The Indy’s Unique Model Allows Me to Cover Stories That Matter

The Indypendent is so different from the standard media model because it belongs to its readers and writers and the various social movements that inform its reporting.

Rico Cleffi Jan 4, 2021

Some years ago a building a few doors down from my apartment collapsed on a construction crew, crushing a few of the workers. One of the big TV network affiliates sent a camera crew to get witness reactions. I approached the reporter and explained that he should talk to my immediate neighbors who had been fighting the building’s landlord for years and had actually won an injunction against him after their own building had been structurally damaged. The reporter looked at me like this was the craziest thing on earth. Then he said, “That’s not what happened. I’m the journalist, and you are not.” 

The story he filed consisted of superficial man-on-the-street reactions to the terrible “accident.” The tragedy wasn’t really an accident, but a predictable outcome of a for-profit housing system built on cutting corners and exploiting labor. That didn’t matter for our TV news reporter who has gone on to win several awards for his ability to deliver lines in front of a camera.  

Throughout my life, I’ve had several similar experiences where I’ve witnessed something happen first-hand and corporate media contorts the incident in a way that has little to do with the truth.  Maybe you have gone to a protest where the police rush the crowd, beating people with impunity. Shortly after you check the news reports and learn of the “violent protesters” who “clashed” with the cops. My experience with the TV reporter was that kind of scenario.

What I saw with the building collapse is kind of an analogy for the way the corporate media functions. I thought of it when the New York Times ran all those stories about so many WMDs in Iraq. And I thought about it a few weeks ago when the Times responded badly to its latest major scandal over the sloppy Islamophonic “Caliphate” podcast. For every Judith Miller who eventually gets caught, there are those like Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg who spread the same WMD lies and get rewarded with access to the top of the media heap. 

When the big media cleans house, it’s the Gary Webbs they go after, the journalists taking on power head on, not those reinforcing it. The corporate media—and to a lesser extent, the foundation-sponsored nonprofit media—don’t have much of an interest in going after the larger networks of power. They might (finally) cover the NYPD’s systematic abuse of the population. But they sure aren’t going to get at the role of policing in society. They will cover homelessness as a byproduct of ill-informed policy choices, never as a natural function of capitalism. And until recently, the way the media has covered the climate crisis really hasn’t been too different from the way they covered that collapsing building on my block. It’s just not really in their ideological or economic interest to tackle many of the stories that are so important to our daily lives. 

You can read Noam Chomsky, George Seldes and Herbert Schiller’s writings on the media till your eyeballs pop out. Ultimately, it all boils down to the old AJ Liebling quote: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

The Indypendent is so different from the standard model because it belongs to its readers and writers and the various social movements that inform its reporting. In some neighborhoods, the red and white boxes hailing “A free paper for a free people” and the stories contained on the newsprint therein are as much a part of the streetscape as graffiti or bodegas. The Indy is not owned by a corporation, or big advertisers, foundation donors, or a “vanguard party of the proletariat.” This paper is a real public good, and like all public goods, it needs to be nurtured and supported.

My own involvement with the Indy came after I got tired of the way journalists were covering some of the pitched housing struggles in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

Back when private equity firms were beginning to gobble up NYC’s housing stock, The Indy was one of the first outlets to cover the story. In the push to war after 9/11, and later in the run-up to the Iraq War, the paper held us down with informed analysis. Just read some of The Indy’s coverage of the deadly U.S. border policy back in 2003, over a decade before most mainstream outlets discovered the issue. The Indy didn’t start writing about these issues when Trump got elected. They never held off from calling out U.S. domestic or foreign policy under Obama. And what about coverage of the NYPD? The Indy was on top of the police killings of Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury and so many others—always writing from the perspective of those fighting for justice. This also applies to coverage of the climate, or any of the other vital issues facing all of us: The Indy was, and is still on the case. Check out any of Steve Wishnia’s recent coverage of housing issues. Or Ted Hamm’s chronicles of Democratic Party machine politics. Or the work of the newer writers like Amba Guerguerigan or Katya Schwenk. There’s much good to be found here. 

My own involvement with the Indy came after I got tired of the way journalists were covering some of the pitched housing struggles in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Too much of the reporting I was seeing fell on the real-estate-porn side of things (“This new luxury condo tower will leave you salivating”). I have years of writing and research experience, and I’ve read enough news sources to know when a story is lacking critical content. I would send established journalists information on developers’ various conflicts of interest. I was usually met with dismissal. “That’s just the way the world works,” was a common refrain. It was clear that some of these people were so invested in the status quo that they couldn’t deign to cover stories of vital importance. By contrast, when I contacted The Indy asking them to cover these issues, the response was, “Why don’t you write it up and we’ll take a look?” 

Over the past few years, the Indypendent has given me a platform to delve into the type of stories that I would like to read. Corporate landlords and the tenants fighting them, the ongoing attempts to privatize NYCHA, homelessness, the reactionary anti-shelter movement—these are some of the issues I’ve been able to explore. That some of these stories have been picked up and utilized by tenant and community groups in their ongoing campaigns makes this work that much more rewarding. 

Like everything else in this society, it takes money to make this happen. I know, I know, these are rough times for all of us. If you are able to contribute anything, please consider supporting this worthwhile project. And maybe the next time a building collapses on your block, you can help us tell the story of what really happened. 

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