In this protracted moment of media mayhem, progressive activists are hard-pressed to get their signal through the white-hot noise of partisan patter, outright falsehoods and carnival barker agitprop that has made the fourth estate the third rail of our two party system.
There’s hope, however, in the form of prominent activist David Fenton’s new book, The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons from 50 Years as a Progressive Agitator, published by San Rafael-based imprint Earth Aware.
As actor-activist (and sometimes Hulk) Mark Ruffalo, who worked with Fenton to win a ban on fracking in New York, observed, “Activists need to be communicators and story-tellers. David Fenton knows this at his core and has helped the environmental and climate movement reach the public for decades.”
Indeed, from rabble-rousing with Youth International Party (“Yippies”) co-founder Abbie Hoffman to collaborating with presidents and celebrities, the Berkeley-based Fenton has been the motivating force behind some of the most important and history-making activism of the past half-century.
What follows is a recent email exchange with Fenton and the Pacific Sun.
Daedalus Howell: Why do you think the left dropped the ball so dramatically (when compared to the right) when it came to its messaging?
David Fenton: People on the left usually come from studying the humanities, the law or the sciences. They are taught a view that great ideas and concepts basically “sell” themselves by their sheer intrinsic brilliance. The great Berkeley linguist George Lakoff calls this “the enlightenment fallacy.” On the right, many people come from business school. They study cognitive and marketing science and must learn to sell products and services to advance their careers. So this is their natural orientation. Also, we know from cognitive science that it is the repetition of simple messages which changes the brain—and thereby changes public opinion. In the sciences, for example, people are rewarded for complexity, not simplification, and certainly not for repeating themselves. So basically progressives tend not to like what works. Plus they see “selling” as dirty and manipulative. I hope they wake up, since perception is today’s reality to a large extent. And the left needs to please stop using inscrutable so-called “woke” language that the public just doesn’t understand.
DH: Given the preponderance of conspiracy theories and fake news, what are the best means of signaling credibility when interfacing with the media, especially if you’re not established as an organization or a known quantity?
DF: Building trust is key. It is truly sad how trust in the news has eroded. I blame Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg for much of that. Fox News purposely and knowingly spreads disinformation for power and profit. And Facebook has allowed even QAnon to spread on their platform. It is shameful. Tell the truth, but make it easy to understand. That’s the way to break through the noise. And find and work with allies who have the public trust.
DH: In the section regarding communication rules for activists, you advocate befriending journalists. Speaking as an accredited member of the media, I’ve witnessed an uptick in malice directed toward our profession, which keeps my colleagues and I wary of interfacing outside traditional channels (publicists, etc.). What’s your recommendation for overcoming this phenomenon?
DF: Have dinner parties and salons. Practice old-fashioned relationship building. That’s how humans work best. And really the communications people need to come out from behind their computers and meet people. I do hear what you are saying, there are malicious forces out there. But certainly not in most non-profit organizations.
DH: Who are the David Fentons and Abbie Hoffmans of today tomorrow? In your opinion, who is leveraging the media in a manner that aligns the concepts in The Activist’s Media Handbook?
DF: Greta Thunberg, the climate activist from Sweden, is a truly great communicator. She is always authentic, which is key. She’s a natural. So is Congresswoman [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez. Her social media work is beyond brilliant. I expect she could be president someday. Adam McKay’s film, Don’t Look Up, is in the best tradition of Abbie Hoffman Yippie style agitprop. I expect we will see more climate activism from him. But I do miss Abbie! I mean, who else would go to the NY Stock Exchange and throw money down at the traders. For years, I kept trying to convince anti-corruption activists to do the same—throw bills down on the floor of the House of Representatives. I figured, like at the stock exchange, the members would stop working to pick up the bills. Of course, in Abbie’s time, a dollar bill was enough. Not now, haha.
DH: Do you think [media pranksters] like Joey Skaggs and the Yes Men are contributing to a positive cause or fomenting more chaos?
DF: Pranks are important. Humor works to communicate. Remember that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was consistently voted the “most trusted news program in America.” Plus pranks get covered by the media, so they are part of the toolkit of modern activism. Of course, the wrong pranks can be counterproductive and cause backlash. But really, the left is too serious now. Time for some Yippie humor again, please.
For more information about David Fenton’s ‘The Activist’s Media Handbook,’ visit dhowl.com/fenton.