an apparent attempt to stir up trouble with People Might’s board.
Unfortunately, this kind of stuff is pretty typical.
But I should also mention that I didn’t come to Athens to go to OU. I enrolled at OU after I came there to launch of group called Free Student Press, which educated public high school students on their First Amendment rights to distribute their own publications at school, free from the censorship of school officials. Within a month of launching the project, administrators at Nelsonville-York High School were attempting to ban a student paper and suspend its publishers. There was a big controversy, lasting about 5 months. It ended in victory for the students and resignation of their school’s principal.
At the time I was a student at OU’s College of Education, which is where the Nelsonville York superintendent got his PhD. So he called up the college to complain about me and I ended up in a meeting with the Assistant Dean and an attorney for OU, both of whom strongly encouraged me to stop my work teaching teenagers about their Constitutional rights.
At the same time, while FSP and the Nelsonville students got tons of support from various members of the community, not a single OU journalism professor opted to donate money to support the project, and we pitched to all of them. And that was even after we had prevailed at Nelsonville-York and the students involved received awards from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Also interestingly, members of FSP were invited to speak about our work to a teacher education class at OU, a political science class at OU, and twice at conferences hosted at the College of Education. The OU student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists invited me to speak about FSP’s work at a panel the group organized. But throughout all of the publicity surrounding our work between 1999 and 2004, we received no such invitations from Scripps faculty.
Finally, especially worth noting is the role of Scripps faculty in the two cases where The InterActivist challenged the Athens media. Both cases arose in response to The Post, from 2005 through 2008, being led by some particularly bad journalism students who also happened to have particularly bad politics. For a more detailed account of all of this, you can see the following:
But suffice to say we’re talking about some of Scripps’ star pupils at The Post engaging in false reporting, in reporting only those sources who shared the newspaper’s own editorial position, and in publishing racist satire and even a non satirical call for genocide. In none of these cases did The Post issue a retraction or apology. The newspaper received a great deal of public criticism from students, community members, Athens News editor Terry Smith, and even a handful of faculty.
But there is only one case where a professor from Scripps weighed in publicly on any of these matters – that was Bernhard Debatin’s piece that we ran in The InterActivist claiming that my critique of The Post’s treatment of a November 2005 anti-war rally was “plain unethical mudslinging” and “merely an attempt at character assassination,” “at times bordering on libel,” which “should be beneath a publication that claims to support social justice and progressive values.” He also accused me of using unnamed sources and reporting unverified hearsay as fact, accusations that anyone who reads the piece in question can see were false. I thought Debatin’s criticism of my piece was pretty asinine, which was sad because I had met him on a couple occasions before then and thought he seemed to be a likable guy with fairly good politics. But much worse that anything Debatin wrote about me was his complete public silence when some of his own students turned The Post into a platform for both belittling and advocating genocide, which one might think are far more severe offenses than anything of which Debatin had accused me.
Fast forward to the present, and today The InterActivist is featured on the Scripps homepage, and my impression is that the vast majority of staffers are journalism majors. Interestingly, however, The InterActivist was not founded by journalism majors. In fact, I think we had only one journalism major work on The InterActivist prior to 2006. And there was a time when we were not even allowed to distribute The InterActivist in Scripps Hall.
Take me, for instance. By the time The InterActivist was created, I’d had plenty of my writing published. I’d been on the staff of three different publications. I’d taught area high school students about their First Amendment rights and basic journalism law. I’d assisted some of those students in the creation of their own publications and helped one group defend its publication against the school administration’s attempt to ban the publication and suspend it’s publishers – a situation, as I mentioned before, that ended in victory for the students and the resignation of their principal. In 2002, I had exposed OU’s violation of the campus crime reporting requirements of the Clery Act at a time when more rapes were being reported in OU’s dorms than those of any other publicly supported post-secondary school in Ohio – a bombshell story that the entire local and statewide media missed and then did their best to ignore. (And I also helped organize the campaign that forced OU into compliance with the Clery Act and proved instrumental in the creation of OU’s women’s center.) Finally, I continued to publish work in other outlets the whole time I was working on The InterActivist. But I was never a journalism major and, most importantly, I hdidn’t really have any aspirations of a making a career in journalism.
