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?