One of the most enduring lessons I have learned as national activist, that has generated well over six million readers in the last three years, is that much like the scientists and laymen from lesson one; the media and activists don’t mix either, unless Julia Roberts played you in a movie. Then the media will suck you off to get an interview and not fact check.
I can look back to earlier this year, to another cause, and recount a situation that played out with a media outlet in Virginia, as an example of the archtype of my experiences with local media outlets all over The United States.
My organization, SuperfundResearch.org, had just publicly exposed a corrupt economic deal where Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R) worked with Warren County officials to redevelop the largest Superfund toxic waste site in the state, with all of them claiming there was a $40 million contract to build a data center on top of the still polluted Avtex Superfund site, as the US EPA stated that there was a “strong risk of vapor intrusion,” and that no impact study had been conducted.
Using targeted Facebook marketing – and Jedi level social media skills – we’d managed to capture an audience of roughly eight thousand readers, in two days, in a town with eight thousand registered voters, thus making us the single largest media outlet in the area for a period of forty-eight hours, which is something we can do, at will, in any city.
The local officials, local media, and local citizens, by the time we were through, had no idea what hit them. Yet, not one media outlet attempted to reach out for a statement, rather going into what I would call “turtle mode,” sucking their heads and legs into their shells, and screaming “La la la la la la la la I can’t hear you, my friend is the mayor, my friend is a county official la la la la la la la I can’t hear you!”
You see, it was the local media that worked to promote this alleged $40 million dollar deal. The media never asked question of the leaders; they simply parroted everything that was said to them. When we published, we caught them all with their pants down, taking huge hot dump on the local citizens. As every spine for ten square miles stiffened, one could almost hear the sound of eight-thousand people spitting coffee on their computer screens at the same time, out of utter shock.
Only an hour after we hit go on the campaigns, the death threats, insults and attack articles started. Since I lived in this area, I suddenly became the most famous human being in the entire town, eventually having to hire a body guard to go to the grocery store with me because the reaction to what we’d done so vitriolic and dangerously virulent, as it had been in many towns before.
When I realized that the local media was going to be of no help, I decided to travel to Richmond to find a media out that wasn’t copulating with the local elected officials so I could either go on TV and make a statement or have them publish the results of our investigation, as a counter balance to the lies being spread by the elected officials and media, about me, and the ITFederal deal itself.
But, when I got to Richmond, it was clear that since my marketing campaign didn’t reach their zip codes, the media there had no idea what had happened and no understanding of the sheer volume of traffic we had generated.
I walked into the waiting room of the local network affiliate and patiently asked to speak to someone. I explained, “Hi, my name is Matt, I am a national working filmmaker and activist, and I am wondering if I can speak to an editor.”
The woman behind the desk said, “Hold on, let me get someone, can I tell them what you want to speak to them about?”
I replied,”Yes, my organization just conducted an investigation into the ITFederal Deal in Front Royal and we have learned that there is no $40 million dollar contract and that the organization that they cite that the contract is with doesn’t exist. Your station has covered this issue.”
She asked me to hold on for a minute and quickly walked into another room. About a minute later, two men entered the room, as if to stand guard, saying nothing to me, but just stood there staring at me.
The woman came back about two minutes later, and said, “I’m sorry, she is busy right now. Can you send us an e-mail with your information and we will get back to you?”
I stood there remembering in 2013 when I walked into the Region 5 EPA office in Chicago with a camera, the same EPA office in which the officials were later forced to resign over the Flint Water Crisis. The EPA official said, “I’m sorry there is no one here to speak with you, can you send us an e-mail and we’ll get back to you?”
I said, “I have actually been sending you e-mails requesting a statements and assistance for the last ten years and I have never got a single response. Can you give me the contact information for the community relations officer that covers the Summit Equipment & Supplies Superfund site?”
He thought to himself for a minute, and muttered “Summit Equipment & Supplies?”
I said, “Yes, it’s the Superfund site in Akron where the Department of Defense was dumping live tank and mortar shells in a residential neighborhood, my neighborhood.”
He stiffened up,”I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I retorted, “So you are saying that the EPA doesn’t care about the health and safety of US citizens?”
He blurted, “That’s preposterous!”
I smiled and said, “Then why are you asking me to leave the building?”
I drifted back into the present, in the middle of the newsroom waiting area and said, “I’m here right now. Is there any way that I can please speak to someone? It’s important. If Erin Brockovich walked in here, you’d be bending over backwards to have a listen to what she had to say.”
She looked at me, obtusely, and said, “Frankly, sir, we’ve never heard of you so we’re not interested.”
I laughed, “You sound like a Facebook troll, but let me tell you how this really works: I’ve had six million readers in the last two years, but there are three hundred million people in this country, so even with those numbers, there are still two-hundred ninety-four million people that won’t know who I am. It’s a given you’ve never heard of me. Are you familiar with a man named Dave Mustaine?”
