One afternoon last fall, Charles Eisendrath, the long-time director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, was introducing me to a professor on campus. He was struggling to provide a quick summary introduction to my work, and then said flatly, "he's a rising figure in the nasty field of surveillance and general sorrow."
It feels like this is also an appropriate way to introduce myself to the Communication and Media community now, as I begin as the Marsh Visiting Professor in Journalism, because 1) it's a fairly accurate elevator pitch of my research 2) I think that to survive as an investigative journalist today, you need a dark sense of humor.
The "surveillance and general sorrow" beat — investigating civil liberties abuses post-9/11, and in particular the crackdown on protest movements — isn't one I was anticipating. I began writing for newspapers when I was 17, and when I went on to study journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, I had every intention of following a standard newsroom career path.
My plan changed when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, covering shootings and breaking news. That type of journalism quickly left me feeling dark and hopeless, and I didn't think it was making any meaningful contribution to the world. I had done some activism in college, so I decided to go out leafletting with a local group. We were arrested, and a few weeks later two FBI agents showed up at my door. They told me that unless I helped them spy on protest groups, they would put me on a "domestic terrorist list."
This was only a few months after September 11th, and I had no idea what such a threat might entail. It terrified me, but as that fear subsided, I became obsessed with finding out how something like this could happen; how, so soon after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, the FBI could threaten non-violent protesters as "terrorists" for hanging leaflets.
That obsession ultimately forced me to deviate substantially from my planned career path, and find new ways to investigate and tell these stories. I started GreenIsTheNewRed.com, which features original reporting and commentary on civil liberties issues post-9/11. I was invited to testify before the U.S. Congress about my reporting, and was the only witness to oppose a new law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act that criminalizes non-violent protest as terrorism.
At night, I went to Johns Hopkins University to study long-form narrative nonfiction (and to find a voice and style that newspaper reporting never allowed), and that graduate program was instrumental in helping me craft Green Is The New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege (City Lights).
Today, my work is a mix of investigative journalism and public engagement. I have reported extensively on new "ag-gag" laws that make it illegal to film animal cruelty and environmental pollution on factory farms; I'm also a plaintiff in the first lawsuits challenging these statutes as unconstitutional (and I'm pleased to say we have already been able to strike down one law, in Idaho). As the first investigative journalist to be selected as a TED Senior Fellow, I've had unique opportunities to share my work and engage with a much wider audience. In my most recent TED talk, I share my experience as the only journalist to visit an experimental prison for so-called domestic terrorists on U.S. soil. As a result of covering these controversial topics, I've learned that my reporting has both been praised in Congressional reports and monitored by the Counter-Terrorism Unit.
The themes that appear throughout my work —power and dissent, security and freedom — have shaped my courses as well.
In COMM 439.001: Investigative Journalism and Social Change, we'll look at how investigative journalism has historically provided essential checks and balances on government and corporate power in a democracy, and how that landscape is rapidly changing. In COMM 439.002: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?: Defining whistleblowers post-9/11, we'll look at how modern whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have profoundly shaped public discourse, media law, and government policy. We will ground our discussion in historic whistleblower cases, such as Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and juxtapose them with modern cases such as Snowden, WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and the hacker group Anonymous.
I joke about the dark nature of my work, but the "general sorrow" characterization is misleading. Students should not come to my classes expecting a "sky is falling" view of the world (or a similarly fatalistic view of the future of journalism). The truth is that even though we, as a culture, are in crisis, we also have unprecedented opportunities to expose injustice, share information quickly and easily, and create positive social change. I report on dark topics like government repression and surveillance, but I have also seen firsthand that the best response to such darkness — whether it's on the street recording police, or in court fighting for government documents — is sunlight.
Will Potter is an award-winning investigative journalist, TED Senior Fellow, and author. He is the incoming Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism. To learn more about his work, visit WillPotter.com.