Award winning writers on the state of independent journalism
A few hours before receiving the “Izzy Award,” David Lindorff sat in the lobby of the downtown Marriott—feet up on a coffee table, arms stretched casually behind his head—and reflected on a long career in journalism. Decades as a dissenting, independent reporter has made him “persona non grata” in the eyes of the mainstream media, he said in an interview with Buzzsaw, and called winning this award vindicating.
The Park Center for Independent Media’s Izzy Awards has been recognizing the constructive dissent of journalists like Lindorff for the past 11 years. The other winners of 2019 were Aaron Matè of The Nation, Laura Flanders of the Laura Flanders Show, and the publication Earth Island Journal, accepted by its editors Maureen Nandini Mitra and Zoe Loftus Farren.
Though attending a celebratory event, the recipients did not come to Ithaca to tout victory, but to discuss the uncertain road ahead for independent journalism. With a tiny group of corporations controlling the vast majority of mainstream media outlets in the U.S., the continued vilification and imprisonment of whistleblowers, and the host of stories going unreported by mainstream outlets, the recipients had plenty to talk about.
Climate change may be one of the most significant stories that legacy media are routinely criticized for covering underwhelmingly, leaving independent outlets like Earth Island Journal to pick up the slack. Its editors, Mitra and Farren, are constantly considering how to cover the issue more effectively.
“I think what we need to do better as journalists is to tell better stories about how it is already impacting us… if we could actually tell it from the point of view of people who are impacted but who do not still quite get it, I think we’d have a better chance of having some meaningful policy changes,” Mitra said in an interview with Buzzsaw.
Farren said that in addition to localizing stories, providing solutions-based reporting is essential.
“We can highlight solutions and provide somewhat positive news about climate change, because it is pretty dark and depressing,” she said.
The journal won the Izzy this year specifically for its issue on the intersectionality of women and the climate crisis. Identifying these overlooked connections, finding out how different peoples around the globe are affected disproportionately by climate change, is a key mission for both Mitra and Farren.
An older edition they are particularly proud of investigated the relationship between prisons and the environment. In this edition the editor aimed to examine both the environmental rights of prisoners and the impacts that large-scale prisons have on the climate.
“We were really proud of [that issue], we wished it would’ve received some more national recognition,” Mitra said. Farren laughed in agreement.
As a fellow indy journalist and Izzy winner, Lindorff is more than familiar with this sentiment. He won his Izzy for an investigative piece revealing massive accounting fraud in the Department of Defense. A bombshell story, though you wouldn’t hear about it from most news outlets.
Since 1990, Congress has required every department and agency in the federal government to develop auditable accounting systems; all have done so, except the Pentagon—the country’s largest recipient of discretionary spending.
Poring through the numbers and talking to insider sources, Lindorff found that the Pentagon has fabricated the numbers on its annual budget request to Congress, which ensures a higher military budget for the next year. In addition, instead of returning its unspent money to the U.S. Treasury as they are required to do by law, the DoD will sometimes move around or otherwise launder surplus cash in order to make it untraceable.
Asif Khan, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Financial Management and Assurance team, told Lindorff that accounting irregularities like these make the Pentagon one of the highest risk agencies for fraud, waste, and abuse in the federal government.
Lindorff called this last point the most shocking to learn.
“It’s simply staggering… it’s madness,” he said. “Just imagine if the EPA was considered to be at high risk of fraud and abuse; Congress would be going ballistic, but nobody says anything about it when it’s the Pentagon.”
Lindorff’s story sparked a conversation about military spending at outlets across the country, but not all of them. You can probably imagine which outlets have not deemed it newsworthy.
“When this came out, for three weeks I couldn’t do any work… because I was simply overwhelmed with scheduling interviews and talking to people all day, every day, for three weeks… But I didn’t get a single request for an interview from any mainstream media organization,” Lindorff said.
This summarizes a dilemma in the world of independent journalism that all of the Izzy recipients would express later that night at a public Q&A session. Working at independent outlets affords journalists greater editorial freedom than legacy reporters but limits the reach and profitability of their work substantially.
Matè implored the young crowd to support alternative media by contributing money to the outlets they consume, and by trying to share the work of indy journalists with their friends and through social media.
Flanders talked about her desire for a robust network of independent journalists and outlets that can unite and support each other through hard times. Independent outlets have experimented with such ideas in the past, but have yet to yield much success.
Talking with Buzzsaw, Lindorff called for a similar camaraderie among journalists in general, especially as terms like “investigative reporter” and “whistleblower” become dirty words in the U.S.
Lindorff recalled an instance when he published a risky story on an alternative news site that he runs with four other journalists called “This Can’t Be Happening!” Due to the sensitive information he was revealing, the story had the potential to land Lindorff in legal trouble.
“My four colleagues said, ‘Can we put our names on as co-bylines on that piece? Because if you’re going to get charged with a felony… we want to share the prosecution,” he said. “That’s the kind of spirit an investigative reporter has to have today.”
Owen Walsh is a senior journalism major who hopes to win his own Izzy Award someday.