When The InterActivist was founded I was a Political Science/ Education major. Sara DeAloia was a graduate student in Anthropology. Other early contributors included a graduate playwright student named Aaron Carter and an undergraduate theatre major named Sarah Michelson, both of whom had founded Students Against the War with Sara D. And then there was a medical student, an English major or two, a couple Poli. Sci. majors, and so on. I think a guy named Jordan Robinson was the first journalism major to contribute, and that would have been during the 2004/2005 school year, when he was a freshman. (Jordan later joined the staff again in 2007 as a columnist.) So in the early days, we were first and foremost campus activists who were interested in journalism, not journalism students who were interested in progressive politics and activism.
Now, I’d say that’s a pretty odd history for the second or third longest-running student publication on the same campus as one of the country’s top ranked schools of journalism. And that’s if you include The Post, which is so heavily supported by OU that it’s in an entirely different league. Otherwise, The InterActivist is in either first or second place.
Of course none of this is to unfairly malign Scripps students or even The Post. I’m friends with several excellent journalists who graduated from Scripps, including several that worked at The Post – and I worked there too, after all. In general, The Post has had its ups as well as its downs. Furthermore, it was during the People Might era that I led an effort to recruit more journalism majors for The InterActivist and that journalism majors soon came to fill a majority of staff positions.
Undeniably, The InterActivist’s transition from a student activist-run publication to a student journalist-run publication has brought with it many changes for the better. Over all, the quality of the magazine’s design, layout, writing and copy editing are all better today than they were in the early days. But as somebody who was there in the beginning, I worry that the closer The InterActivist gets to Scripps, the less likely it is to put forward progressive critiques of the Athens/OU media establishment, and perhaps of local power in general – which I see as the most valuable role the magazine can possibly play. But then again, maybe you kids are out to cause a lot more trouble than I know. I hope so.
I guess I’d say that the bottom line is that the world’s a fucked up place, and OU is very much a part of it. That doesn’t mean everybody should drop out. But it does say that progressive students should be confronting the campus manifestations of larger societal problems – and there’s no shortage of opportunities there – as opposed to just aiming to please their professors and administrators.
4. What was your position with InterActivist?
During The InterActivist’s first two years, there were no specific staff positions. The process of producing an issue would begin when someone at an InterAct meeting proposed that an issue be produced with a specific person acting as project coordinator for that issue. If the proposal passed, then we’d pass around a sheet of paper. Everyone who had signaled their enthusiastic support for the idea would sign up with their names and email addresses, and it would be up to the coordinator to organize a separate meeting of this working group. The people who actually showed up at the working group meeting would then figure out how to produce an issue and, finally, be credited generally as the “staff” of that particular issue.
That’s how I was credited in all but two or three of the issues that were produced before the summer of 2005. During that time, I wrote commentary and news pieces and pitched in with every other aspect of production, from photography and layout, to fundraising, working with our printer and then the helping with final distribution. For most of 2004 and 2005 I tackled all of the layout myself.
Then, in the summer of 2005, a few veteran members of InterAct broke off to create the community based nonprofit center for activist development People Might, with me as the group’s Executive Director. Shortly thereafter InterAct transferred primary responsibility for The InterActivist to People Might, and I led a process of re-organizing production of the magazine so that it could be published regularly, each month that OU was in regular session, and with support from five different local progressive groups. These groups would each apply for SAC funding, and we were able to also secure a small annual grant from the Campus Progress division of the Center for American Progress. This process of reorganization also involved establishing official positions, which people would be hired to fill on a quarterly basis and adapting InterAct’s democratic process to the particular needs of The InterActivist.
