Dan Arel: “If you can’t speak the truth, you’re not helping inform anyone”

An Agency Series: Interviews with Radical Journalists

The Agency collective is excited to bring you the first interview in a brand new series! Over the next few months we will be talking with anarchists and radicals who also work as mainstream journalists, and sharing their words with you via the Agency Newswire. We recently interviewed Dan Arel, who is an anarchist activist, journalist, and author, about some of the issues he has faced working within the mainstream media framework, and his thoughts on why engaging with media is important to the advancement of anarchist ideas. 

Agency: What motivated you to become a journalist?

Dan: I was looking for a way to be more involved in issues I cared about and wasn’t sure how I could do that. I had just become a father and I knew that for myself, putting my own body and / or freedom on the line wasn’t an option because I couldn’t strap my family with that burden. I had just returned to college and fell in love with writing essays about philosophy and political science.

I eventually pitched one essay about transgender rights to a small blog and they ran it, and it did really well and got a lot of attention. From there I kept sharing essays and articles until I fell in with doing more reporting on current events, rather than just writing my opinion on various topics.

 Agency: Do you think anarchism heavily influences your journalism, or do you prefer to keep a separation between work and your activism?

Dan: It certainly does influence how I approach topics, especially when I am writing about the elections or the current political climate. While a publication may not want me to promote an anarchist worldview, that doesn’t mean I am not going to talk about how mutual aid may be better than waiting for the government to step in and help.

I’d say it also depends on the publication and the exact topic. When I wrote about the anarchists who are traveling to Rojava to fight with the YPG, my anarchism was heavily influential in how I wrote.

Agency: Do you feel that it’s advantageous to discuss anarchist ideas overtly in the mainstream media? 

Dan: I think it can be really important to talk about it because there are so many misconceptions about anarchism. I think most of the population pictures a bunch of people with mohawks and leather jackets running around smashing things and screaming “anarchy!”

As a journalist, and someone with a large platform, I am able to talk about what anarchists really want, a world where people have autonomy and mutual aid provides everyone with the necessities that they need to not only survive, but to thrive and live their life to its full potential.

I find more people become sympathetic towards the idea when they begin to understand it. Even if they don’t fully agree and can’t yet imagine a world in which the state isn’t running things, they can see the appeal of not having to worry about food, shelter, clothing, and health care.

Agency: Have you faced harassment for being known as a leftist journalist? If so, where has it come from, and how do you deal with it?

Dan: Mostly it’s internet trolls. Dealing with them is mostly based around ignoring them because what they want is a reaction. I have received more death threats than I can count, but none have ever convinced me I was ever at risk of real harm. For fascists and those on their side of things, it’s about creating fear. Their goal is to get us to quit what we are doing. While it can get a little overwhelming at times, you have to remind yourself that if you do quit, they win.

I have also been visited by the FBI, but in that case it’s about knowing your rights. I would tell every leftist journalist to be proactive and have a lawyer on hand if and when the FBI do come knocking. Knowing that you don’t have to talk to them goes a long way.

Agency: There has been a lot of organizing around unionizing freelance journalists. Have you been involved in any of this organizing? What are the main issues that freelance journalists have been facing, and do you feel like there’s been progress?

Dan: While I do like the idea of unionizing freelance journalists, I think it will be incredibly difficult as we don’t have a main boss or central organization to force to meet our needs. The problem I have faced in freelancing varies from publication to publication. Some are fantastic and upfront about pay rates and pay promptly. Some make getting paid difficult and it can take months, and sometimes more than a year, to get paid.

I think what will work – if not an official union – is freelancers coming together and communicating more. Blacklisting publications who treat freelancers poorly and hitting them where it hurts the most. We know they pay freelancers far less than staff writers, but they rely on us to fill their sites and pages with stories. If we refuse, they will have to rethink how they treat us.

Agency: Has the growth of the obfuscation of truth in journalism and general discourse changed the way you approach your writing?

Dan: When I started, many of my early editors wanted to remove bias from my writing. They would say “only present the facts and let the readers decide” but I quickly realized that doesn’t actually work. I don’t want the reader to “decide” if fascism or white nationalism is bad, I already know it’s bad and I won’t write in a way that presents an ambiguous view of their side.

I present the facts, but I also comment on why these are facts and present the other side as it truly is. I call them white nationalists, nazis, fascists, etc. I don’t hesitate to call the president racist, instead of the tactic of most major outlets to imply Trump might be racist, or that he said something that some people think is racist.

That’s not journalism, and that’s not the job of journalists. If you can’t speak the truth, you’re not helping inform anyone.

Agency: Why do you think anarchists should care about how they, and anarchist ideas, are represented in the mainstream media?

Dan: For many of the same reasons I touched on above. I think we need to help inform people of what we really want in the world we live in and not let the liberals or conservatives tell that story for us. If we don’t represent ourselves, someone else will and we will forever be the masked villains in black threatening “freedom.”

Agency: Do you have any advice for anarchists and radical groups wanting to get a message out into the mainstream media?

Be brave, don’t back down, and don’t let others scare you from speaking up. Make sure your message is so clear as to not leave room for interpretation. People are going to want to twist your message to mean things that it doesn’t, so the clearer you are, the less they can do this.

Second, don’t be discouraged when you’re trying to get the message out and it’s not working. I can’t tell you the number of rejections I still get for articles I am working on. I simply push through to the next publication. I started on a blog with a few thousand readers and eventually ended up in Time Magazine. It can be really discouraging to hear “no” a lot, but in the end, it just means your message will eventually find a home in the right place.

* * *

Dan Arel is a Southern California based activist, award-winning columnist, and author. His work has appeared in such publications as Truthout, The New Arab, Time, Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Salon. He has authored such books as Parenting without God, and The Secular Activist. Since 2017 he has worked in communications in the labor movement, fighting for higher wages, benefits, and the social justice of some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Twitter: @danarel

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