Muckrake Your Town

Suzanne Rust was drowning in the ivy. After years as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Rust abandoned the Ph.D. quest (which in anthropology takes 9 years on average) for a more urgent path. That decision bore fruit. In 2003 she became a science reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and went on to win the George Polk and John B. Oakes awards for distinguished environmental reporting. Her work even landed her as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 Rust appeared on Bill Moyer’s Journal on PBS discussing her muckraking techniques as an environmental journalist.

“It’s funny, you know, although I used Excel all the time as an anthropology grad student, when I became a journalist, it never occurred to me to use it—until I got on this story,” Rust told fellow journalist David Poulson. The story was an expose on the chemical Bisphenol A. Rust used her anthropological skills to find patterns in over 250 scientific studies on the toxic. She found that 132 of those studies disclosed health effects such as diabetes and genital deformities (Poulson 2009).

There are few permanent university jobs in anthropology and so professors point their anxious students towards an “applied anthropology” career tract. And yet journalistic careers are not usually thought of as applied anthropology. For example in the otherwise excellent CD “Applying Anthropology, Careers that Count” produced by Francis E. Smiley and Northern Arizona University (Smiley 2005) of the fifty or so careers mentioned, not one is journalism!

Suzanne Rust would have none of it. She liberated herself from academic entombment to become a “peoples anthropologist” in a field, journalism, in desperate need of them.

The Anderson Valley Advertiser: Every Town Needs One

We are in the throes of “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” (2010) argue Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their crusading new book of that title. It seems that every other month another newspaper folds. Metropolitan dailies like the Tucson News and the Baltimore Examiner have already fallen. Much of the slippage happens more slowly with layoffs and buyouts. At least “5,900 reporters, columnists and editors lost their jobs in 2008 for an 11.3 percent decline in newsroom employment,” McChesney and Nichols report. That was the largest annual drop ever recorded in an 87 year old annual survey of newspapers by a trade group. Just last week Detroit Newspapers asked unions for a 12% wage cut and then a wage freeze. So ubiquitous is the slaughter that Erica Smith daily tracks the demise in her website “Paper Cuts“. The site even has a U.S. map so you can find out about your town.

McChesney and Nichols say the problem goes much deeper than the loss of newspapers, TV newsrooms and radio news. “Every theory of popular government tells us democracy is unsustainable without an informed citizenry and journalism that monitors the powerful. Yet credible journalism is disappearing and the capacity to monitor is withering.” They call for a new system of independent journalism, one that is subsidized by the public.

If that sounds utopian consider that a great many of our culture’s intellectuals ply their trades at public colleges and universities. They only exist because of public tax revenues. Of course few of these same academics become citizen muckrakers, even though they are paid by citizens. In a barren journalistic landscape this has to change.

Most newspapers do a poor job of muckraking. We know that. And so one might applaud “a propaganda system in decline,” as CounterPunch’s editors put it in “End Times, the Death of the Fourth Estate” (2006). If only every town had a newspaper that “afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted” of the ruling class of that town. But today even those papers that comfort the comfortable are in trouble. A new journalistic world is in the offing.

The outlines of such a world can be found in the work of peoples anthropologist Alexander Cockburn in his brilliant “The Golden Age Is In Us” (1987) a book that charts Cockburn’s ethnographic journeys and encounters from 1987 to 1994. It is spellbinding in its searing insights, delicious prose and gripping honesty. When I lent my copy to my anthropology professor Harry Raulet in 1997, he never returned it, even after multiple requests! Cockburn took the book’s title from legendary anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s powerful Tristes Tropiques.

Levi-Strauss said that “. . . .Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done, but turned out wrong, can be done again. ‘The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind (or ahead of) us, is in us.'”

Cockburn said that one way the world can be altered is to learn from the work of journalist Frank Bardacke who writes about Watsonville, California. “Frank gives the answers, same way they should be given for every town in America but almost never are. It’s not easy to be a truthful, therefore radical reporter about the significant affairs of a town where . . . .the man you criticized in harsh terms yesterday is the man you meet on Main Street tomorrow.” He continues, “nothing stands still in Frank’s Watsonville. The fingers of the world economy shape and reshape its destinies. . .one of Frank’s central themes is the movement of history, the fateful swerves of the political economy (Cockburn, 1987:229-340).” Another beacon of the golden age is the Anderson Valley Advertiser, that is published and edited by Bruce Anderson in Mendocino County, California. “It’s a tremendous paper,” said Cockburn,” written in a really popular, uncondescending language. . .it is so rare that you find good, strong writing about the institutions of our everyday lives.”