From mid 2005 through late 2008, I was the person primarily responsible for The InterActivist. Whether my official title was “Publication Advisor,” “Project Coordinator” or “Editor in Chief,” I interviewed, hired and trained the staff; I coordinated fundraising; I picked up the slack in various areas when other people bailed or came up short – particularly over the summers when students were away. Occasionally, I still found time to write news articles, opinion columns and feature interviews. So I guess you could say that I’ve done everything for The InterActivist (including selling my plasma and being homeless) except for writing poetry and running the printing presses.
5. Do you have a favorite story or stories you worked on? Tell me about them.
In terms of my own work as a writer, I am probably most proud of the two pieces I wrote in direct opposition to The Post – not because they were my best pieces of writing, but because they were examples of The InterActivist playing what I see as one of its most important roles.
I also liked the two news articles I wrote on faculty organizing at OU in 2004, and the one piece I wrote on a labor dispute at the Eramet Marietta factory in 2007. Prior to The InterActivist I had written lots of commentaries and essays, but no news stories. These articles got me started, and I followed up with a front page investigative piece on the environmental controversy surrounding Eramet Marietta for the Athens News in March 2007.
Oh, and the faculty organizing articles from 2004 were fun because I got to catch former OU president Robert Glidden in a lie and making one blatantly stupid statement. People in positions of power often become arrogant to the point of abject stupidity. In other words, power often has effects which are emotionally, psychologically and intellectually regressive for people. This is partly why powerful people have to surround themselves with public relations specialists, spokespeople and speech writers. But if you can get to them directly, they’re often pretty quick to stuff a proverbial foot in their mouths. Glidden was far more accessible than OU’s current president, Roderick McDavis, and as a result McDavis doesn’t have the opportunity to make so many mistakes.
And, lastly – with regard to my own writing – I really enjoyed the “activist spotlight” feature interviews I did for The InterActivist. As an opinion columnist – and so often in my work as an activist or as an organizer – I’m focused on making my own compelling argument. As a reporter, meanwhile, I’m interviewing lots of people, but I’m still responsible for organizing all of the information from my sources into a coherent story. But as an interviewer for feature pieces like these, I get to focus on my questions and encouraging the interviewees to really tell their own stories. Not only is this a nice change of pace for me, but I get to be the kind of interviewer I so often have wished would interview me.
As an activist and organizer, I’ve been interviewed by many different reporters for many different publications over the years, and so often I’ve been misquoted — literally, I’ve been misquoted from The Post to the LA Times — or I’ve been frustrated with the particular snippet a reporter pulled from my comments, and so on. So whenever I interview someone, I do it with an audio recorder, and I transcribe the entire interview before I select choice quotes. That way I actually get to listen to the person I’m interviewing rather than just waiting for him or her to say something that fits my preconceived notion of the quote I want.
So often reporters have already written a story in their heads and are just going through the perfunctory formality of interviewing people in order to legitimate that story. That’s not journalism; that’s attempting to fake journalism. Plus, getting an audio recording is a way to cover your own ass. A reporter should always have an independently verifiable record in case a source later denies having said something.
But with the feature interviews, I don’t even have to select a few short quotes. Instead, I get to ask probing questions. I get to listen and facilitate. But it’s up to the interviewees to tell their stories – and I love giving them the space to do that, especially since I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some very interesting people for The InterActivist. My interviews with Brittany Benton, Ashley Diaz and Velma Lopez (all from the Latino Student Union) and Amy Melnyk were probably my favorites as far as my involvement was concerned, although my interviews with Jehan Mullin, Akil Houston and Mickey Hart all had a lot of really good content.
It probably goes without saying, but The InterActivist gave me the opportunity to try on so many different “hats” as a writer, while I also got to do just about everything else associated with producing a magazine at one time or another, including designing the entire production process as a democratic cooperative. I can’t imagine many other projects that would have afforded opportunities to develop such a wide array of journalistic, media production and organizing skills.
