Will Potter is an award-winning investigative journalist and author based in Washington, D.C. He specializes in dissident politics and culture, the policing of dissent, and civil liberties post-9/11. His work has appeared in the world’s top media outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN, National Geographic, WIRED, NPR, the History Channel, and Rolling Stone. He has lectured at nearly 200 universities and forums, including Harvard Law School, Yale University, and the House of Democracy and Human Rights in Berlin. Will has been invited to testify before the U.S. Congress about his reporting, as the only witness opposing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and he has spoken about his investigations of “ag-gag” laws before the Australian Parliament. His book, Green Is The New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, exposes how non-violent animal rights and environmental protesters came to be classified by the FBI as “eco-terrorists.” It was awarded a Kirkus Star for “remarkable merit.” This year he was selected as a TED Senior Fellow.
How did you get involved in independent journalism?
I fell in love with journalism quite early. I started writing for newspapers at about 17 years old, covering local politics for a division of the Dallas Morning News. For years I stayed on what, at the time, was a traditional path in journalism: I worked my way up to larger media outlets and greater responsibilities, moving to Chicago and then Washington, DC, to cover Congress and the Supreme Court. When I was writing for the Texas Observer, there was a screenprint hanging on the wall with an image of a printing press and the phrase, “The Tyrant’s Foe, The People’s Friend.” Throughout my career, that is the type of journalism I have aspired to create; hard-hitting reporting that speaks truth to power.
Would you please tell us a little about your work at Green Is the New Red?
Starting in about 2000 I began following an increasingly disturbing trend of political activists being labeled as “eco-terrorists,” particularly animal rights activists and environmentalists. While I was working at other media outlets, I continued following this trend, but found it incredibly difficult to convince my editors that this was a story worth pursuing. Largely out of that frustration, and not knowing what else to do, I started GreenIsTheNewRed.com to serve as a clearinghouse for news and analysis of the topic. Because nobody else was covering the issue to such an extent, it gained traction and attention. As a result of this work, I was invited to testify before Congress against the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and began speaking at universities and law schools frequently.
What was your thinking behind the Drone on the Farm Project?
I have been extensively reporting on “ag-gag” laws, which are sweeping new proposals to criminalize anyone who exposes animal welfare or environmental abuses on factory farms and slaughterhouses. I’ve interviewed current undercover investigators and farm workers who have said they are increasingly afraid of speaking out. And meanwhile, these laws also criminalize investigative journalism. I started think of new ways of shining a light on these industries, which are desperately attempting to operate in secrecy. That’s where the Drone on the Farm project came from. I’m using aerial photography, or drones, to document the environmental impact of factory farming. The spirit of the project is that even if these industries criminalize newsgathering, we must find new ways of exposing the truth.
What role do you see journalists as playing in activism and advocacy?
I think the best journalism amplifies marginal voices, and shines a spotlight on injustice. Strong investigative journalism can often be a tool for political activists in their advocacy work, but the journalism itself has to remain detached from that or else it risks devolving into propaganda.
Do you have any advice for people who want to work in, or support work in, your field?
Investigative journalism is clearly in crisis, which is both terrifying and exciting, depending on your perspective. If you want to work in this field, you need to be mindful of that reality. You need to be ready to take chances, create new models, and hustle. For those who support hard-hitting journalism, one of the most important ways to help right now is financially. If you support what a magazine or newspaper is doing, subscribe. If you support what an independent journalist is doing, make a donation. I can say from personal experience that trying to produce investigative journalism while working another, unrelated job full-time is simply not sustainable.
What would you suggest animal activists do to make their case to the public as clearly as possible?
Whenever I lead speaker trainings or media workshops, I tell people that the best way to prepare their message is to employ what I call the “mom test.” Think about sitting down for dinner with your mom (or a family member or friend who you respect, but might not see eye-to-eye with on everything) and write down what you would say about the issue. Better yet, record yourself saying it out loud. Don’t add in a bunch of million-dollar words from graduate school, and don’t get bogged down citing studies or historical examples. Speak clearly, honestly, and with passion. What would you say? I always find this exercise incredibly helpful when I’m preparing for media interviews or speeches. If nothing else, it helps you to write a rough message on the page in plain English. And this doesn’t have to just be a mental exercise, either. When I was writing my book, I regularly called up my mom to see if I was able to explain complicated legal issues in an interesting way.
How can animal activists use the power of the press in their favor?
Journalists need news. That may sound obvious, but I think most activists forget this, and instead focus on what they need or the animals need. The best way to leverage the power of the press is to help journalists do their job. For instance, one activist I know, at a national organization, has helped reporters on multiple international news stories. The activist’s epiphany, as he told me one day, was that “journalists are lazy.” Harsh, but true. Or, more accurately, newsrooms are downsizing and journalists are overworked. If animal advocates want to see the press doing a better job covering a certain issue, the best thing to do is to find a way to help them. That could mean providing documents, or offering inside sources for interviews. Or it could mean creating powerful undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses and providing them as an exclusive to a major media outlet.
Do you have any tips on how activists can prepare for talking with the press?
The only way you can be prepared to answer press questions on the fly, and adapt to tough questions, is if you are so well-versed in the material that it feels like second nature. Practice. Then practice some more, and don’t stop until your answers become what I call “muscle memory.” For instance, after I debated an ag industry spokesperson on Democracy Now, I received a lot of supportive messages from people who wanted to know how I stayed so calm. It’s because I had spent so much time studying the material and anticipating possible questions; when the cameras started rolling, I could stay relaxed as the opposition got flustered.
What do you see as the main strengths and limitations of the current animal rights movement?
The animal rights movement is at a turning point right now. Public awareness of animal rights is rapidly increasing, and so is public support. It seems like everywhere we turn corporations are changing their business practices to reflect consumer demand, and major media outlets and celebrities are talking about these issues. The main limitation right now, though, is the animal rights movement itself. Rather than focusing on these opportunities for widespread social change, too many animal rights activists seems to relish in any opportunity to attack others for even the smallest transgressions. Within the animal rights movement I think there is an obsession with purity politics, and setting unattainably high standards of perfection both for ourselves and for the wider public. That’s a recipe for failure. To be clear, I think it’s important that activists have debates about tactics and theory. But too often this becomes cannibalistic. If the target of your animosity is the animal activist who you disagree with about 1% of the issues, rather than the factory farms responsible for 99% of the animals killed for food, you need to step back and put things in perspective.
Is there anything you are especially excited or worried about at present? Are there opportunities or threats in the movement that you think should be receiving more attention?
I’ve been excited to see these issues being discussed in wider circles, and momentum growing around these issues. My recent TED talk about secret prison units for “domestic terrorists” already has 1.5 million views. And I just finished filming a new TV episode of “Truth and Power,” a series by Brian Knappenberger and narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The episode is all about how animal activists have been labeled as “terrorists,” I took the crew out on several drone investigations to document factory farming pollution. Examples like this reflect, to me, a sea change in public awareness that is only going to continue growing.