This interview was originally published by AlterNet.
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.