Interviewing Leslie Zinn


In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way. 

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Leslie Zinn. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.

–Michael Albert

Leslie Zinn, you were born in 1978. An accomplished media personality on both TV and radio, you are famous for resisting incursions on free speech. You advanced RPS policy and analysis not only about media, but in all matters, ably using your shows for the purpose. Do you remember what got you into media and journalism, and being radical?

My story is a bit humdrum. In school I was adrift and I took a journalism course and the professor was exciting and inspiring so I took another. At the same time, I enjoyed technology and got into video. It turned out I wasn’t bad on camera so I did some video commentaries for fun, and soon it became much more.

On how I became radical, that too was humdrum. My home life was very progressive. So when I started writing for the campus paper in my junior and senior years in college, I was already covering overwhelmingly progressive and radical affairs. I was radical, even revolutionary by age 24 or so. I knew there was no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people. At 30 I was on radio with my own show, and covering the economic meltdown and its aftermath. That lead to my interest in RPS and commitment to its advance.

I have been asking folks to recount a particularly personal moving or inspiring episode from the period of the rise of RPS. Could you do that for us, as well?

There were so many. Within RPS I would say the formation of Journalists for Social Responsibility, but if I have to choose one that is more personal, then from the very early days, from before RPS was ever mentioned, but a time when what would become RPS was gestating, there were the massive women’s demonstrations all around the U.S. and the world. It wasn’t just attending that was so meaningful for me. It wasn’t even just seeing the numbers, the slogans, the energy. It wasn’t even just hearing about the events across the country. Or hearing, in days to follow, personal stories of people marching anew, after long hiatus, or marching for the first time.

It was two other things. First, I got in a conversation with a couple of Trump supporters. It was more interesting and informative than most other conversations I had because they weren’t what I expected. They were caring thinking folks. Blasted by their circumstances. Taking for granted the plight of many others, seeing no end to it, but hopeful that perhaps Trump would so upend things and was enough aware of their pains that something good would emerge. They were wrong about that, but far from dumb or ignorant. They understood much about how crass and venal society was that many on the left didn’t get. And they listened.

The other added impact was that I knew this gigantic outpouring wouldn’t immediately overthrow Trump or reverse Trumpism, much less immediately transform into a positive movement aimed way beyond mere liberalism, which was, in fact, preponderant in the events. I knew achieving all that and more was going to require tremendous effort. And I began to feel the extent to which actually winning a new world required winning over citizens of the existing world, which meant hearing them, relating to their concerns. I knew that sometimes gargantuan outpourings did lead to more, but other times not. And I felt this pressure, this responsibility, this mandate for my own children and future children, to work for success. To somehow help this emerging resistance to Trumpian reaction become a movement for positive change way beyond beating Trump, way beyond getting liberals back in office, way beyond business as usual. As RPS emerged, my joining was a natural act, already made inevitable.

An obvious factor in social change is communications, including having our own media as well as impacting the mainstream. How did these aspects develop in the early days of RPS?

This is an area where pre-RPS we had plenty of good ideas and desires. Mainstream media was understood to be a corporate cabal supporting corporate continuity. It sold audience to advertisers. It highly constrained its content to keep its audience amenable to being commercially exploited. Alternative media, in contrast and at its best, provides audiences information and thoughtful assessments able to inform efforts at change.

RPS solidified critical awareness and legitimated skeptical attitudes to mainstream media. It also challenged alternative media. It didn’t say, no, don’t pursue your agenda. Rather it said, wait a minute, your agenda is good, your vehicle needs a major tune up.

RPS said, if alternative media is really going to deliver alternative information, analysis, and vision, it should embody alternative structure. It won’t optimally provide activist information if its daily operations implicitly ratify society’s guiding norms.

Of course, alternative media understood that our roles and methods should not mimic the racist and sexist hierarchies of society. We understood that we should not be owned by some person or persons who pulled strings which tethered everyone. But we didn’t understand the implications of mimicking the corporate division of labor common to all mainstream institutions, or of blindly accepting the logic of market allocation as does mainstream media and the whole economy.

RPS pushed these two additional advisories about how alternative media ought to become better, and alternative media, though initially resistant, steadily changed.

What did the changes look like? How were they implemented? Did they matter for alternative media output?

