Big names – at least in the world of progressive print media – are coming to Monterey on Earth Day, April 22, with a panel discussion on the mixing of journalism and activism (aka “advocacy journalism”). The event, sponsored by the Monterey Institute of International Studies, caps the Monterey-based Sustainability Academy’s Sustainable Cities Symposium at the Monterey Conference Center.
Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, which in 1989 became the first book for a general audience about global warming. He’s since blazed a career as an environmental advocacy journalist, with numerous books, articles and online works about the challenges of sustainability in a rapidly changing world. Now a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, McKibben continues to publish in such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones and Orion.
San Francisco-based freelancer Rebecca Solnit is known for her essays on progressive politics, war and human relationships with our environment. Her dozen books include Storming the Gates of Paradise and Hope in the Dark; her hundreds of essays have appeared in such publications as The L.A. Times, The Nation, and Salon.com.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, and MIIS environmental economist Jason Scorse will also take part in the discussion.
McKibben and Solnit answered the Weekly’s three-part question by e-mail, offering a taste of next week’s intellectual buffet. Here they discuss the future of advocacy journalism in light of three things:
Rapid climate change in the journalism industry.
SOLNIT: Well, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. I’m involved with a wonderful website, www.TomDispatch.com, that has created a more flexible, immediate and far-reaching response to the wildly mutating world we inhabit than I think print journalism can. On the other hand, all the writers have other sources of income. It’s a work of love on the part of those of us who actually get paid elsewhere for our work, and the drying up of that elsewhere is a problem. I heard a young person say that it didn’t matter if newspapers disappeared, because she got her news from these left sites. That the sites rely directly on newspaper content they take for free – and base commentary on the investigations newspapers, radio and magazines pay for – passed her by.
MCKIBBEN: Something is clearly dying in journalism, and something less clear is being born. The thing that comes next, whatever it is, will need to find real credibility – it must be fact-driven. And it must be beautifully done. Look at websites like www.TomDispatch.com, where Rebecca writes regularly and I contribute from time to time. Or, in the environmental field, check out www.grist.org, or www.yale360, or treehugger, or worldchanging. There’s enough out there to give one some real hope.
The crashing economy.
SOLNIT: Unfortunately as we move into an era of more polarized news, the money is with the right and outlets like Fox News right now. I don’t know how to measure a giant like Fox and the Murdoch empire against the hundreds of thousands of progressive blogs, sites and related phenomena that provide other views and other news, but I’m fearful that all our efforts are often overwhelmed by these propaganda machines. They certainly were during the collective madness of 2002-2003, but then The New York Times and Washington Post were part of that collective madness too. These made advocacy journalism and alternative media matter more. Still, I’m terrified about my own city, San Francisco, becoming effectually newspaperless if the Chronicle folds. These are important pieces of a democracy. And the act of reading the paper is a very different one than sifting the Web, in pleasure and sensation as well as mental process.
MCKIBBEN: I think there’s actually a greatly increased appetite for real information, as opposed to fluff and boosterism. People need to know what’s going on. The danger is that the number of reporters – of actual notebook-in-hand investigators – is drying up fast. There can’t be more than a dozen or so full-time American reporters left in Africa, for instance. We’ve got to figure out some ways to get resources into the field.
The new Obama administration.
SOLNIT: So many of us whose worldviews were simple are now complicated: Are they “us” or “them”? Sometimes they’re us, sometimes they’re them, and how do you respond to that? I think it’s actually a pretty great moment where, instead of fighting to keep the worst at bay, we can move forward and demand stronger measures to reinvent the economy and address the catastrophic state of the environment. But that’s going beyond advocacy journalism to the participation of an informed and engaged civil society that should, perhaps, be the ultimate aim of such journalism.
MCKIBBEN: There’s enormous opportunity, because the new administration defaults to open and transparent, not secret. We basically have no idea about the most important topics of the last eight years, because the paranoid and dirty-handed administration kept information quiet – even basic science. Much will now spill out, and Obama seems able to live with scrutiny, able to confess mistakes. A new day in every way.