Abby Martin: Telling our own stories, cultivating our own narratives

An Agency Series: Interviews with Radical Journalists

For the latest in Agency’s Interviews with Radical Journalists, we spoke with Abby Martin, seasoned journalist and radically unconventional TV presenter. She hosted Breaking the Set on the Russian network RT America from 2012 to 2015. Abby supported Agency’s work on the show back in 2015 through a feature on CrimethInc. and the anarchist public education project, To Change Everything. In 2015, Martin launched the investigative documentary and interview series The Empire Files, originally hosted by Telesur. She continues to produce the docuseries independently with her partner Mike Prysner. She also produces and hosts Media Roots Radio where she reports on and discusses current events through a radical-left lens. 

This is the fourth interview in this Agency series. Read our previous interviews here: Shane Burley, Natasha Lennard, Dan Arel.

Agency: What made you a radical activist? What made you a journalist? How do the two connect for you? You seem very up front and comfortable identifying with the radical left end of the political spectrum, why is it important to you to wear your politics on your sleeve? Do you find this opens up more opportunities than it presents limitations? If so, how?

Abby: The Iraq War radicalized me and propelled my anti-war activism. The mainstream media complicity to sell the war made me realize it was nearly impossible to generate awareness about the US government’s crimes without having my own medium of information to spread information through. About fifteen years ago, I started Media Roots as a hub to aggregate underreported stories and cover politics in the Bay Area. The primary focus was always US foreign policy, but domestic issues easily overlap since it is the root of why the empire is collapsing from within.

I knew I had to train myself to carry out this vision, so I utilized the tools and opportunities available to me in Berkeley at community radio stations, public access channels and took video / editing courses to get accustomed on how to be a one woman show. It was a relentless and endless endeavor that was fueled by my passion for the cause. I never really expected to make money doing it.

Being an activist and journalist naturally go hand in hand, because I consider myself an advocacy journalist. I think people find that refreshing, because they know exactly what they are getting and why. The notion of being “unbiased” is hammered in the heads of journalism students and media consumers. Yet most stories don’t need to tell both sides. When I report on the conduct of Monsanto or the US police, I don’t need to quote the corporation or police officer’s justification of their actions. It’s much more important to uplift the voices on the ground who are not typically provided the space to speak out about their injustice, and advocate for retribution.

The concept of neutrality in a media landscape dominated by just six corporations is absurd. All journalists have opinions, and journalists do not get hired for these outlets if they do not believe in the reigning orthodoxy of US foreign policy and capitalism. The beltway press simply couch their opinions by appealing to the authority of think tanks, politicians or other elite figures that parrot the establishment narrative or capitalist line.

Being open about such views strictly limits the capacity to have a successful media career. The corporate media is literally subsidized by the oil industry, banking corporations and weapons contractors. Hard hitting reporting on these industries, as well as critiques of the dogma underpinning US empire is a dead end for anyone who wants to make money in this arena.

Agency: You’ve hosted two cable news shows, first Breaking the Set and then The Empire Files on Telesur. How does a radical activist such as yourself come to be a television presenter?

Abby: Russia Today (RT) and teleSUR are both state funded media outlets, which exemplify the options journalists like myself have to report these kinds of stories. When the corporate media fails to do the very function of journalism by refusing to critically report on power, outlets like RT fill the void, cynically or not.

During Occupy Wall Street, RT was the only news outlet that was on the ground taking the protests seriously. Myself and many others didn’t care that it was a Russian outlet, only that the stories were getting out to a mass audience. I was documenting for Media Roots every day, putting out reports of the activists’ demands and rampant police brutality. My videos led me to become the liaison for RT’s coverage in Oakland, which was a hotspot for the protests.

This led to the offer to move to Washington, DC and work as an anchor at RT. Within months of getting the job and being unable to conform as a desk anchor, I was given the opportunity to launch Breaking the Set. It was the most difficult but most rewarding experience of my life.

