As senior program director at Free Press, Craig Aaron is at the center of the growing debate over how to reform our nation’s media system and nurse an increasingly sick journalism industry back to health.
May was a busy month for the former In These Times managing editor and Public Citizen investigative reporter: He helped stage a Free Press summit on the future of journalism, the Internet and public media in the United States only days after the release of “Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy,” a bold analysis of the future of the fourth estate he co-wrote with Victor Pickard and Josh Stearns.
The report, available here, reviews emerging financial models that might sustain quality journalism, and suggests the future of U.S. news may lie in nonprofit organizations, government funding to nurture new media models and a “world-class” public media system.
In These Times caught up with Aaron via email in late May.
In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring).
As I once rapped before my sixth-grade class: “My name’s Craig Aaron, not Aaron Craig. If you call me Aaron Craig, I’ll break your leg.”
What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?
My In These Times bio, of course, edging out some yoga instructor and a custom jewelry guy. Then it’s a mix of radio interviews and op-eds.
Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.
If you care about the future of the media, you’ve gotta read Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age – especially my Free Press colleague S. Derek Turner’s analysis of why our failed policies have us falling behind the world when it comes to the Internet.
If the charts in that scare you, then let me recommend Media Minutes – the weekly podcast done by my colleagues Stevie Converse and Candace Clement.
Describe your politics.
Jimmy Weinstein, the founder of In These Times, always answered that question: “Groucho Marxist.” I still like that.
The more boring answer would be “progressive.” And I’m a registered Democrat so I can actually have a say in choosing my local leaders. I’m pragmatic but always optimistic.
Come up with a question for yourself and answer it.
What’s your high score in bowling?
225. Waveland Bowl.
Name a journalist whose work you read religiously. Why?
There are too many. I still subscribe to more than a dozen magazines and my RSS reader is overloaded.
Lately, I’ve been religiously reading Rick Perlstein – though maybe that just seems religious because Nixonland is longer than the Bible.
It may hurt my street cred, but I still love The New Yorker. I’ll read anything Malcolm Gladwell does. I’m really enjoying Burkhard Bilger and Larissa MacFarquhar – if only because the latter regularly profiles ITT contributors.
And I’ve been reading Sports Illustrated every week since I was in fourth grade.
Pick your 5 favorite websites and tell us why.
Google Reader because that’s where I get my news.
Twitter because I’m addicted and @notaaroncraig.
Crooks and Liars because they watch cable news for me.
PoynterOnline because I can’t get enough journalism gossip, even if Romenesko won’t cover media policy.
FreePress because I’m proud of the work we’ve done there.
Name five other websites you go to when you’re procrastinating.
Boingboing.net for stuff I didn’t know I needed.
GoodReads because that’s where I keep track of all the books I want to read.
Pandora for funk and soul.
Design Observer for some inspiration.
The Beachwood Reporter because I miss Chicago.
What is your favorite In These Times story?
That I wrote? I have fond memories of a takedown I did on the Y2K hype. And a review I did of a book on the Ravenswood, W.Va., Steelworkers strike, which my stepmom’s father was part of (without spending time around those picket lines, I probably never would have come to ITT).
Fred Weir did a great history of Russia told via political jokes for Appeal to Reason, the book I edited around ITT’s 25th anniversary in 2001, that I still think is brilliant. And there’s a 1996 piece by Matt Roth on Disney – “The Toys Are Us” – that I still go back to read.
My best ITT stories, of course, are unprintable and best shared over beers.
What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?
Failing to cover what their bosses are doing. And pretending there’s such a thing as objective journalism.
What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see passed right now?
I have a bunch. But here’s one we can do right now: The Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147). This bipartisan bill would create hundreds of new Low Power FM community radio stations.
What do you think makes for an effective activist or political campaign? Can you name a current one that you admire?
I’m a strong believer in the inside-outside strategy. Build up your expertise, devote resources to meaningful research, and understand the power players. Then educate and mobilize activists at the moments they can have the most impact. That’s what we try to do at Free Press.
Are you involved with any interesting forms of activism? Could you tell us about any of these projects?
At Free Press, we’re fighting for better media on a number of fronts.
We’re especially concerned with the future of the Internet—and ensuring that all Americans have universal, affordable access to it. During the Bush administration, the United States fell from fourth in the world in broadband adoption to 22nd.
The Obama administration appears to be moving in the right direction—and right now the Federal Communications Commission is putting together a long overdue national broadband plan. But it’s crucial that they hear from everyday people—not just the high-priced industry lobbyists.
We’re also redoubling our efforts to protect Net Neutrality – the fundamental principle that keeps the Internet free and open and stops phone and cable companies from interfering with what you can do and where you can go online. Our Save the Internet campaign is rallying millions of Internet users to make sure the free and open Internet stays that way.
At the same time, we’re also crafting policies to address the current crisis in journalism. Local news outlets are in trouble and thousands of reporters are losing their jobs. But the last thing we need is bailouts of the big media companies or more of the bad policies that made such a mess of things in the first place. Instead, we need a national journalism strategy that recognizes newsgathering is a public service – not just another commodity.
We need forward-looking policies that keep reporters on the beat while embracing innovation and the Internet. Victor Pickard, Josh Stearns and I just published a long paper outlining some of the policies and programs that might work. One key is that we need to invest in noncommercial media outlets. Americans spend almost nothing on public media compared to nations like Canada or England.
In general, we’re trying to make the media a bona fide political issue in America—no different from healthcare, the environment or civil rights. We believe fixing the media is the key to advancing any issue you care about. So whatever your first issue may be, the media should probably be your second.
How can others get involved?
The first step is going to freepress.net signing up to join our 500,000 e-activists. We’ll alert you to breaking issues and opportunities to contact your leaders in Washington or get involved in your community.
Then start learning about the issues and talking to your neighbors. You’d be surprised how many people think the media are just something that happens to you. It’s not, and the media system we have isn’t natural and it wasn’t created in a vacuum. It was shaped by policies and politics. We all can play a role in creating better media – and, importantly, in making better media policies.
There are also dozens of grassroots media reform and media justice groups across the country doing great work at the local level. And there are endless opportunities to start making your own media by writing a blog or volunteering at your local public access or community radio station.
What’s a lifestyle choice you’ve made recently to be greener?
My wife and I signed up for a farm-share. Still not sure what to do with kohlrabi.
What local media do you depend on?
I read the Washington Post – though I have to admit I only get it at home on Sundays. NPR, of course, for news and bluegrass on Sundays – though I listen much more via podcast than over the air. And we’re lucky to have a Pacifica station here in D.C., too. For news about my neighborhood, I read www.chvblog.blogspot.com
What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?
“If you get hung up on everybody else’s hang-ups, then the whole world’s going to be nothing more than one huge gallows.”
That’s from Richard Brautigan, though he didn’t tell it to me personally.
What do you do during your free time?
Still working on that work-life balance. But besides filling out questionnaires for In These Times, I enjoy very short walks with my bulldog, Earl.
What’s the last, good film you saw?
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly … also Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Guilty television watching pleasure?
American Idol … you can’t complain if you don’t vote.
What trend in popular culture do you find the most annoying?
Flip-flops. Who decided they were appropriate for any occasion?
—June 2, 2009