Now, when it comes to other peoples’ work – writing, as well as photography, graphic design, layout, editing, fundraising, etc. – I don’t have anywhere near as much insight as I do into my own work. I don’t know how particular projects helped the people responsible develop and what work those people were most proud of. But I will say that I’m very proud of a lot of the material The InterActivist has carried from so many wonderful writers over the years. It’s hard to pick favorites when there’s so much to choose from. Everybody brought something different to the table, and it was all worth having.
The InterActivist published Peggy Gish’s reporting on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners six months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. At one point in time we had the only African American student columnist regularly writing on race issues and the only LGBT columnist writing on LGBT issues. We had a local attorney with Legal Aid writing on poverty and legal issues. We broke a story on a property dispute between OU and Athens over the sidewalk in front of the student center (to me, it’s still the “new” student center), that impacted the level of free speech rights people could enjoy there. In addition to firsthand reports from Iraq, we had them from Israel/Palestine, India, El Salvador, Venezuela, Mexico, the U.S. border with Mexico… and I’m sure more that I’m forgetting now. Just a ton of great content in the 5 years I was involved from more than 100 different contributors.
6. Was there a specific local, national or international event/events that you remember being covered during your time at InterActivist?
All of the ones I’ve mentioned and then some.
7. Do you have a favorite memory from InterActivist?
That’s hard. I can tell you my most “I didn’t sign up for this shit” memory. That’s trying to work out a strip tease to Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” the night before our second all male revue fundraiser when I thought we weren’t going to have enough strippers. On top of being fairly shy in most contexts besides activism and journalism, I am also a pretty shitty dancer. So I’m not exactly an ideal male stripper. Thankfully, after my then girlfriend / now wife got a glimpse of me trying, very awkwardly, to work out my routine, she found someone else to strip in my place.
What I remember more fondly, however, isn’t any one specific memory, but more my recollection of meetings – of producing a magazine through a highly efficient, directly democratic, cooperative process. The extent to which I organized that process, and to whatever extend it benefited all of the staff members’ development (you’ll have to ask them), is something I am even more proud of than any of my own writing for The InterActivist.
8. What was your favorite part?
I grew up watching the 1980s television show The A-Team, and like the character Hannibal always said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” I’m not the greatest organizer when it comes to selling people on an idea and getting them all pumped about it. I can do it to some extent in my writing, but get me face-to-face and I’m not really a motivational speaker. On the other hand, I think I’m pretty good at designing and implementing efficiently functioning democratic cooperative structures and processes. Prior to The InterActivist I had lived at the ACME housing co-op, worked at the quasi-cooperative restaurant Casa Nueva, organized two prior publications, worked within a bunch of consensus-based activist groups, and helped design the structure and decision-making process of two of those groups. The InterActivist was a place where I feel like I got to improve upon everything I had learned from all those previous experiences, and I was very happy with the results.
9. What else were you involved with during your time at OU?
That’s a long list. The briefest summary is in the resume I copied below – it’s the one I’ve used for more activist/organizer type job applications. There’s a lot more info at my writing website – particularly in the January 2009 interview I gave to The InterActivist just after I left the staff, and in the “My Organizing” section, which has a bunch of news coverage of various stuff I’ve been involved in. The “Organizational Literature” section has some more info, too.
10. Why do you think a publication like InterActivist is so important at a campus like OU?
Because 1.) the ordinary functioning of our world’s dominant institutions leads to our species’ eventual destruction and massive injustice until then, and 2.) OU’s primary function is to ensure the consistent operation of those institutions by training and certifying people to fulfill those institutions’ component roles. That’s true for journalism, but for everything else, too.
There is a difference between working within an institution and working according to its dictates and parameters. Progressive students should be intervening on campus whenever possible – to articulate critiques, to organize a countervailing force and win reforms, to model preferable alternatives, etc. The InterActivist can be a vital part of all of this in the ways I described above.