It was surreal to see the network subsequently blamed for Donald Trump’s presidency, where the US intelligence community cited my show, which ended two years prior to the election, as a major factor that “sowed discord” and “fomented radical discontent” within US society, leading to the outcome of the 2016 election.

teleSUR is a Latin American conglomerate that was started as a joint project by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez as a counter to the corporate media hegemony that actively supports the overthrow of their governments.

Being sympathetic to Marxism, I was excited to collaborate with the network and dig more into investigative reporting that naturally aligned with their worldview. I had complete autonomy over Empire Files, where my team created a weekly show and sold it to teleSUR. During my time there, I was able to travel to the front lines of the drug war in Colombia, the deadly guarimbas in Venezuela and the occupied West Bank. Sadly, crippling US sanctions on Venezuela halted our ability to get paid. We were forced to shut down production and go completely independent. Since then, we have been reliant on grassroots funding and donations. Now we are a very small team of two, sometimes three people who are only able to put out a fraction of the high quality content that we used to.

Agency: We haven’t historically seen many activists hosting news programs. Did doing these shows feel unconventional to you – both within the convention of TV presenters, and also the convention of radical activist roles?

Abby: These shows were radically unconventional. The idea of Breaking the Set was to present in a similar polished fashion to a mainstream news anchor but break the proverbial set, by smashing the preconceived notion of what traditional news looks and sounds like. During the three years of hosting the show, I was able to feature revolutionary artists, musicians, filmmakers, activists and journalists and introduce ideas that would never be allowed on corporate media.

Empire Files is something that digs deeper into the machinations of the US war machine and capitalism that people have told me legitimately changes their worldview. It would be amazing if the show were allowed to be broadcast to a wider US audience, because it has the potential to open a lot of minds. Americans are a heavily brainwashed society, and political education and media literacy are the necessary foundation to any meaningful change here.

Agency: Do radical social movements have more media access now than they did ten years ago?

Abby: Yes and no. Easy access to digital tools like blogs, social media and podcast platforms make it much easier for anyone to create the media they want for their movement. But media has dramatically changed over the last decade to prohibit audience growth. Despite the appearance of diversity in media consumption, it’s becoming much more rigid and consolidated in terms of financial ownership. Even more dangerous are the tech overlords who exploited the fake news and Russiagate hysteria to curate our reality through algorithms and purges that fall outside the boundaries of acceptability. The insidious control of what we see online from the use of algorithms has destroyed the egalitarian nature of what the internet was founded on and pushes us more into self prophesying feedback loops.

Agency: What medium between film, radio, TV and books do you enjoy the most, and which medium has been most effective at helping you reach the goals of your left journalistic work?

Abby: I have always gravitated toward films and video, because that medium is what has motivated my activism the most throughout my life. I love applying my art, writing and directing skills together to create a product that can inspire people to shift their entire perspective of the world, and then act on that knowledge.

Agency: Do you think there is a way to shift mainstream media narratives so that anarchist and other radical left currents are better understood and not as stigmatized as we generally see? Is it important to you to see anarchist ideas and other forms of radical analysis and critique be represented in mainstream media? 

Abby: We need to stop thinking in terms of being represented by corporate media. Appealing to a hyper commercial institution that runs completely contrary to the goals and ideals of leftists will never start covering them fairly. Its entire existence is to perpetuate the status quo, while undermining movements to render the left obsolete. Instead, we must employ what is available for us now to create our own media, tell our own stories and cultivate our own narratives so the ruling class are no longer the ones dictating our past, present and future.

Agency: Tell us a little about what you have in store for 2020. What can we expect to see you working on?

Abby: In 2019, I put out my first feature length documentary, Gaza Fights For Freedom. It was an enormous endeavor, but an incredible experience that made me want to pursue similar long term projects. My partner Mike Prysner and I have a really great idea for another documentary that we hope to raise money to create in the next year. In the meantime, I am co-hosting regular podcasts with my brother Robbie Martin on Media Roots Radio as well as putting out semi regular episodes on Empire Files that you can find on youtube.

Abby Martin is a visual artist and anti-imperialist journalist. She is the host of Media Roots Radio, creator of The Empire Files, and director of the documentary Gaza Fights For Freedom.