Become a Citizen Anthropologist

This coming November, at the American Anthropology Meetings in New Orleans, anthropologist Maria Vesperi and I will lead a three hour workshop titled “Engaging Journalism: Making Anthropology Visible in the Public Sphere.” At the workshop we will provide some insight, tips and suggestions for anyone interested in trying their hand at journalism. Vesperi is a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer and a trustee of the Poynter Institute ( an online school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalism. Vesperi and Alisse Waterston’s new book “Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing” (2009), contains original contributions from Micaela di Leonardo to the late Howard Zinn about how to write for the people in a compelling manner.

We want anthropologists to learn how to become civically engaged as investigative journalists. We will discuss the roads that took us to take this position, covering our successes and failures. What follows is part of what I will tell them.

One question we’ll address is ,”What to write about?” Anything and everything. A smelly factory, the local university, the cultural politics of the local weather forecast. I’ll suggest that they become their town’s Media Muckraker as I did in Lansing Michigan, where I wrote, for example, (under a pseudonym) about the media’s poor handling of the firing of African American MSU football coach Bobby Williams suggesting it was an instance of CWB (Coaching While Black) (McKenna 2002b).

I will tell them that they should write about the global/local connections of Devra Davis’s just released book “Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide it, and How to Protect your Family” (2010). You learn that Finland, Israel and France all have public policies which warn children not to use cell phones because of radiation. According to the industry’s own standards, we should not keep a cell phone close to our bodies and should not press a cell phone against our ears. See Davis’s educational YouTube message on this at: ( Locally, you might research your child’s school to see if they are sharing this important public health news. You might follow-up with your local public health department. Are they avoiding the controversy and condemning thousands to possible early deaths by their inactions?

I tell students that if academics refuse to pick up the public pen they must do so themselves. You don’t need a college degree to be a journalist. Nor do you require one to be an anthropologist. Aren’t you a participant observer in your own city? Citizens can forge relationships with activist academics and other professionals and start local newspapers (web-based and paper based) modeled after the Anderson Valley Advertiser, CounterPunch and the one hundred journalistic outlets affiliated with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Contact the publishers and editors for sage advice and support.

The environmental health beat must be a central focus of any new paper or Internet site. It is one of the most important issues of our times. As I recommend to all my applied anthropology students, one of the first things you must do if you want to learn the trade, improve your writing or even launch a new career, is to join the Society for Environmental Journalism. Their web address is: It only costs $20 per year and the benefits are very generous. They include the SEJ journal, a Watchdog tipsheet, teaching tools, an on-line library, employment information, workshops, and an annual conference where lifelong contacts and friendships are established. The 20th annual conference, Wild Rockies and the Changing West, will be hosted by the University of Montana in Missoula on October 13-17, 2010 and promises to be terrific. The SEJ was started by Jim Detjen when he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s. Jim also started the Knight Center at MSU, a gem in university life. Suzanne Rust is a Member of the SEJ and this has no doubt greatly enhanced her journalistic skills. I myself am a Fellow of the Knight program and served as a columnist for their flagship journal “EJ” in 2002-2003.

Environmental journalists must learn how to research tenaciously and write well. Important books to read are: “Citizen Muckraking: How to Investigate and Right Wrongs in Your Community” by the Center for Public Integrity (2000), “Lifting the Lid, A Guide to Investigative Research” by David Northmore (1996), and “The Anthropology of News and Journalism” edited by Elizabeth Bird (2010) which deftly analyzes current debates among social scientists and journalists.

A Participant Observer on the Job

With a little help, anyone can turn their “insider knowledge” at the job into local journalism. I did this when I muckraked the local lake as a cover story for Lansing’s City Pulse in 2002 where I was the weekly “Health and Environment” columnist. Below I present excerpts from the story, “Can Glory Days Return to Lake Lansing?” which shows some of how to do it. You can read the entire article at the URL below (McKenna 2002).

I turned my “participant observer” applied anthropology position to full advantage. The public health department had suppressed a treasure trove of environmental data about Lake Lansing (McKenna, 2001) that I had uncovered as an applied anthropologist there between 1998-2001 and released to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. I knew that mercury laden fish had not been tested for twelve years. I knew that three-block long “soils piles,” that sat beside the lake were possibly leaching arsenic (having been dredged from the pesticide drenched muck on the lake floor). I knew that over 90% of the lake’s water comes from storm water runoff! In other words, it wasn’t really a “lake” at all but a bathtub of chemicals. Officially the Ingham County Health Department declared it was perfectly safe to swim in (as 250,000 did each season). But inside the government the story was different. An environmental regulator within the Health Department, who tests for water pollution, confided to me that he would never let his kids swim in Lake Lansing. “It’s too polluted.”

I proceeded to write the article exposing all of the above. But my intent was not simply to catalogue hidden environmental hazards. Like Frank Bardacke I dug into the muck of history to reveal deeper patterns. It was political ecologist Eric Wolf who famously asked, and I paraphrase, “if everything is connected, why do we write as though it is not?”

The Anthropology Dozen: What is the Origin?