Basically, alternative media added to its internal guidelines that not only should it not have men and women, or blacks and whites doing systematically different types of work and having systematically different benefits and influence, but, as well, the same should hold for class difference. This meant eliminating the old corporate division of labor and instituting balanced job complexes. Indeed, alternative media institutions may well have been the first workplaces which undertook this.

It wasn’t easy. In a society that has a coordinator class and a working class, people enter the workforce prepared and expecting to be in one or the other. Their upbringing, schooling, living conditions, and the general culture acclimates them, one and all, to fit existing roles without resisting.

Consider an alternative media institution of twenty people. Odds are before the transformations, the institution’s workforce was class divided. Some employees were empowered and made decisions. The rest were disempowered and carried out instructions. The big step to achieve change was clear. We had to reapportion roles among jobs so that every set of tasks and responsibilities that someone at the institution had as his or her job was comparably empowering as every other job. Only this could maintain venues and procedures for collective self management. Only attaining balanced jobs and collective self management could in turn remove the structural basis for internal class division.

But what about the fact that people’s expectations, confidence levels, and comfort as well as their skill levels, knowledge, and contacts all appeared suited to their past roles and unsuited to the proposed changed roles? What about the complaint Yahtzee if used to making the decisions and doing the empowering tasks did less of that, and more that is rote, the operation would suffer and even collapse?

Once RPS insights and pressures were active, you are right that we had a conflict. Some said we should restructure because it is right and once we are done, we will be better able to fulfill our media responsibilities. Do it.

Others said, wait a minute, the shift will be disastrous. It may seek a worthy goal but it will so reduce our ability and quality in the present that we will never get better. Don’t do it.

Yes, those in the latter camp had a view that would preserve their advantages, but they said that wasn’t what was driving them. The greater good was driving them.

It wasn’t easy, but change did come. For one thing, it was discovered that training and support went a long way. The transition from being ill prepared, to being sufficiently competent, to being powerfully excellent didn’t take long. What the more highly educated folks had been doing was for the most part quite attainable by less highly educated folks. The biggest obstacle was confidence and willingness.

In some organizations the transition occurred by prior empowered workers doing a better mix of tasks, and adding, on top of it, responsibility for training others. This addition to their workload was considered fair since for so long they had been advantaged. For a time, they could do disproportionately more, rather than less, work.

Other organizations, initiated a period of internal oversight of work, sort of like when you bring a new person aboard and you watch to make sure they are competent before giving them similar freedom of action as long term employees.

In any case, it wasn’t long before alternative media institutions had workers who each and all were highly knowledgable about the policies, methods, and agendas of their whole operation. Self management began to involve all workers and to generate excellent outcomes. The switch, once we understood it’s may dimensions, didn’t require someone who was uninterested, unsuited, or who hated drawing, to draw book covers. It didn’t require someone deficient at or who hated doing calculations to keep financial records. Rather, people would choose a job composed of tasks that they could do well, which tasks, however, taken in combination, were comparably empowering to the combination of tasks other people did.

One person didn’t do only finances, thereby enjoying a monopoly on knowledge critical to all decisions. One person didn’t do only editorial, thereby only determining substance. For each type of activity in the operation, for every area of work, various people participated. No one did overwhelmingly or only rote and obedient tasks. No one had no connection to determining outcomes.

It wasn’t long before having just a few people in charge with the rest overseen was frowned on just as much as was having women cleaning up and doing nothing else, or having Latinos packing boxes and doing nothing else, was frowned on.

The impact on alternative media was to unleash the creativity and energy of previously subordinate participants, yielding more quality. Also, the organization no longer had a decision dominating group who accepted the idea of coordinator class rule. This meant suddenly this class dynamic could be openly addressed. A whole new dimension of attention arose from revamped alternative media. Just as, decades earlier, women and blacks fighting against being subordinated led to improvements in alternative media coverage of gender and race, so too for class.

Another innovation was rejection of markets. This was more subtle but once alternative media began to regard market allocation with the same level of rejection as, say, they rejected political dictatorship, they began to question the aspects of their own behavior that were market driven. This, in turn, led to exploring ways of alternative media operations collectively working together rather than competitively seeking donor support and audience only for self and not for others.

What about campaigns addressed to mainstream media?

