[Below is a transcribed phone intreview I recently did about ZNet for Northwestern University’s campus magazine “The Protest.”]
ZNet is part of the umbrella organization Z Communications, whose goal is not only to promote and distribute critical analysis of modern social, political and economic issues, but also to serve as a hub for progressive activism. The organization formed out of a collection of projects to raise consciousness about power and oppression, starting with the book publisher South End Press in 1978 and Z Magazine in 1987. That ZNet has always been a part of a distinct movement for radical social change is the first main factor that separates this media outlet from the mainstream. The second factor is that ZNet includes as much video and audio content as it does written material, and a good portion of the content is shared or borrowed from other media sources. Finally, to fulfill its mission of promoting actual activism, the new web site includes several interactive features, such as an entire section of blogs by Z staff, a separate section of blogs for user/subscribers, a Q&A section where subscribers can ask questions to well-known figures such as Noam Chomsky, and even a new social arena called ZSpace—meant to develop a Leftist online community similar to MySpace or Facebook. Sarah Levy of Northwestern University interviewed ZNet’s Chris Spannos for NU’s campus magazine “The Protest.” Chris handles policy and content for ZNet, deciding which content to post to the main page.
Do you think of yourself as an editor?
I do wear many hats and editor is one of them. I get sometimes 30 to 40 submissions per day. We only run 10 to 15 of them per day, every day of the year. We are publishing thousands of articles per year. I spend a few hours a day doing that. I also do a lot of correspondence with the writers as well as other things. Many of the items that are original submissions come from writers that work closely with Z and have a long-term relationship with us.
How do you decide what gets posted?
There are many factors involved. One is trying to figure out what’s happening in the world. Two is the quality of the article. We publish mostly from an activist perspective. Some things we get can be rough on the edges. That’s fine; that’s to be expected. At the same time, we try to focus on an institutional analysis of things. An example would be if somebody gave us an article and they talked about how bad George Bush is and about what’s happening in Iraq and it’s all about his personal decisions versus [another submission] maybe looking at the geopolitical implications. Rather than looking at one person, their personal flaws, we try to look at the institutional analysis. Same thing on gender or something. If someone is writing about International Women’s Day talking about violence against women and talking about how it’s just men — and there are good men and bad men and men are responsible — rather than looking at disparity issues, and power and wealth, and the structure of the family, we’re going to go with the latter focus.
How does the editing process work? Do you fact check pieces from other sources?
There are two fulltime staff on ZNet and we have a couple of volunteers who are very close with Z. If we have any questions, sometimes we discuss it, and we check things ourselves, and sometimes if it’s beyond us, usually one of us has a contact so we can look into it.
We either have to, in the end, stand by our writers work or not. And if it’s something we think is really suspect, we don’t run it. We usually don’t get into specific reasons why with writers because it is their work and if they are adamant that they don’t want changes than we don’t exercise our editorial power over them. Instead—we simply pass on it. If someone wants the help then we can try to work with them on it.
If [we discover a serious mistake after publication] we’ll either add an addendum or take it down, but it’s very rare. In my year and a half of being staff with Z, it’s only happened once or twice.
In what ways is ZNet journalism and in what ways isn’t it?
The way I see it as journalism is trying to report the truth and having an analysis that is trying to shed light on issues of the world that are rarely in the spotlight, or biased. We don’t claim objectivity because our mandate is that we want to change the world for the better, socially but also institutionally. ZNet publishes mostly commentary and analysis rather than hard news. But the motivation is the same. And if you look at large media outlets, they gloss over many aspects of the truth, and when they do report them, it is inconsequentially.
For example, the recent report on 9/11. In the two years after 9/11, officials made hundreds of lies (over 900). That’s just one example — exaggerating the nuclear threat of Iran is another one. … There are regular reports about the Middle East and Palestine. Whenever these things are mentioned in the mainstream media, they are done so very casually and inconsequentially. It will not change their political line on Iran or the Middle East for the most part. I’m speaking of the dominant narrative that comes through and is hammered into people’s heads every day.
We try to look at [the problems’] systemic roots [and] perspectives on protecting wealth and power. We view ourselves as not just a media outlet but as part of a movement.
Does the fact that Z, as an organization, carries certain political views and visions, such as support for Participatory Economics (Parecon), ever create an atmosphere of self-censorship?
Parecon is an economic model proposed as an alternative to capitalism and is comprised of self-managed workers’ and consumers’ councils, balanced job complexes, rather than corporate hierarchies, and decentralized participatory planning rather than markets. I don’t think there’s any real self-censorship in the way you ask, not in the sense that happens in mainstream media. The thing that people would censor themselves about, say a journalist who wants to go to the New York Times, would think, ‘what is likely to get me in the door?’ Reporting on and hyping the nuclear threat of Iran? Or on how Hamas was actually democratically elected? Or on how [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez is more democratically elected than any U.S. president?
In mainstream media institutions, journalists may censor themselves, but with us there is no incentive to do that. We work with writers who also disagree with Parecon. Parecon is our economic vision for the world, [but] we also have other visions affecting society more broadly. Writers who write for us sometimes avidly disagree with us.
For example, about Marxism and Communism and making comparisons to Chavez. [Writers] submit it. They know our thoughts and what we think should happen in Venezuela, and we have very good relations with them. People write in with all kinds of things, and we realize their importance and they don’t have to [conform to us].
What is the purpose of some of the new services on ZNet, such as the blog and community web spaces? How will these spaces compare to other networking sites like MySpace and Facebook?
