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

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.
March 25, 2010

Image Description
Photo Credit: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t

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

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.

Byard Duncan is a contributing writer and editor for AlterNet.

Jeremy Scahill is one of the best ever!

Thank you Jeremy, for your courage to speak truth.

Team up with Russ Baker

Team up with Russ Baker

Fred Fielding

Please correct me if I'm wrong but I thought Scahill downplayed the role of Kean commissioner Fred Fielding in Blackwater.

Is there any mention of 9/11 here?

Do these guys ever mention 9/11, do they ever talk about the evidence of government cover up of 9/11, do they have a position on the issue, do we ever hear about it on sites like Alternet, CommonDreams, DemocracyNow ... why are they posted here, do they relate to 9/11 or the search for the truth about 9/11? Actually, come to think of it, Alternet and Democracy Now and Amy Goodman don't ever talk about 9/11, unless to scoff at the cause of 9/11 truth, so why are they being promoted here, on 9/11 blogger ... am I missing something?


"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?"

You're right about the direct absence of 9/11 issues here, but overall the point is made, that to get to the truth (FOIA's), our current administration is not helping much. We need the FOIA's to show how far this coverup has gone- ask Aidan M.


when a previous winner is Amy Goodman the gatekeeper!?
On the other hand, the moderators buried important article like

A Little Known Fact About the 9/11 Planes

which must be on the front page.

Something is not right here.
9/11 Truth Australia
September 11th was an Inside Job!

Real Independent Media & 9/11 Truth are married.

We know that national mainstream media will NEVER fully report and promote the 9/11 Truth issue. We know this. Occasionally, we win with soundbite national coverage.

The primary challenge of 9/11 Truth at this juncture is the dissemination of the alarming facts and evidence surrounding 9/11. This is why 9/11 Truth and Real Independent Journalism are married (or at least have an intimate relationship).

These recent 911Blogger topics have highlighted this unique relationship. 9/11 Truth has a main objective to disseminate the message. Luke Rudkowski talks about the dawn of a new age of muckraking. Russ Baker is beating the drum hard for real journalism. We see RUSSIA TODAY often give 9/11 Truth coverage. INFOWARS has always beat the drum for exposure of 9/11 Truth. Guerilla dissemination tactics have long been utilized by grassroots individuals in trying to communicate 9/11 Truth. McGee recently bought TV ads in order to disseminate the message. and the "Building What?" campaign. Peace of the Action. Treason in America Conference. WACLA became the peace march. Individuals and groups all over the world are trying to broadcast the message which real journalism is supposed to carry.

Jeremy Scahill: "We're At a Ground Zero Moment to Save Real Journalism" is part of the 9/11 Truth saga...
"...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...
"...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....."

Scahill Has Done Superb Work On Blackwater etc.

I don't have a lower opinion of him because he has not delved into 9/11, people with his skill and integrity, I have to hope, will eventually start to seriously look into 9/11.


Thanks TomT.

JS seemed sincere on Bill Maher

last year, but who opened the gates for this guy? It's difficult to trust anything that comes from the MSM these days. If JS is the real deal, it sure was courageous of him to expose Blackwater. By the way, no more Bill Maher for me, I can't stomach it anymore.

Jeremy isn't any better than MSM when it comes to 9/11

Jeremy has decided long ago to never mention the truth about 9/11.
He and Amy Goodman and the rest have censored the real evidence of 9/11.
I read his first book, watched his interviews, and somehow was conned into thinking he was the real thing..........brave, honest, thorough, and wanting to get to the bottom of the real lies and deceit and corruption of government.
Instead, he just makes a name for himself messing around at the edges.

Jeremy = censorship.

I gave Jeremy Scahill 12 DVDs...

when I heard him speak a year ago.

He signed my copy of his book:

In Truth
& Justice!

Jeremy Scahill

he said he knew many others doing what I was doing (actively disseminating 9/11 Truth)
and thanked me.

He may come around to telling the whole ugly truth.

Russ Baker Had Been Conspicuously Silent on 9/11

Sadly Scahill = Very Limited

Sadly Scahill = Very Limited Hangout. He'll never come around to 9/11 Truth. He, like his liberal illeterati friends, will poo poo it away and keep it a distance in order to save themselves from doing an internal audit and spring cleaning in their liberal left-wing ,hemp-filled, Noam-loving, Mac-using and Birkenstock programmed brains.

The pattern

I do have a hard time imagining Scahill ever approaching 9/11 truth without somehow getting out from under the same kinds of pressures that have influenced Amy Goodman. And I say of him what I say of many other journalists and commentators who do very good work on some topics, but are silent about 9/11: that we not devalue the good work they good do; but neither do we take too much encouragement from that good work to the point of assuming that sooner or later, they're bound to take up the 9/11 issue, so long as we get them the information and give them time. Yes, we can hope for exceptions; but let's not get our hopes up and set ourselves up for disappointment should the pattern repeat itself yet again, of alternative journalists exposing some crimes in high places, but not daring to cross that invisible line in the sand (maybe 'line in the dust' would be more fitting?) that clearly has been placed around the issue of 9/11 truth.

