On Sunday May 18, Truthout’s Leslie Thatcher interviewed veteran reporter, master raconteur and founder of the “This Can’t Be Happening” web site, Dave Lindorff. Dave’s remarkable background – and that of his three colleagues at the new “news collective” – informs the style, content and unmistakable attitude the new venture brings to Internet journalism.
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: So who are you, Dave Lindorff?
Dave Lindorff, This Can’t Be Happening: I grew up in rural Connecticut; my father was an engineering professor at the University of Connecticut. I came to political consciousness in 1967 when I turned 18 and received my draft card. I had done a paper on the Vietnam war, researching in “The Realist,” learning about napalm victims and other horrors and had made the decision that I was not going to participate. I didn’t request a student deferment the following September when I started college at Wesleyan University, but decided that when I was drafted (my lottery number was 81), I just wouldn’t do it. I participated in the big October 21 Mobilization Against the War demonstration that year and was among those who occupied the Pentagon mall and were arrested. After I spent three days in jail with veterans of the civil rights movement, I came out a confirmed radical.
By the end of my Freshman year, convinced I would do something political with my life, I decided to study an Asian language and took intensive Chinese at Colombia in a class composed largely of CIA agents and student radicals. Wesleyan didn’t have an Asian language department, which meant commuting to Connecticut College during the year and attending Columbia summers to do my major.
The last semester of senior year, I needed three more credits to graduate, which a journalism course being offered by the local Middletown Press editor filled nicely. I had no thought of going into journalism, but I signed up. Midway through the course, everyone in class had to go out and report on a live story. I checked the police blotter, which showed that a truck had crashed into a railway trestle the night before, leaving a little diesel spill on the road. The story had resonance for me because one of the ways I had intermittently earned money was as a semi driver and I’d hit a trestle myself in Boston. The truck story took me to the fire department where I discovered the real news: a bomb shelter for city government buried under fifteen feet of concrete, with a blast door behind which there was a room set up with rows of desks, each with a black telephone and a name tag for a city office – mayor, police chief, tax collector, welfare, etc. Now THAT was the story. “This is so fucking crazy,” I thought. “They think after The Bomb, they think there will be rich people and poor people and taxes being collected? And as I wrote about it, it struck me: This is what I want to do with my life – report on the madness.”
After pumping gas for a year with my spanking new Chinese language BA, while my now-wife, Joyce, finished up as a music major at Sarah Lawrence, I landed a first reporting job at the Middletown Press back in Connecticut. The editor, Derry D’Oench, offered me a job as a bureau reporter covering three small towns at the mouth of the Connecticut River. I lied and assured him I knew how to type and then spent a week crash-learning how to touch type before my interview with the managing editor. I did that job for a year and a half, until Joyce began studying at Juilliard in NYC and we moved to the city. My Chinese BA and my year and a half as a reporter qualified me to become a Laurie Girl temp for a year, until I was accepted to Columbia University’s graduate journalism program. I graduated from that in 1975 and after a summer as a copy editor at the Minneapolis Tribune, done kind of en route, we moved on to L.A., where Joyce began a master’s program.
I did a few freelance pieces for the Free Press, a venerable alternative paper on its last legs. When it folded later that fall, its excellent editor, Tommy Thompson, called a meeting of some of the writers at his home and we all decided to just start our own alternative paper. It was an amazing time; I got to work alongside some great reporters and writers like Tom, Ron Ridenour and Ben Pleasants.
We browbeat a liberal Democrat who had a plumbing supply wholesale business into funding the project in return for 50% ownership with us owning the other 50% and we founded the LA Vanguard, paying ourselves $125 a week. In between typesetting, pasting up pages, running to the printer, maintaining coin-operated newsracks and delivering the paper to distributors, we managed to run some incredible stuff in the course of one exciting year, some of which made the national news. Unfortunately, we also made a fateful decision – to charge for the paper. Had we made it free, as the LA Weekly did a couple of years later, we might all be millionaires now.
Anyhow, we really shook things up in LA. After we went after the LAPD for routinely shooting and killing unarmed citizens, we were targeted by their Red Squad, which sent Connie Milazzo, a young cop straight out of the police academy, to join our staff. We learned later she had been assigned to learn who our sources were inside the LAPD and sheriff’s office, where among other things we uncovered a secret, unannounced shoot-to-kill policy. It was actually LAPD policy to unload your gun on a suspect, if you used it at all.
The paper folded after a year; we were just breaking even while working 80 hour weeks, with no prospect for things improving. But it was a great run while it lasted and I received an LA Press Club award for an article on the phone company’s routinely giving information to the police without a warrant.