Among leftists, this was less controversial, but still involved major change. Before RPS we had excellent analysis of media machinations. People understood mainstream media’s horrible faults including those stemming from their corporate structure. Still, there was little challenge other than to register complaints and write condemnations.

RPS early on said, wait a minute. If it is right for people seeking change to fight against wars and global warming and to combat racist policing – seeking not just to ultimately end the injustices, but, in the shorter term to win gains moving toward that long term aim – then why isn’t the same true for media? It is great that we form our own alternative media and we should continue doing so both for the immediate information benefits and to show by example that better is possible. But shouldn’t we also pressure mainstream media?

And so there emerged sustained opposition to mainstream media. We went beyond analyzing and criticizing mainstream media to demanding changes and fighting for them.

One wing of this campaign challenged mainstream payment procedures, salaries, and decision methods, seeking changes moving toward RPS aims. A second wing  demanded new sections of coverage elevating community and dissident voices. It also,sought oversight of manipulations, including retractions and accountability, and in time even financial transfers from mainstream to grassroots efforts.

Media was an area where RPS moved quickly. We had high comprehension in many constituencies. We could build better institutions and our incentives to do so were great because media’s impact on society and on radical prospects was huge.

What do you think were the key early events in moving toward new media?

I think much had happened earlier, but in the first few years after the first convention four steps stood out.

First, we created Journalists for Social Responsibility. This took on mainstream norms and institutions with diverse campaigns of the sort noted above. It caught on in journalism schools, as well.

Second we created Press the Press, a broad popular movement to demand changes in mainstream media. This coordinated with, supported, and sometimes also pushed Journalists for Social Responsibility.

Third, we pursued workplace organizing inside alternative and mainstream media as well, and built linkages between the two which greatly aided each.

Fourth, we urged alternative media projects to be mutually supportive rather than destructively competitive regarding everything from fund raising to coordinating news and opinion coverage.

Leslie, what about media more generally?

Two big trends began in the early days of RPS that continue to this day. We renovated the many alternative media projects already operating. And we created some new, larger scale projects. For projects already operating we adopted RPS style attitudes and practices, which mainly meant instituting equitable remuneration and balanced job complexes. But that was difficult.

First, the leaders of various projects were often their founders or at least people who had worked tirelessly for years and sometimes even for decades. Imagine telling them they could no longer have sole control or enjoy what they thought were totally justified higher incomes than others got. For staffs, and sometimes for users too, confronting such time-enshrined leaders’ dominance was no picnic. The leaders were not enemies and had a ton of accumulated skills. When we told such a leader to cede control so as to attain self-managed decision making or to accept a fair share of disempowering tasks so as to eliminate class difference or to receive only equitable income so as to promote equity and solidarity, tension rose.

The leaders felt their compliance would hurt their institution. They believed in their own indispensability and wanted to keep their familiar situation. But ultimately the main point was that it did not matter what their motivation for wanting to preserve past ways was. RPS communicated that for a media institution to have good editorial content regarding coordinator class/working class interactions, to be an instructive model, and to fulfill everyone involved, change had to come.

Partly the needed change was about issues of race and gender, which had already been percolating for decades so that resistance to that was already tenuous. But the controversial change was about class division, and on that issue the battle was intense. And the changes sought for remuneration and especially division of labor and decision making weren’t only controversial for media leaders. They also put pressure on staff members who had to become newly involved in decisions, do empowering tasks, and generally bear more responsibility.

Did you go through all that personally?

Yes, very much so, very early on. In my workplace, I was one of a few decision makers. When these sentiments arose I said to their advocates, what the hell are you talking about? I have given my life to this project. Some of you have been here a few years, or a year, or a few months. You want to displace me? You think that is fair? You think it would benefit our work to push aside my ability, knowledge, contacts, and experience?

My reasoning seemed to me morally and logically unimpeachable. It took me awhile to realize it wasn’t. It wasn’t an easy time for me, or for most others in the project, for that matter. But, in the end, change came. It had to.

What first won me over was realizing that before the change our daily news and opinion work had said literally zero – not a single thing – about the dynamics of working class/coordinator class relations. In fact, it had said nearly nothing significant about workplace self management, division of labor, and even markets.