She bitterly said, “No, never heard of him either.”
I said, “He’s the guy from 11 time Grammy Nominated Megadeth who’s sold thirty million albums, the guy that started Metallica.”
At this moment, one of the guys in the waiting area pulled out his cell phone and said, “I’m calling the police.” Then he started dialing.
I looked at him and said, “So now you’re going to attempt to create legal issue for me, simply because I am persistently asking to speak to someone about a corrupt $40 million dollar economic deal, one which you your station has published as fact, when it doesn’t actually exist?”
At that point I said, “OK then, you have a good day.”
He then followed me out into parking lot as I walked toward a very, very nice Land Rover LR3. He yelled, “That’s an expensive car, if you touch it you’ll be charged with breaking an entering!”
I looked at him, furrowed my brow, chortled to myself, reached in my pocket, pulled out my key, hit a button, the lights on the Land Rover flashed, the doors unlocked, and I got in. At that moment, a worried look came over his face, and he hung up the phone.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, he stopped and looked at me, as I was looking at him, and then I cranked up the stereo, which was blasting Metallica’s ..and Justice for All. I gave him a polite smile, and peeled out of the parking lot, made a quick right, as I saw a police car making a right from the same road in the opposite direction, heading towards the news station.
As I was driving away, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, adrenaline pumping, laughing to myself, I tapped the red button to stop recording. I thought about how this same scene had played out all over the country, and how many pieces of film I have on my drives of media outlets refusing to speak to me, the repeated exact same responses I get, ranging from “I’ve never heard of you!” to “We do our best,” to “Are you kidding me?! I make $24,000 a year and can barely afford my Kia payment, I am not getting involved in this!”
When I got home, I called my business partner and told him what happened. The situation that went down in the waiting room was at least the hundredth time something like that had happened. It was also one of those moments where one later thought of a much better reply that they wish they would have said in the heat of the moment.
I told him, “You know, if all the hundreds of people that told me they never heard of me would have written about me, all of them would have fucking heard of me!”
The lesson for the activist, here, is that the media rarely writes about activists unless their name is Erin Brockovich, a woman who also happens to be one of the most slimy, manipulative, disingenuous, money-driven, ambulance-chasing, dishonest, slime balls that ever lived. No offense, Erin.
And if one checks Brockovoch’s track record, by reading through her fan page, you’ll see that almost all of the causes she publishes were furiously researched and uncovered by local activists who, much like me, fought for many years just to get a local media outlet to listen to them.
Then, five years in, just as the battle is about to be won, after the work is done, after the local media is involved, after there is nothing left to do but celebrate, Erin shows up, gets her photo op and gets called a hero for everything she does, as the activist stands there watching everything they worked for get stolen by a shameless charlatan, thinking, “What a fucking piece of shit…” but doesn’t say this because after all, it’s Erin, she’s a hero to the people, and I wouldn’t dare say anything bad about her.
I am a liberal. Donald Trump really pisses me off, but even though I detest this man, when he says, “The mainstream media is corrupt,” he’s telling the truth.
If you’re an activist, short of a fucking miracle, plan on spending your entire career in living obscurity, fighting in the trenches, saving the world one cause at a time, while the media willfully looks the other way and refuses to acknowledge that you exist, until one day you end up a dried up, whithered husk of a human being looking through catalogs of weapons, wondering if .44 Magnum will really “blow your head clean off,” or if you’ll end up like Gary Webb and have to shoot yourself in the head twice, just bring an end to the pointless, hollow existence you’ve been remanded to at the hands of a hearltless, soulless, grinding media machine, with the only moment of glory you’ll ever hope to experience is having your ashes shot out of a canon over the Mojave desert, like Thompson, himself.
In closing, I will leave you with one observation:
Both the journalist and activist will hop a plane to Africa to deal with starvation, disease or dirty water. The journalist flies first class as the activist flies coach or rides in the belly of a cargo ship. The journalist shows up in town, checks in to a four star hotel while the activist travels to the village and sets up camp in a hut made out of mud and straw.
The journalist travels to the village, gathers the information for their story. The activist is busy digging a culvert to direct clean water to the villages dying crops. Once the journalist has got their story, they get a photo of themselves holding a shovel, they pack up, fly home and then deliver their story to their editor, as the activist stays behind and works to make sure the village gets food, clean water, and vaccinations.
A few weeks later, as the activist succumbs to a fever from Malaria, sprawled out in a mosquito netted tent, lying in a makeshift hammock made out of corn husks, watching a 13″ black and white TV with aluminum bunny ears for an antennae, they slowly die as the journalist walks up to a podium and accept an Edward R. Murrow award for their “bravery and courage” for their harrowing coverage of the starvation, disease, and dirty water in Africa.