Connie moved along undercover, infiltrating left groups after leaving us, but blew her own cover when she would have had to go to jail to keep it. It turned out she was one of 20 young cops who had been spying on some 200 civil society organizations ranging from the Socialist Workers to NOW and local Democratic clubs. In the big class action lawsuit that followed, the city had to pay $1.8 million in damages (I got $2000 in damages myself). The whole experience inspired me to do what I’m doing now, starting an independent online newspaper.
Incidentally, “faux journalism” of every kind remains a huge problem: there are Pentagon guys paid to attack any article on the Internet critical of military programs and especially pieces on depleted uranium. One of these “commenters” has turned out to be an active duty colonel. There’s an article to be written there: Common Dreams investigated these “troll”
comments and eventually traced the routing straight back to the Pentagon. Of course, that’s completely illegal, just like Connie Milazzo posing as a journalist to join our staff.
After the Vanguard died, I worked for the Daily News in LA, reporting on county government and since 1979 have been freelancing, working 5 years as a super-stringer for Businessweek, while based in Hong Kong and mainland China from 1991 through 1997 and later just writing for various magazines, from the AARP magazine and Businessweek to the Nation and Extra!.
A Thatcher story about former CP members being the only people ready to take business risk in Hungary in 1990 immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall elicited these two Lindorff tales:
DL: I was in East Germany, with Joyce and our five-year-old daughter Ariel in June of 1990. I was reporting on the final days of the DDR [German Democratic Republic] and at the end of a long day, we went to the Brandenburg Gate to return to our hotel in West Berlin. The East German border control police told us we couldn’t go through to the West side through that Gate. As Americans, we had to go through at Checkpoint Charlie, way to the south. It was late, there were no direct buses there and we didn’t want to go all that way on foot, so we just walked through the transit point: what were they going to do, shoot us a few weeks before the country dissolved?
Now in China, it’s the children of cadres brutalized during the Cultural Revolution who are the real gung-ho entrepreneurs, as well as the courageous dissidents. Sent to the countryside to live with poor peasants while their parents were jailed, they’re the ones who are self-actualized and confident in a society where most people have a near-feudal expectation of being taken care of. Nobody ever took care of those Cultural Revolution children and many of them responded to that experience by developing an extraordinary resilience.
Most Chinese don’t easily step outside the boundaries of what they believe is possible. Many people who were punished as teenagers during the Cultural Revolution have these oddly fond memories of adventure and a sense of possibility, but also a sense of their own ability to make-do and to overcome adversity.
While I was teaching journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai, there had been a big wind storm that felled a big tree into the path of the bikes which had to be walked around the tree. I got down to move the tree and everyone else continued with their detour. Nobody helped me: they were all waiting for the government to do it.
But it’s hardly a classless society: Another time, in the residential area near Fudan U., I was watching a man and his wife from Hunan working these looms that fitted refreshed cotton batting into refilled comforters. These street vendors were working on opposite sides of the street, while their child of about a year-and-a-half played near them. He wandered out into the street as a taxi came speeding up. I grabbed the child and brought him to safety just in time as the taxi skidded to a stop right in front of my knees, having already run over the spot where the kid had been. Like a dumb American, I expected to be recognized as a hero – there were a lot of people there who had seen it all – but no one reacted except the parents. I said something about this to a university colleague and his response was, “Those people are nothing, just axiang (yokels).” If he had killed the child, the taxi driver probably wouldn’t have even lost his license.”
LS: Talking about entrepreneurship brings us back to “This Can’t Be Happening.” How did that start?
DL: I actually started the blog in 2004. After writing my second book about the Abu Jamal case ["Killing Time"], I wrote a book on the attacks on civil liberties in the run- up to the wars, “This Can’t Be Happening,” which is what I was saying every morning at breakfast at that time. I started a blog to promote the book, which is how it got the name. I found it challenging and then intriguing to do an 800-1000 word column every week or every few days. Then people started posting it on Smirking Chimp and CounterPunch and now it has 10,000 to 15,000 readers. Sometimes, when I get on a good story – I broke the news about a cueing device on Bush’s back during the 2004 debates – there have been as many as 100,000 views per day, but essentially the site had reached its limit with 15,000 readers a day. How many people can want to read Dave Lindorff after all?
I wanted it to move beyond that, so I talked some journalist friends whom I respect and also get along with about joining me in a news collective, a kind of e-newspaper. We’re all iconoclasts; there are no editors; we loosely edit one another in rotation. I cover politics, finance, economics and anything else I want to write about …
LS: And who are these other iconoclasts?
