Susie Cagle Susie Cagle, 9/11/2007 [Archive]

Freegans Freegans Everywhere But Nothing New To Cover

Freegans, Freegans Everywhere, But Nothing New To Cover

There it is, on the front page below the fold of Tuesday's Los Angeles Times: "The key to a free lunch," the beginning of a nearly full-page feature on "freegans," those New York City dumpster diving rascals we've been hearing about so much lately. "Freegans" might seem to be the vanguard of a new green movement. They salvage food from restaurant and grocery store dumpsters that would otherwise go to waste, embracing a new age, eco-friendly vegan diet and attitude that urban newspapers love to trumpet--an ideal feature story.

But wait a second.

The Times reporter claims this is "a growing subculture" and references supposed freegan meetings in Los Angeles, yet she interviews and photographs the same three people: the ones with rehearsed camera smiles and print-ready life story summaries, the ones quoted in newspaper and magazine articles for the last two years of freegan media blitz. A blitz that has taken a self-proclaimed spokesman and expert and full-time PR flack at his word, and neglected to dig any deeper. Those three freegans are the same three featured last month in Newsweek, in the New York Times in June, the New York Press last summer, and CNN, Dateline and MSNBC over the last three years. Those three freegans and their self-proclaimed experts and spokespeople have been courting media attention since the group's inception in 2003.

If these journalists did their homework, they'd find the Web growling with angry fellow trash diggers whose dumpsters are padlocked after they're shown on television or written about in the local newspaper. They'd find a vegan community torn between support for the freegans and their new high profile, and bitterness over the group's hypocritical meat-eating ways, and their piggybacking on years of animal rights activism and the "vegan" name. And they'd find freegan frontman Adam Weissman, who, at the ripe old age of 29, spends his days leading journalists on tours of the best dumpsters in town and getting arrested for jumping into trash cans, and his nights living at his parents' house.

Weissman claims to be an an anarchist, who bases his entire life and all his actions around sticking it to the man, and yet spends his days promoting himself, suckling at the teats of the corporate media.

If these journalists didn't ignore half the story, fail to check their facts, and take a handful of people at their word time and again, they would find that freeganism is, in fact, not a trend at all, but the public relations baby of an aging adolescent whose main goal seems to be getting his picture in the paper.

It's easiest for journalists to cover the stories that scream for attention with their press releases and rehearsed subjects. It's journalism 101: exactly what you're not supposed to do. You don't make a story of the streakers at baseball games--why flock like flies to a handful of freegans?

But they flock because they don't know where else to go. The shrinking pains at the LA Times are obvious. Fact-checking and reportage costs money that the Times just doesn't seem to have anymore. But surely they can afford a subscription to Lexis Nexis.

The paper has been cutting costs, jobs and corners for the last few years to keep up with their declining circulation. They've become just another short-sighted local rag with cut-rate writing and generous helpings of facts lifted from fellow journos, but with ego enough not to subscribe to the New York Times wire service.

At a time when investigative reporting is perhaps more important--and more rare--than ever before, one of the biggest and most influential newspapers in the country is throwing standards to the wind, dumpster diving for front page stories.

Susie Cagle is a freelance writer, managing editor of SuperVegan.com, and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Reach her at susie@cagle.com.

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