The FBI Has Only Itself to Blame for Creating a Will Potter | JOB HACKS 

The investigative journalist and TED fellow talks surveillance, eco-terrorism, and the fight for information.

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Will Potter

Job Will Potter is an investigative journalist, public speaker, activist, and TED Fellow specializing in eco-terrorism, drone reporting, animal cruelty, secret prisons, and more. He is the author of Green Is The New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege and his reporting has been featured in The Washington Post, NPR, Rolling Stone, El Pais and Le Monde. He has spoken at forums and universities around the world, including Georgetown University, Harvard Law School, the House of Democracy and Human Rights in Berlin, and the U.S Congress.

You specialize in niche topics like eco-terrorism. When you first got into journalism, did you always know that was your interest?

Absolutely not. I started working at newspapers when I was 17, writing for the Dallas Morning News. I thought I would be on a traditional trajectory; to work my way up through small dailies to regional papers to end up at The Washington Post or The New York Times. Around senior year in college, I started learning about how new laws were being proposed at the state level to label people as eco-terrorists, for The Texas Observer. I certainly didn’t think it would turn into my entire career and body of work. I just thought it was an interesting issue. As time went by, I became more immersed and it became a personal issue as well.

Was there any particular subject or story that hooked you?

It was a series of events. The piece I wrote for the Texas Observer was about a young woman who was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside of fur stores. After she’d been arrested a couple times, the judge sentenced her to no protesting as a condition of her sentence. During her case, the judge justified it by saying if someone were a pedophile, they would be sentenced to staying away from schools and kindergartens. So protesters can just as well be sentenced to stay away from places they want to protest. This was totally absurd.

I started poking around these types of issues and how protest was being treated. At the time, I was in Chicago, writing at the Chicago Tribune, covering shootings and murders on the South Side. I was not feeling like I was having any positive contribution to the world, writing about people found dead in alleys and bodies found in storage lockers.

I decided to go out with a group of protestors because I thought it would be a way to do something positive at a time when that type of reporting was sucking the life out of me and making me hate journalism and wondering what path I was actually on. We were all arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, but then a couple weeks later, two FBI agents came to my door and threatened to put me on the domestic terrorist list unless I helped them spy on protest groups.

This was just a couple of months after September 11th. That shocked and terrified me. It really was a start of this obsession with this issue in a personal way, but also in this big-picture national and international way of how things like this can happen. How, so soon after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, can the FBI be threatening to put people on a terrorist list for something as innocuous as hanging up door knockers against animal testing? That really was the more profound turning point for me that set me on a very different path.

How did your opportunity with TED come about?

I’d been writing about these issues for quite some time and I’d done a lot of speaking events, everywhere from churches to punk shows to law school forums. I came across this fellowship with TED and I saw that they had never had a journalist as a fellow before. I didn’t really think I had any shot. The Ted Fellows are all brilliant scientists and astrophysicists and archeologists and all this crazy stuff. I was like, “Well, I’ll give it a shot and apply.” Then you go through a whole series of interviews, a really elaborate process. They were compelled by the type of work I was doing. I was offered the fellowship and it was really an incredible experience. I’m still involved with TED now.

What was the most surprising part about your experience with TED?

How receptive that audience was. I was quite nervous with both of my TED talks. The audience is very high-profile. There are a lot of celebrities, people like Jeff Bezos and tech elites. I didn’t know how this type of reporting and this message I have would be received. I was pleasantly surprised by how overwhelmingly supportive everyone has been. To this day, I still have relationships with people that I’ve met through TED that were just sitting in the audience: They’re not activists or environmentalists, but they heard about these issues and they were outraged. That really was a testament to the potential of investigative journalism. We have to be willing to take this work we’re doing to unlikely audiences and give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to want to understand and take action.

What are some of the most memorable interviews you’ve done in the course of your work?

One recent one that sticks out of my mind is a woman who lives in Washington state. I was there because I’ve been doing this project related to factory farming and the environmental impact of it. I’ve been using drone aerial photography to document environmental pollution of these factory farms at a time when that type of photography is becoming illegal in many states.

I was interviewing people in the communities that are living literally under the cloud of this toxic industry. This woman has been campaigning for environmental regulations of these factory farms for decades. She’s in her 70s and her passion and commitment and her ability to organize within her community and still keep a good sense of humor and spirit about it was infectious. I write about dark and depressing topics, but I’m constantly inspired by people like that.

How do you stop yourself from getting depressed when you cover dark and depressing topics?

It’s really tough. Honestly, I’ve done a terrible job at it. I started becoming more open about that when I talk about the nature of this work because I know a lot of other people are in similar situations. I’ve struggled with depression and everything you can think of related to the drain of this work. It’s really important to acknowledge that, to speak honestly about the consequences if we don’t take care of ourselves.

Now that I’ve pushed through some really serious periods of depression and insomnia, I’ve come to realize that to sustain this work, you have to have not only that inspiration, you really have to depend on your relationships. You have to engage with your friends and your family, not just shut yourself off in your office and write and report. No matter how committed you are to your work, it can destroy you if you don’t take care of yourself.

I’ve been taking a motorcycle mechanic course. It’s something I enjoy working on but it’s also a way to shut my brain off for a little bit and do something a little selfish. I’ve become obsessed with fitness and health and working out. It’s an outlet for me that works much better than any other possible outlet of relieving stress and carving out a personal time every day. It’s different for every person, but the most important thing is to be honest about what you need.

What advice would you give a young person getting into the field?