In every journalistic article I write I try to incorporate what I call “The Anthropology Dozen.” These questions help insure a muckraking result. Very briefly, here they are:

1) holism (how do disparate phenomenon connect?);

2) fieldwork (from lab tests to participant observations);

3) what’s taken for granted? (did the Ojibwa help create this lake?)

4) culture (how is capital behind what’s behind?);

5) cross-cultural juxtaposition (how did Indians and colonialists use the lake?);

6) Getting the native’s point(s) of view (Who are the “natives”? What are the ways in which the “native points of view” are ignored, omitted or suppressed);

7) Contradictions & ideologies (do people say one thing and do another? Are there dialectical tensions in the terrain of inquiry?);

8) origins and history (human origins, the origin of the state, the origin of a nation, the origin of a given institution, the origin of a name, the origin of a place. How have things transformed since the origin?);

9) epistemological critique (begin with a “rectification of names” in your analysis. Do names – like “Lake Lansing” in this instance — accurately capture the idea/object represented?);

10) conformity/resistance (what are the modes of resistance that the less powerful employ?);

11) privilege the most powerless; and

12) analyze social change.

Often this can be unearthed by asking a simple question such as, “Why is it Called Lake Lansing?” Here’s an excerpt from the article.

“Unlike greater Chicago’s 30-mile lakefront, which was protected as a public resource for all citizens to enjoy in perpetuity, the periphery of Pine Lake was open to real estate speculation. One of the earliest lakeshore owners was Frank Johnson, who is reported to have said, “I sat down under a tree one afternoon [by the lake] and made up my mind to just go buying.” And buy he did.

“In 1927 “Pine Lake Johnson” assumed the prerogatives of ownership and changed the name of the water body to Lake Lansing, “because there were dozens of Pine lakes.

“Of course, much of the pine was gone. Thus was the lake’s name transformed from a referent to nature into an alienated abstraction, having no physical relationship to the water. John Lansing, the lake’s namesake, you see, never set a toe in the water named for him too, nor for that matter in the city itself. Born in 1754 in Albany, N.Y., Lansing was a wealthy real estate mogul and lawyer who is often remembered for his fateful trip to the New York Post Office in December 1829. He mysteriously disappeared on that errand; it was presumed that he was murdered.
Perhaps the essential connection between John Lansing and Pine Lake has to do with timber. Lansing was, like Pine Lake Johnson, a timber cutter of some renown who owned tens of thousands of acres of land, much of it chopped down.

“A pair of brothers, both ‘physicians with money,’ were the first colonialists on the lake. In 1836 Obed Marshall and his brother paid the U.S. Land Office $318.08 for 160 acres south of the lake including the shore, Evelyn Huber Raphael wrote in 1958 in ‘A History of the Haslett – Lake Lansing Area.’ The U.S. government had thus transformed the land into a commodity, usurping the native American’s view that the land and lake were common resources for all to enjoy.

The colonialists originally called it Pine Lake for the stand of beautiful white pine trees on the east side of the lake – the largest stand in Ingham County. But the white pines were soon destroyed for their wood resources in the second half of the 19th century. According to Raphael, the biggest logging operation was conducted by a John Saltmarsh, whose name ironically revealed his intent. He ‘assaulted the ‘marsh’’ in the winter one year, sending the logs over the lake ice on sled runners. They were stockpiled for export behind the new train depot. Saltmarsh also owned a picket mill, to make the fences that would set the enclosures around the new form of land division around Lansing: private property.”

It is the business of peoples anthropology to help people take the long view of history so that they will be open to the idea that private property may one day be considered part of the pre-history of humankind. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The Golden Age is in us.” It will take some vigorous gold prospecting through the lake muck of history for people to see it.

BRIAN McKENNA lives in Michigan. He can be reached at:


Bird, S.E. ed. (2009) The Anthropology of News and Journalism: Global perspectives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair. (2006) End Times The Death of the Fourth Estate. Oakland:AK Press.

Cockburn, Alexander. (1995) The Golden Age Is In Us. London:Verso.

Davis, Devra. (2010) Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect your Family. New York:Dutton.

McChesney, Robert and John Nichols. (2010) The Death and Life of American Journalism. Philadelphia:Perseus.

McKenna, Brian. (2002a) Can Glory Days Return to Lake Lansing? The City Pulse, Lansing, MI, February 6, pp. 1, 7,8,9. See:

McKenna, Brian. (2002b) The firing of Bobby Williams and institutional racism. The City Pulse, Lansing, MI, November 13, 2002.

McKenna, Brian (2001) The Story of Water Resources at Work, Ingham County, Michigan, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Washington, D.C., 130 pages, September 19.

Poulson, David. (2009) Spreadsheets can find patterns in words, not just numbers. SEJ Journal, Spring 2009.

Waterson, Allisse and Maria Vesperi (eds) 2009. Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing. Hoboken:Wiley-Blackwell.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, May 2010 and August 2010 editions, Tim Wallace, editor.

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at