That shouldn’t have been surprising. When an institution has an attribute – in this case a corporate division of labor and all it entails – that serves those with authority and also parallels ills in society, then that attribute will tend to be off bounds for internal discussion. So I realized that even if I ignored or doubted the gain in value of our institution being a model, even if I ignored or doubted the gain of its changed impact on its participants, and even if I ignored or doubted the need to plant the seeds of the future in the present, still, the change had to happen even if only on behalf of improving the quality of our editorial product, which, ironically, is just what I had thought I was defending when I opposed the change.

Oh, there was some truth in my initial reservations. Sometimes an organization changed so precipitously, and even callously, that the organization suffered. But on balance the main problem wasn’t the rashness or inflexibility of those seeking classless projects. The main problem was the obstinacy of those counter productively defending class stratified projects instead of lending their support and experience to the new aims. In time I not only understood the need for change to ensure the value of media’s product, but also for its value as a model, its impact on those doing the work, and for planting the seeds of the future in the present.

Was the situation similar for newly emerging media efforts?

For new projects the same issues arose, but now you didn’t have folks who were already entrenched, so you didn’t have the difficulties that challenging their tenure raised. You started with nothing and you defined what you wanted. That didn’t mean there was no tension and difficulty, but it was different.

A typical new media project would start with folks from different backgrounds. Some had more knowledge, skill, confidence, and contacts than others and those few would quite naturally become dominant unless there were very good structures to elevate everyone’s participation. This is why when projects began and saw themselves as radical and believed in solidarity and collectivity, and had good inclinations as to what to produce – but didn’t adopt balanced job complexes, then even against their sincere desires, before long old ways resurfaced. The lesson was we couldn’t afford to ignore institutional features.

One powerful positive example was when folks got together and decided to generate a national network of local news/opinion talk and discussion podcast shows. It was done from the start in a way embodying the values of RPS, and, as a result, the participants were highly engaged and positive, the product was rich and diverse, and the growth rate was incredible.

Did you ever personally feel strange devoting so much of your on air time to promoting RPS views? Did you ever feel like an agent of RPS in media, rather than a media person doing her job?

It is a fair question, and maybe I am not the person to judge that about myself, but, no, though I considered the possibility, ultimately I did not feel that way. However, I also thought that how I felt  probably owed a lot to the rate of growth of RPS.

My self definition and mandate was to provide news and analysis bearing on achieving social change. I was a member of RPS from its origin and because RPS grew so fast, my media task very naturally included covering it, addressing its views, and hearing from its participants. Even if I wasn’t a member, simply on news grounds, RPS would have been a main focus. Addressing it, interviewing its members, and reporting its campaigns followed naturally because RPS was developing so fast and was so relevant and important. So my personal desires matched up with my media responsibilities. Abiding the latter meant I was fulfilling the former.

But suppose RPS growth had been much slower. Then my desires to enlarge and aid RPS would have pushed me to give it more coverage than RPS’s influence would have alone warranted. Would I, in that case, have emphasized RPS as much as I have, and if I did, would I have felt like an agent of RPS more than a capable media person?

I am not sure. Is a right wing or a left wing columnist for reasons of their political allegiance not a media person but only an ideologue? Or is the person both? Or is she even just a media person?

My feeling is everyone who does media, indeed everyone who communicates, has views and those views inevitably and I would say quite reasonably and rightly impact what she chooses to communicate about. We should all strive for honesty and accuracy in what we offer. For our desires to cause us to be dishonest or inaccurate is wrong, whoever does it. But way short of that kind of violation of communicative ethics, what we highlight, our tone, and certainly the lessons we draw and aims we propose, all inevitably and rightly reflect not only seeking to be honest and accurate, but also to advance what we personally find important, and even what we personally favor. Our values and aims inevitably inform what we do. As worthy media people, we should admit and explain that, not deny it.

So I think my answer would have been, had RPS grown more slowly and been less influential, I would nonetheless have pushed it hard, but I would always have made clear that I was doing so not based on an assessment that as news it was already that influential, but because I felt its intelligence and values, and what I hoped it would become, already made it that worthy.

So I guess I would have been what I have been, which is both an honest media person and a forceful advocate of RPS, but in the case of RPS growing much more slowly, the latter factor would have been more central to my choices.

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