I’d say you have to be bold, now more than ever. Investigative journalism historically has depended on people willing to take chances and put themselves out there. The craft of journalism, if it’s not in crisis, is certainly in turmoil right now. To be successful, you still have to be bold in all those traditional senses, but you also have to be bold in this entrepreneurial way: How you’re thinking of financial models, how you’re thinking about self-publishing versus freelancing.

In a lot of ways, the reasons I started my website — which led to a book and a TED fellowship and all this other stuff — is because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t get traditional media outlets to publish the pieces I thought needed to be published. They didn’t think it was of national significance. I disagreed. I started my own media outlet so I could write about it on my own terms.

And to circle back to drone photography, where do you see that going?

That is a loaded terms, even mentioning the word “drone.” It really conjures the entire spectrum from hobbyists out in the park with their kids to U.S. military murdering people with drone technology. Of course, all of that type of technology is radically different. The future for journalism and aerial photography is that this is going to be just another tool for us to use in positive ways in reporting stories.

Those are some of the issues I really hope I help explore with the type of work I’m doing right now — to really question ideas of privacy. Corporations are operating in relative anonymity, in secrecy, about how they’re doing business. With this project, I’m hoping to shine a light on that disparity and use this drone technology to expose what these industries are doing.

What’s the future of the Green Scare?

It’s a tough question to answer. When I published the book there was a new trend emerging that honestly I didn’t think would go anywhere. These new laws called ag gag laws — “ag” for agriculture. The new law makes it illegal to take photographs or video on animal cruelty on factory farms and slaughterhouses. As someone who’s been reporting on this stuff for 15 years, I never thought that would be politically viable. I’ve been shocked by that. We’re fighting back against them in court. These laws should be struck down because they’re unconstitutional and a threat to journalism, but at the same time I don’t think these industries are deterred by that. As social movements grow more effective, I think it’s inevitable that there’s a backlash against them from people in power. Whether that’s new laws or FBI harassment or people being prosecuted, that’s just an inevitable consequence of a growing social movement that is really threatening people in power.

Is that your proudest professional accomplishment? Seeing the effects of having shone a light on these things?

One of the proudest moments for me was working with activists in other countries, to help them identify these trends as they’re spreading internationally. I did a month-long speaking tour in Australia. While I was there, we helped radically change the national discussion over there about these laws and about what should be approved. That’s the type of impact I really hope to have. In other situations, the first woman who was prosecuted under ag-gag — I read about her case and broke the story. Just 24 hours later, the prosecutors dropped all the charges. To me, it’s just a reminder of that power of shining a light on these issues. They really can’t withstand public scrutiny.

What country intrigued you the most on your travels?

I spent a lot of time traveling around Germany. That was a really eye-opening experience because there are a few things going on at the same time there. There’s the rapid growth of an ecological and animal welfare movement that’s very strong and has widespread public support. But at the same time there’s the growth of a new fascist right that is really troubling. When I was there, I accompanied some reported colleagues to this large fascist protest. It was essentially a neo-Nazi protest, but nobody is allowed over there to use swastikas or any of that paraphernalia after World War II. But it was really striking to me to see these two extremes coming up at the same time.

In a lot of ways, that’s what we’re seeing in the United States. We have a lot of incredible progressive organizing that’s taking place, and we also have multiple militia movements that are coming up. We’re becoming a story of extremes. That’s something that took me being in another country, to have a little bit of distance, to see in those terms.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of the term “terrorism”?

One of the most dangerous consequences of this language post-September 11th is how institutionalized it’s all become. It’s really worked its way deeply into the fabric of this country, into the political dialogue, in a way that’s going to be very difficult to remove. This word, “terrorist,” is used so liberally now and so frequently and in such clearly partisan ways. It’s about people because of their political abilities, while allowing others who are actually committing violence to escape that type of demonization. If there’s one positive I’ve seen in my reporting is I think American people are fed up with it.

What are you currently working on?

One thing I’m involved in is motivated by some Freedom of Information Act documents I got a while back that shows counter-terrorism has been monitoring my speeches, website, and interviews. It really got me interested in how surveillance is conducted against working journalists — especially journalists who are critical against government policies. Something I’m engaged in right now is working with some colleagues to create a Freedom of Information Act project around that, to examine how journalists are being spied upon.

What else are you most excited about right now?

With the surveillance, it seems like there’s two competing narratives taking place in this country. One is that when it comes to the government or corporations, when they want to find out what we’re doing as everyday people, they have this unobstructed right to everything we’re doing on Facebook or on our cellphones. But when we try to find out what people of power are doing, the Freedom of Information Act is being restricted, corporations are fighting the release of documents in court, there are new laws that make it illegal to even take photographs. I’m really interested in that disparity: Who has the power, who has the access to information.

The second thing I’m really interested right now is how the policies that began in the United States are spreading globally. Since my book has been translated into a few different languages, I’ve had the chance to travel. It’s made me realize how naive I was to underestimate the potential for these policies and this repression to spread globally to protect corporate process. That’s what we’re seeing in Spain, Australian, New Zealand, Austria, Germany, using the United States’ post-September 11th playbook as a model. That’s something I’m watching closely.

And what would you say to someone apprehensive about getting into activism?

With the work that I do, the most dangerous consequence is that it can make people afraid. I certainly worry about that all the time in my reporting, if I’m just contributing to that culture of fear by exposing secret prisons for domestic terrorists or writing about new laws that might make protestors afraid to speak up. I don’t know the best way forward. I don’t know how to solve any of these problems that we’re all facing as a country and as a global community. But the foundation of it has to be public education and transparency.

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