What makes it different than MySpace or Facebook is that we’re trying to build all these services for the Left community. And we ask that people donate at least $1 a month to be a part of this community and get access to new facilities. We need money for it, because it cost money to build and maintain. We don’t receive any corporate or government funding. But it also kind of weeds out people who don’t really want to be part of this community. For example, before, when commenting on blogs was free, it was a mess. Our poor writers had to deal with people commenting on free blogs that had nothing to do with what they wrote, and it looks stupid, too. I think it might have drove away participants. There is a wider range of people on MySpace and Facebook because it’s free, [but ZSpace] just the Left community — a broad Left community, but people who are serious about being part of it, relating to one another, meeting new people, forming an online community, and contributing to its growth.
What to you is the most important part of working at Z?
The political vision and the vision for a future participatory society. Having been involved in grassroots social movements, in Vancouver and elsewhere, I’ve seen the social effects of Z on the ground as an organizer and activist. We have hope and vision for changing the world that is inspiring and that provides a lens for looking at the world that is different than seeing only what is wrong.
How do you think the proliferation of citizen journalism is changing the way we get news and info?
Traditionally it has been muckrakers. You might not think this about Noam Chomsky, but that’s what he’s doing, muckraking. He’s someone who in his own time is digging through piles of information. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pictures of his office, but he’s got stacks and stacks of paper, books and books and books. He is probably one of the world’s leading citizen journalists and muckrakers, but he’s not looked at that way.
Basically I think its people who care about issues generally and they’re not held to institutions of power and so their analysis isn’t skewed by trying to uphold that power. They’re trying to find the truth. I think it’s the truth that really grabs people, and there’s a great tradition in that sense. There are war journalists and people who risk their lives on the ground and there are people who do it on a day to day basis just doing internet research and making phone calls and attending events. I think ultimately they’re trying to give the truth about something they care about or believe is wrong.
In the past to get your word out you basically had to rely on 10 print publications or radio and T.V. outlets to disseminate your findings and it’s the people who have editorial control who decide whether or not your work gets disseminated—they would be the gate keepers. With internet technology, it’s a little different now. There isn’t as much editorial control over who decides what get’s released on whole web. Sure ownership relations still matter online, but if you have somebody who can upload your material or even through an email list, you can disseminate the product of your citizen journalism and get it to a much wider set of people than you could in the past. It’s not the same as standing on a corner with a pamphlet or paper. But there’s great stuff out there on the web. Those are primarily the submissions that we get [at ZNet]: citizens, activists, organizers, muckrakers. They do their own research and submit to us, and we decide if it’s something that’s furthering an institutional critique of the defining institutions of our society.
Some people have questioned the credibility of information coming from citizen journalism and non-mainstream sources. How do you think the credibility of these new types of journalism compares with the mainstream?
I think it’s just a case by case basis. You have to look at the interests involved. Who has the interests in covering the story? Who does it benefit? Who are the sources quoted, etc.? Again, is the information that’s presented in media, is it benefitting the government or leaders or some corporate executive or some company? Or is it looking instead at the effects on the environment or people?
There are journalists across the U.S. in those mainstream outlets that have a broader reach into people’s daily lives. They’re penetrating people’s lives in ways that other news outlets can’t. This would be the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, etc. If you’re looking at people getting their paper delivered to their homes, watching TV in the evening, or listening to radio in the office or while commuting, those are ways that citizen journalism can’t really reach them. So those institutions that do affect people’s daily lives on such a grand scale, you should really look at whose power interest they’re serving. And I think if you compare their perspective versus those citizen journalists, you’ll see those interests are very different.
How can alternative media challenge the mainstream discourse in the face of the Democratic primary and the media obsession with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
For other media outlets and things like your campus [magazine], I would say keep digging deeper and keep trying to find out what these [candidates] really stand for, whose interests they are serving, and if they are at all different. They have many of the same campaign advisers as previous presidents, so what would really happen if someone like Obama or Hillary put out a program that really mattered? Or what if Obama decided ‘I wanted to eradicate illiteracy in this country’ or ‘I want to give people a $2,000 bonus for completing a literacy program, and we’re going to take a huge chunk from the military budget to do that’? I think the huge corporate interests that are backing Obama, and Hillary too, would drop him like a hot potato. With he or Hillary, while campaigning, very rarely do they explicitly embrace domestic policy issues like their predecessors did; they only do that after they get elected, and then it’s clear whose power they’re serving. With Obama, it’s ‘change, change, change,’ but it’s not really like that. Even though it’s significant that it’s an African American or a woman, there are still many problems.
Do you have any advice for students and younger people trying to report on their own or disseminate information through smaller, alternative publications?
All I can say really is that it’s worth it. I’ve been a part of many things that I think are successful by my own measurements, what I define as the kind of politics that I aspire to, the kind of people that I want to work with, and the kind of vision that I have for the United States and the world. All I can say is that it’s worth it to try and start new media infrastructures and to build new institutions and networks…, and to generate media that tries to counter the balance of power and provide another way of looking at the world, another way of looking at the U.S., and another way of looking at foreign policy, economic policy, social welfare policy — another way of looking at social and cultural relations within the U.S., and to do so in such a way that does not replicate dominant media structures—to seek balanced divisions of labor that do not replicate mainstream media relations based on power and privilege.
As soon as you start working with other people, you start building new alliances and you feel affinity with people that didn’t exist before. Generally, this kind of relation with other people does not exist when you just produce and consume mainstream media; [that] generates an outcome where people feel isolated and powerless. We want a population that is empowered, that has direct control over their daily lives. I think as soon as you decide that you want to commit to that struggle and you’re working with other people, it’s a better world and a better life.