In Bolivia, citizens have taken to the streets in mass demonstrations against a government plan to sell natural gas to North America; the people’s uprising prompted Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to shelve the proposal.
The story only recently started creeping toward the front page of The New York Times. The Asheville Global Report gave it a banner headline weeks ago.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in downtown Asheville, you’ve probably noticed the AGR’s hunter-green, handmade wooden newspaper boxes snuggling up next to the assorted metal and plastic bins displaying everything from The Wall Street Journal to the Mountain Xpress. (Ours, by the way, are the purple plastic ones with sleek lines and a noticeable lack of coin slots.) On any given Thursday, there’s a steady stream of people snagging the latest copy of the AGR and hunkering down at the nearest java joint. But those city residents who, for whatever reason, have never read the paper might be surprised to know they’re missing out on what is now Asheville’s most honored media outlet.
The AGR was recently honored with four Project Censored awards (see sidebar: “What you don’t know might hurt you”). Reflecting on the project’s importance, Walter Cronkite, the dean of American journalism, called it “one of the organizations that we should listen to, to be assured that our newspapers and our broadcasting outlets are practicing thorough and ethical journalism.”
The list of winners over the years reads like a who’s who in the alternative press: Mother Jones, The Village Voice and The Nation are only a few of the major publications so honored. But this year, the Asheville Global Report trumped the big boys, snagging four of the coveted spots on the top-25 list. Add in last year’s three Project Censored slots, and the AGR has scored a grand total of seven awards — turning the little paper that could into the little paper that does.
Unlike the competition, though, the AGR has accomplished this feat with an all-volunteer staff and a budget that could easily be mistaken for bus fare. The two members of the paper’s “editorial collective” whose bylined stories won awards are Eamon Martin and Kendra Sarvadi (the other two award-winning stories were published in the AGR but written by journalists working for small Web publications.)
In an interview with Xpress, Martin was quick to point out that while he and Savardi were recognized by name, the credit should really go to all the paper’s volunteers, who collectively toil into the wee hours nightly — outside of their day jobs — to put the paper on the street. In five years, Martin notes proudly, “We’ve never missed a week.”
In recent decades, the consolidation of mass media in the hands of a dwindling number of large corporate conglomerates has prompted a growing cadre of media critics to argue that, despite our oft-touted First Amendment right to freedom of the press, the media landscape in the United States has become a barren, homogeneous field where the tilling is no longer done by the stubborn mule, but by the compliant ass. Instead of raking the muck, mainstream journalists often seem more inclined to mold it into easily digestible sound bites prepared more for the palate of the stockholder than the stakeholder.
In an interview with Xpress last year, noted media scholar and critic Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, observed that major media outlets today are more concerned with their investors’ financial well-being than with their audience’s need to know. To successfully market consumer goods, argued McChesney, today’s news must be inoffensive. Distracting the public with celebrity “news” is part of an ongoing practice that McChesney calls “Look here, not there” journalism. McChesney is the author of eight books on media and politics, most recently Rich Media, Poor Democracy (New Press, 2000).
Case in point: animal trainer Roy Horn (of Siegfried and Roy) was mauled by one of his tigers during a Vegas performance. This was headline news for days. Stop any American on the street today and ask for the name of the person bitten by a tiger recently and they’ll likely get it in the first two tries. Ask the same person the name of the last American soldier killed in Iraq, and they’ll probably draw a blank (by the way, as of press time, that soldier’s name was Spc. Donald L. Wheeler, 23, of Concord, Mich.).
In Asheville, however, readers looking for something with a little more punch can turn to the Asheville Global Report — a throwback to the heyday of American journalism at the turn of the last century, when major cities all had multiple news outlets reflecting a broad range of political perspectives. The AGR combines a pointedly progressive focus on international news, the labor and anti-globalization movements, the environment, and corporate corruption with an old-fashioned commitment to reporting news that doesn’t fit the corporate agenda.
Eamon Martin sat down with Xpress last week to discuss the AGR and the Project Censored awards ceremony he recently attended. What follows is an excerpt from that interview:
Mountain Xpress: What was it like going to the ceremony in San Francisco and getting lauded by fellow journalists?
Eamon Martin: Intensely surreal. I had to borrow money from a friend just to be able to buy the plane ticket. At the dinner, I wore what I usually wear [pointing to his hooded flannel shirt and jeans]. Most everyone else was in suits. Some people were looking at me and wondering, “Hey — how did that guy get in here?” What struck me as ironic was that here we were celebrating censored news; that’s pretty sad.
MX: What’d you say to the audience when they called you up to receive the awards?
EM: Well, I didn’t have anything prepared. The first time up there, I said: “This is pathetic: I’m a dishwasher, Kendra is a waitress. It’s a pathetic testament to the state of the public’s access to important information when a dishwasher and a waitress are the only reasons these stories got out.” The room went silent. By my fourth trip up to the stage, they were introducing me as the “irrepressible Eamon Martin.” It was nice, though. Only two people got standing ovations: One was keynote speaker [and former Congresswoman] Cynthia McKinney, and the other was for the AGR. But the next day, I’m wandering around San Francisco with 16 cents in my pocket wondering where my next meal is gonna come from and killing time waiting for my plane to take me back to Asheville in time for my next dishwashing shift. Like I said, it was surreal.
MX: So you’re a dishwasher who helps edit an award-winning newspaper. What motivates you?
EM: The consolidation of media in America has had disastrous consequences for America. We at the AGR see this as a public-information crisis.
MX: You’ve been around for five years now. What type of growing pains has the paper experienced?
EA: [chuckling and shaking his head] Growing pains? It seems like there’s always pain. We’re a tiny publication, a nonprofit that depends heavily upon donations from supporters; there’s a lot of perpetual heartbreak. We’re always swinging vine to vine. It’s hard to survive, but we feel that what we’re doing is necessary. Personally, I’d like to live in a world where there’s no need for a Project Censored award — or an Asheville Global Report.
MX: How would you characterize the AGR’s politics?
EA: There isn’t a unified political ideology; we aren’t all of the same political persuasion. We all agree, though, that we want to give people a newspaper with raw, hard news and data, so that people can think for themselves — and act. Too many so-called progressive publications report important stories, but then they tell people how to think. We don’t want to be steeped in partisan politics, because so many of these issues transcend partisan politics — the environment, for example. … We’re a weekly because, far too often, the publications offering news from the left or news that challenges the status quo are monthlies. By the time you get the news, it’s outdated and useless. All you could do is read it and sulk. With a weekly, you have a chance to respond and do something.
MX: What do you think when people describe you as a radical?
EA: I’d rather be a radical than a liberal. What we do is a direct action; it’s a vital form of activism. For social change to happen, people need timely information in order to be where they need to be when the moment counts. … We have subscribers from as far away as Alaska; we get 30,000 hits a week on our Web site. People are responding because we try to give them the information that doesn’t make it through the very narrow channels of the corporate media. There aren’t many volunteer, nonprofit newspapers — so I guess that makes us radical. There’s no hiding the fact that we are a missionary organization.
The Asheville Global Report, distributed free of charge every Thursday throughout Asheville, depends for the most part on subscriptions and donations from readers. The AGR is now in the midst of its fall fund-raising drive. To make a tax-exempt donation, call (828) 236-3103, or write the paper at P.O. Box 1504, Asheville, NC 28802. You can also read the paper — including its award-winning articles — at their Web site (www.agrnews.org). Donations can also be made at the Web site through Pay Pal.