"I think there will always be a need for activist to hold those folks accountable to make sure that when they're wrong that they're told they're wrong or when they're missing something that they're missing something, and also, conversely, to make sure that they tell those people information when they have it that might be newsworthy."
-- Jason Salzman during a Media Giraffe interview on Dec. 13, 2007
Profile by Ashley Coulombe
READ VERBATIM INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Jason Salzman has had many jobs and opportunities that have allowed him to flex his activist and media-criticism muscles. They range from studying the anti-nuclear movement in the South Pacific to working at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington D.C. to starting his own nonprofit media criticism organization. He's even been a giant taco mascot for Taco Bell.
Salzman sports a long resume that centers on his activist personality and his interest in the media. According to him, it all began while he was an undergraduate student at Brown University. Salzman organized a student vote on whether or not Brown should stock suicide pills in the infirmary "for use after a nuclear war, only after a nuclear war, not before a nuclear war, that was important." Despite winning by a 60-40 vote, the University refused to stock the pills, but Jason's interest was already sparked.
The student vote got a lot of media attention, which Salzman studied in one of his classes at Brown. "It was a gratifying project in that I got my start in media criticism. I analyzed why it was newsworthy," Salzman said.
Brown may have refused to stock the pills, but the university still awarded Salzman the Arnold Fellowship to study the antinuclear movement in the South Pacific upon graduation. The budding activist spent six months traveling around the South Pacific, mostly in New Zealand, studying a very strong grassroots antinuclear movement and trying to determine why the movement in the United States was essentially failing.
Upon his return to the United States, Salzman freelanced about his time spent in New Zealand. He then went to Washington D.C. and continued to study nuclear weapons for the Natural Resources Defense Council, specifically their environmental impact.
"My thinking at the time was that part of the reason why people didn't care about nuclear weapons in America was because they didn't know the effects," said Salzman. "But there were these networks of weapons sites where there were actual, real, environmental pacts and that might be a good way to try to work to stop the nuclear arms race."
After two years, the Denver native "got tired of the Washington D.C. scene" and returned to his hometown. Proclaiming that "no job is a waste," Salzman did various jobs upon his return to Denver, including painting and working as a Taco Bell mascot. He maintains a great sense of humor and understanding saying that these jobs "helped me to understand the importance of imagery and the potential of costumes in later political work."
Soon after his move back to Denver, the FBI raided the Rocky Flats Plant for its unsafe nuclear production. The activist group, Greenpeace USA, wanted to capitalize on all of the national media attention that the nuclear facility raid was receiving, which is how Salzman began his work there, allowing him to continue to study nuclear weapons. He focused on the Rocky Flats Plant, doing research and lobbying to try and "close the plant based on its safety record."
His work at Greenpeace eventually led to his creation of Rocky Mountain Media Watch in 1995. The nonprofit was a media-criticism organization, focusing at first on local TV news.
"What happened during the work at Greenpeace is that I became more convinced that the media was an underutilized and powerful tool for activists to use," explained Salzman. "At the same time it seemed like the media was not being held accountable by citizens for mistakes and not covering certain issues in appropriate depth and seriousness. So we started Rocky Mountain Media Watch to try and do both those things and wanting it to criticize the media but also to help activists do a better job of telling their stories to journalists because it's a two-way street."
The group functioned with the help of a "network of activists around the country" who would tape one TV show a night, send it into Rocky Mountain, where Salzman and others would do a "content analysis" and a report on them.
Following the death of co-founder Paul Klite, Rocky Mountain Media Watch eventually deteriorated and is currently inactive.
"We weren't coming up with new ways to analyze it, but getting burnt out, too, on doing it," Salzman cited as one of the reasons for the organization's current status. "Although we felt really good up to that point, we started it by exposing in a quantified way what's on these shows and we got a lot of good, positive feedback, but even now there's more support for grassroots groups that are doing media criticism then there was in those days."
Salzman used his knowledge of nonprofits, activism, and media criticism to create a new organization called CauseCommunications, as well as write a book called Making News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. The book was first published in 1998 and is now in its second printing.
Before becoming a 304-page book , Making News was a two-page pamphlet "with 10 steps for activists explaining how activists could stage a press conference, not forgetting that journalists needed to be called and information like that, as opposed to mailing or faxing a press release, it's not good enough, you have to actually call a reporter, kind of simple, stupid information that I found really helped people," said Salzman.
CauseCommunications is a PR company that works "with organizations that believe in making the world a better place. Our specialty is letting the world know about the work of progressive nonprofit organizations, foundations, and activist groups," according to their website http://www.causecommunications.com.
Along with his work at CauseCommunications, Salzman writes a column for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, writing as the "progressive, liberal critic" every other week opposite a conservative critic.
When asked about his future plans Salzman said, "For the most part I think I'll stay on the communications side, which is helping, advising campaigns and activists on how to spread their messages actively and widely."
There is no doubt that Jason Salzman is an activists with an eye for the media, and he understands the importance of the two working together.
I think there will always be a need for activists to hold those folks [journalists] accountable when they're wrong or when they're missing something," said Salzman, "And also conversely, to make sure that they tell those people information when they have it that might be newsworthy."