I had only been going into New York to hang out with freegan.info for a month when I featured in my first media story. A Dutch journalist was quite taken with the incongruity of a Princeton University student going through the garbage, and despite my protestations that there were way more knowledgeable people in the group for him to talk to, I wound up featuring in his article. In fact, I was the main character: the first sentence, according to a friend, approximately read, “Alex Barnard is wading through shit on the streets of New York City.”
Most reporters who visited freegan.info trash tours, though, were way more interested in the others involved in the group—the people who had organized their entire lives around freeganism. I was always in awe of how good the spokespeople for freegan.info were. Night after night, I saw them turn an aberrant activity like dumpster diving into a common-sense response to waste, and spinning our abhorrence of people in the garbage into a surprisingly relatable critique of capitalism. I’ve been involved in a couple of different social movements now and, when it came to manipulating the media, freegan.info was good.
Then again, I never actually bothered to look at the stories that were getting published. After all, I figured, I had a front-row seat to freeganism. Whatever the media was showing had to just be a dimmer version of what I was seeing. It’s only been lately, in writing up my book, that I’ve gone back and looked at some of what was published in the halcyon days of 2007 to 2009.
It’s kind of hard to believe that the TV spots and newspaper articles are really about the same people that I spent two years with. There’s the ABC report with the “Psycho” sound effects when Cindy opens a trash bag; the Wall Street Journal Reporter who cuts off Janet’s discussion of waste to say “I’m interested in the eating for free angle”; the blathering quotes from public health officials about food safety and fawning praise on stores donating a trivial amount of food for charity. Sometimes I wonder: were they really there?
There’s something so seductive about the media, especially to anyone who’s used to seeing their views ignored by it. For what it’s worth, sans media attention to freeganism, food waste would never have become the “issue” it is today. And, because of this, there’s a certain persistent faith that if we just do a better job of “slipping in the message”, we’ll fool the corporate behemoths into turning the airwaves into a conduit of anti-capitalist propaganda.
At least, that’s what I tell myself. In a pique of arrogance, I’ve been doing media work again. I was allured by the promise of a long, investigative piece about food waste, of which dumpster diving was only to be a small part. I took the reporters on a dive and to a public re-distribution of food; I talked about over-production and commoditization; I argued that stores threw things out not because they were careless or negligent, but because wasting is profitable in a capitalist system. I told them that the issue wasn’t my lifestyles or my carbon footprint; that I didn’t expect the whole world to start dumpster diving; that I recognized my own privilege that allowed me to engage in the act.
The piece aired a few weeks ago and, as they come, it wasn’t bad. The reporters traveled to a town that mandated food donations; they interviewed distributors, managers, and activists; they played down the safety concerns around food waste. The part where I featured, though, was painful. I declared myself an “activist” against the “system”, but they cut out any explanation of what the system was or how what I was doing might change it. I spouted some platitudes about how great the food in the dumpster was, before launching into an (edited out) explanation of how it got there. As far as anyone watching this is concerned, I was the guy who eats garbage.
Todd Gitlin writes that Students for a Democratic Society activists in the 1960s were alienated from their own representations, media products which “stood outside their ostensible makers…confronting them as an alien force.” I know that guy on TV, but I’m definitely not that stupid.