“Real journalism is not concerned with the news, it is concerned with the truth,” Chris Hedges articulated to a crowd of community members, professors, and students on November 20, 2017 at Peterborough’s Market Hall Performing Arts Centre.
Hedges is acutely aware of the fundamental divide between those who write as a means to achieve their own personal goals and those who are earnest in their attempts to use writing as a tool to expand the scope of human knowledge.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist, and activist worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times for almost two decades, covering a myriad of conflicts across the globe. He has since authored several best-selling books before becoming a columnist for the progressive news site Truthdig, as well a host for RT’s television program On Contact. He is also a professor for Princeton University, where he teaches a course that is comprised of both undergraduates and prison inmates. Recognized for his outspoken political beliefs, Hedges is an unrelenting advocate of socialist and anarchic values.
“My job as a newspaper journalist was to manipulate facts. I can take the same set of facts and spin them anyway you want them.”
In Hedges’ view, if one is a good careerist, it is not difficult to twist facts to appease both the powers at the newspaper – in his case the Times – and the dominant ruling elite. However, it takes an honest journalist to take the same facts to tell truths that those within the epicenters of power do not want you to hear.
He learned this distinction and its subsequent implications, fundamental to his approach to writing, in his adolescence. While attending Loomis Chaffee, an exclusive prep school in Connecticut, he founded an underground student paper.
The publication – snidely titled the “Grog” in reference to the school’s already established “Bog” – was quickly banned by the administration. This did not stop Hedges from slipping them under every dorm room in the early hours of the morning to ensure its distribution continued. Nor did it prevent him from publishing an article that exposed the poor living standards of the kitchen staff that worked the school’s cafeteria.
The administration, evidently embarrassed, responded by immediately renovating the living facilities and putting him put on probation.
This story was one of the first of thousands that Hedges wrote throughout his career, and may seem insignificant given his countless accolades. This being said, it remains foundational to his personal philosophy. It taught him the capacity writing has to be a force to uphold the common good and to “champion the rights of those lived in an environment of eminence privilege, yet are invisible.”
It also taught him that power does not reward those who actively pursue truth. The same year Hedges released his article, the school established a journalism award and awarded it to the editor of the “Bog,” whose job it was to, as Hedges puts it, “impress the rich parents” of students attending.
Honest attempts to develop humanity’s moral parameters are not met with prestigious awards or the casual exchange of pleasantries over the clinking of champagne with members of the ruling class. One need not look further than former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who spearheaded US bombing campaigns in Cambodia and played a vital role in the Vietnam War, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 while those within the anti-war movement were ostracized to observe this discomforting reality.
Using writing as a tool, or as Hedges puts it, a “weapon against malignant power,” does not lead one to live their life confined to cushy offices spaces in Midtown sky rises either. It often leads people to live in places no one else wants to go. Places like Sarajevo, where Hedges lived an extended period of time while covering the Bosnian War; or to places like Kosovo in 1999, where he found himself in the back of a pickup truck in the middle of the night shining a Maglite on the 22 corpses of men to confirm reports that they had been tortured to death earlier in the day by Serbian forces.
One might assume an exposure to some of the darkest aspects of humanity would catalyze a cynical outlook towards recent unfoldings within the political sphere. This is, at least in part, true. Hedges is, like many on the left, highly cognizant of our declining state of affairs, yet also recognizes that is nothing new. He notes that mass repression was happening long before Trump took office, though the current administration’s position as a “naked kleptocracy” has indicated to those in power that there is no longer a counterforce to stop it.
Now more than ever, resistance to the unfettered capital accumulation of the super-rich at the expense of the many cannot not come in the form of liberal “boutique activism” that seeks to cling to the tenants of identity politics while simultaneously ignoring the need for true economic justice. To Hedges, a successful upheaval to the status quo must be facilitated by the works of honest artists, poets, writers, and academics, who are prepared to tell the stories of the disenfranchised, regardless of the consequences.
“You don’t get big grants or important teaching positions by telling our story,” he concluded. “The system is not built to tell our story. But if we don’t know our story we don’t know who we are. That’s by design. They don’t want us to know who we are.”
When we tell our stories, it affirms what must be affirmed, it gives a voice to those the dominant culture does not want us to hear, and as the great anti-war activist Daniel Joseph Berrigan once put it, “draws the good to the good.” This, Hedges believes, is what all of us must do.