Plus, if you’re a student who’s living off of loan money or parental support right now, this is probably the freest you will ever be in life. On the one hand, you’re not living under your parents’ roof or their rules any more. On the other, you’ve got no kids, no spouses, no full-time jobs, no loan payments. You live in a beautiful, walkable, unusually progressive town. You have significant free time, access to a great library and intellectually engaged people. You have thousands of people your own age with whom to learn and organize. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll come to find that you had a whole lot more energy and passion in your early to mid twenties than you’ve got in your early to mid thirties.
A lot of people spend their college years on promiscuous sex, binge drinking and thoughtlessly jumping through academic hoops in hopes of securing as comfortable a spot as possible in the existing social order. I don’t mean to put down sex and partying. And I probably should have paid a little more attention to my own future material comfort when I was in school. But to focus exclusively or even primarily on these aspects of college life seems like an incredible waste of what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really figure out what kind of a world you want and to work towards achieving it with far fewer obstacles than you’re likely face in the future.
Assuming that the world you want is characterized by environmental sustainability and greater social justice, then The InterActivist can be a vital part of pursuing that kind of change in Athens.
And ultimately, making a real difference – even on a local level – feels a whole lot better than getting drunk. It feels a whole lot better than getting an “A.” Sometimes it’s even better than getting laid.
11. What are you doing now?
I spent all of my twenties, an entire decade of my life, trying to create a powerful, sustainable activist institution in Athens. From the beginning it was a losing battle (because, very sadly, the progressive community in Athens does a pretty bad job of allocating its scarce resources), and I fought it until I was utterly burnt out. Since leaving Athens I’ve spent most of my time trying to get my own life in order. I haven’t come back to organizing yet, but I’ve started writing again. I’ve had a couple pieces published this year, but I’m really just testing the waters again. I’m also an artist – pencils and charcoal mostly – and I just launched a web-based pet portrait business. I’ve got a couple other projects in the works, too. So I stay busy. Still, I have to prioritize my own wellbeing right now, and that limits the opportunities I had when I was your age.
12. Have you already covered, or do you plan to continue to cover, issues like those that InterActivist covers?
Yes and yes. I’ve never wanted to be a writer, or be a journalist. I’ve never wanted to be a teacher, or be an activist – or an organizer, artist, graphic designer, web designer, video editor, etc. I’ve never wanted to be anything so much as I’ve wanted to accomplish certain things.
What I want to accomplish is to make a tangible, concrete, and hopefully substantial contribution to the creation of a radically more just world. My journalism can be part of this. My activism can be part of this. My organizing and institution building can be part of this. And clearly, I’ve got a long way to go. But I don’t want to be anything for its own sake. I don’t see any point in that. A radically more just world is the end; everything else is just a means.
So whereas Eric Fromm famously contrasted “having” with “being,” I want to contrast “being” with “doing.” I think of being a journalist in terms of having a degree and a job that says you’re a journalist. But are you really doing journalism, and in the sense that Greenwald discusses it above? That’s the more important question for me when it comes to journalism.
In general I think the professionalization of an area leads to its reification – like “journalist” or “teacher” or even “organizer” is something you are in general, as opposed to something you do or something you accomplish, again and again. It has always seemed to me that as one means of maintaining its reputation, Scripps works to inflate the egos of its students – like, “You are a journalist. You are a Scripps student. You are one of the special, select few.” I think that helps create the kind of elitism that pervades American journalism and which, worst of all, leads to journalists identifying with other elites and defending those elites against the general public instead of working to hold those elites accountable to the public.
So when it comes to me, whether I’m doing journalism at any particularly moment, I’ll always have it in the back of my mind. And when it seems like a practical route to take in advancing my goals, then I’ll do journalism again. In the meantime, after a three-year hiatus, I returned to writing earlier this year. I compiled most of my old material on a website and began blogging. I had a piece on two of the films at this past spring’s Athens Film Festival published in the Athens News, and then later one on an alleged sexual assault incident. I’ve also had two pieces published by ZNet, one on some of the 2013 Oscar nominees and another on an interesting act of protest by a Russian performance artist. But, basically, I’m kind of easing back into writing, and I have a bunch of projects underway. So we’ll just have to see what I can accomplish.