Sometimes 9/11 activists are criticized as if they just have a pet issue that they want everyone else to cover. But in reality, it is not we who selected the issue; rather, we call attention to the manifest conspiracy of silence surrounding the issue; by the sheer uniformity with which the left liberal intelligentsia and alternative press have been silent about the flaws of the 9/11 official story--showing too much of a consistent pattern in their position for it to be considered random (as Barrie Zwicker has discussed this on different occasions)--it is they who have made apparent better than we ever could the specialness and significance of the issue.

But I digress. Anyway, to repeat: let's not discount the good work of Scahill in his exposés of Blackwater; and let's not be overly disappointed if he never starts speaking up about the problems of the 9/11 OCT.

Why does he avoid 9/11? Let's try to think about this.

I think we need to begin to really understand why virtually all of the bigger names in alternative media avoid 9/11 truth like the plague, as bad or maybe even worse than the msm.
I have a few ideas, but I'ld love to hear others. It seems odd that nobody in the 9/11 truth movement is close enough to ANY journalists in the entire US not to have ever heard any reasons why this issue is censored with NO journalists crossing the line (ok, a few places, like infowars.......but really, let's face it, it is just about a total censoring).

Here's one:

Alternet is one of the worst. It covers every other topic imaginable as far as alternative thinking. But it will not cover 9/11, except a few slick articles over the years that basically insulted and mocked the movement. Joshua Holland, a senior editor and writer, has been especially nasty in attacking 9/11 truthers as the ultimate fringe weirdos. Why on earth? WTF?
Well, a couple of us looked into their financial support. What we found was that a big hunk of the money they get to continue running comes from "foundational support". You can find their donors on a page on the website. We researched a few of these and although we didn't get as far as we could/should have, we found the big corporate sponsors and what looked like some sponsors who seemed connected to pro Israel groups. Somebody with access to more information could find out a lot more and end up with more certainty in what is going on, but I'd assume that these foundations will donate money but with a stipulation that no coverage of the truth of 9/11 can be presented on the site. That's just my opinion. Somebody must know more about this, somewhere. Please, let us know if you do.

Another idea is that somebody like Jeremy needs air time on venues like Democracy Now and Grist, and even on the msm. He sells his books and gets his name published a lot more that way. That is good for him, and it is good that his subjects get air time where a lot of people will hear his message. But it means he has to watch it that he doesn't do anything that would make those venues nervous. They do NOT want him coming on for an interview and mentioning 9/11. And so he has to avoid the issue.
I can understand it that a young aspiring journalist would make this decision, to avoid 9/11 truth, but it still disappoints me. Seems wimpy. Maybe I'd do the same in his position.

Any other ideas?

I think the point here

is that we need to be clear in our criticisms of others (and ourselves) that we
1) distinguish those who are clearly our enemies from those with whom we have disagreements
but also agreements, and with whom we MAY be able to work together; and
2) be constructive. When criticizing someone's shortcomings also remember to acknowledge their merits.
3) remember that human beings (and social institutions) are complex creatures: brave in some cases, not in others.

I think the interview with J.S. offers some important insights into nature of "independent citizen-journalism" from a guy who has proved his bravery by going to the front lines along many battle-zones; and yet, who has also avoided the issue of 9-11 because, well... for a number of the reasons cited here.

These are questions well worth asking; because ultimately, building an effective movement is about forming alliances with other groups that share similar interests.

The best way for us to go may be to by-pass people like Scahill and Goodman altogether, and hook up with people at the grassroots of the peace movement by clearly stating a principled rejection of the military-industrial-state.

Many of us are more-learned on the matters of the military, civil liberties, etc. than people in the peace movement. By using the important research that Scahill and others have done, we can talk to war resisters and then perhaps offer them some more to think about.

Just remember: know when to push and when not to push; try to be respectful; and listening is one of the most-persuasive things we can do.

I find your comments above to be very thoughtful.
It's the kind of clear-sighted yet also compassionate (self-reflective) criticism we need more of and... will see us well in the difficult days to come.

Thanks, and you are right.

We need to be respectful and careful and empathetic with others.
AND we need to be objective, and see the truth, beyond emotionalism.
We need to be better than our opponents.

BUT, we need to realize who are working against us, and who could be our supporters.
I think that clearly Amy and Alternet and Common Dreams will never support us.
In fact, Alternet and Common Dreams and other venues actually mock and insult us. We cannot consider them allies. We can consider them enemies. But we need to still be respectful of them in personal ways.

What we REALLY need to find out is just why Amy and Joshua Holland and Justin Raimondo and Jeremy Scahill and the rest work so hard to censor us. There must be a reason, a common reason. Once we understand why they have treated the massive evidence of lies and coverup of 9/11 truth, then we can begin to work to turn them around.

I think THIS website is the place to find out why they have turned their backs on us. I don't know the next step, but SOMEBODY in the 9/11 truth movement must know some journalists that are linked with the alternative media movement. They surely could find out something.