DL: Chuck – or rather Charles M. Young, as he prefers to be known in print – is a marvelous writer, one of the best wordsmiths I know. He authored that piece on Diogenes and the cynics you liked so much. He wrote for Rolling Stone for years. An exemplar of Gonzo journalism, he lived with the Eagles on the road, has interviewed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and has a wicked case of tinnitus as a legacy of that beat. He’s written on political issues, interviewing Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn and now covers the cultural beat for TCBH – plus anything else he wants to write about. Chuck views his role this way: “You guys pitch the fast balls. I’m going to be throwing curves.”
John Grant studied journalism at Temple University and is also a gutsy reporter, photographer and film-maker who has gotten himself deported from Honduras and who traveled through war-torn Iraq on a film project, unembedded and with no handler for protection. John returned from the Vietnam War totally against the war and has been an active member of Veterans for Peace (which, incidentally, includes members hailing back to World War II). President of its Philadelphia chapter for eleven years, he now covers the war and peace beat for us.
Linn Washington is courageous investigative reporter and a leading African-American journalist in Philadelphia who has taken on an epidemic of police brutality and judicial corruption. He writes a column for the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest African-American paper in the country and teaches journalism at Temple. He also studied law at Yale. Linn covers law, the courts and race issues at TCBH.
We each commit to contributing one article a week to TCBH, which is a challenge, but so far, it’s a good one. The four of us combined makes for an awful lot of testosterone, I admit and we wish we had a fifth person, preferably a woman, finally, to cover the environmental beat.
What’s the business model for “This Can’t Be Happening”?
DL: My fantasy is that it will one day support us at least to the extent that I could go out and be a reporter and break news for the site. We are hoping for donations: TCBH has been bringing in about $3,000 a year for the last three years; multiplied by 4 that could be $12,000, although $30,000 would certainly allow us to do more. If readership increased four times, we’d have 60,000 readers and that could, perhaps, enable us reach out to selected advertisers too, who wouldn’t control us and who would be interested in an educated audience without a fixed geographic base, say for example a publisher of left-wing bumper stickers and T-shirts. A mix of advertising and donations is plausible.
The site’s unique feature is that there is no filter between the news collectors/writers and the readers. In my ideal world, each person who reads TCBH would give us $5 a year. Wouldn’t that be terrific, to know you helped pay for one great story a year? I’d prefer all $5 donations to $50s and $100s.
What I don’t think most people realize is that while there are a lot of organizations that provide access to alternative information on the web, most of it is commentary, or articles from commercial news organizations outside the US. That’s fine, but what’s missing is actual independent reporting, which is expensive. With magazines folding, newspapers no longer really providing real independent news and television news a joke, we need a new model for free and independent reporting. That’s what we’re hoping to provide, but to do it, we’re going to need a reader base that is willing to pony up money to support it. Not a lot of money. Just a little, but everyone has to do it. We need a new reader ethos of paying for what you value.
What if all the serious independent news web sites got together and suggested that all their readers give $5 a year to the web sites they read, instead of the $20-30 donation or subscription you used to give to just one magazine? The typical person probably regularly goes to maybe six, or at most 10 web sites each day for information. That would be $30-50 a year in contributions to keep the free flow of information going.
We’d be flying with $75,000/year: even $15,000 per person would allow us to pursue important breaking stories – many of which nobody else is reporting on. At that rate I could afford to devote a third of my time to TCBH since that’s about a third of what I need to contribute annually to my family budget.
We’ve got almost no overhead. I – like David Swanson with his WarIsACrime.org site – use the progressive server mayfirst.org for $100/year. It was founded by Alfredo Lopez, once a Young Lord (a bunch of those guys ended up in journalism). Alfredo is a tech wizard and his lefty server organization is completely affordable: they built our site for $400.
So what sites do you read, regularly?
DL: In no particular order: Truthout, of course, Buzzflash, OpEdNews, Public Record, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Raw Story, Smirking Chimp, AfterDowningStreet and a couple of foreign papers … Of course there are others I look at from time to time, but those are my daily essentials.
Coda: Dave Lindorff wore a “STOP the Death Penalty” T-shirt during our talk in a coffee house in Philadelphia’s conservative and up-scale Main Line suburbs. As we crossed Lancaster Avenue, a silver Hummer turned left around us, its driver shouting, “NO DEATH PENALTY?? YOU SCHMUCK!!!” Lindorff’s instant retort is unprintable.