Investigative Journalist Ben Swann on Liberty, Media, and the Path Forward
Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with investigative journalist Ben Swann.
Libertas Institute: For the benefit of our readers who are hearing about you for the first time, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ben Swann: I am a journalist who has gone independent. I’ve been in broadcast journalism for 14 years, working for NBC and FOX affiliates. Most recently I was working in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I put together a segment called “Reality Check.” The idea was to cut through left/right paradigm and to present people the truth about what was going on in the country.
Liberty is a popular idea, not just an American idea. It’s a human idea.
It became a segment that was focused on constitutional rights and liberties and the overreach of government, and grew to a phenomenal size in a short amount of time. We had people watching from 140 countries with over 10 million views, and we realized that we were onto something. Liberty is a popular idea, not just an American idea. It’s a human idea.
So in May of this year I made the decision to leave the station I was at and to launch the Truth in Media project, which attempts to create independent, crowd-sourced journalism to get the truth out to the public.
LI: You have a connection to Utah, right?
BS: I did BYU’s distance learning program. We would spend summers on campus at BYU, taking tests and attending lectures. I did that for three summers, and it was a great experience. I love Utah, especially out around Moab and those areas, it’s incredible. Salt Lake is beautiful, and Provo was one of the most beautiful communities that I’ve ever been in. I absolutely loved being there.
LI: You were homeschooled and attended college quite young. What are your thoughts on education generally, and do you feel that homeschooling is the ideal for which each family should strive?
BS: I don’t think every family can homeschool their kids. I think it would be ideal and terrific if every family could, but the reality is that not everybody can, for various reasons whether financial, or patience… it’s like saying that every person should be a journalist. Not everybody can do that, because we all have different skill sets. Being a homeschooling parent requires certain skills.
Education in this country is not about reading, writing, and arithmetic. So much of it is about social engineering.
Regardless of whether you’re about to homeschool or not, the ideas that make it successful should be implemented by every family. That is, strong engagement in your child’s education — an absolute understanding of what they’re learning, how they’re learning it, what the process is. The bigger picture stuff. Because education in this country is not about reading, writing, and arithmetic. So much of it is about social engineering.
You can be engaged in your child’s education whether they’re educated in public, private, or homeschool. The thing that makes homeschooling work so well, in my opinion, is parents who are fundamentally engaged in the learning process. Learning in a homeschool environment isn’t just about school — learning becomes a part of your life. I think any family can adopt that principle.
LI: How would you summarize your political leanings?
BS: I am a constitutionalist, meaning that as a journalist I believe that the oath of office our lawmakers take is to the Constitution. I didn’t decide that. That is a decision that was made far above me, far beyond me, and far before me.
However, because that is the case, I believe that the rule of law — specifically, the idea of a constitutional republic that is supposed to be government by the people and for the people — is the system that best works in this country, and it is the system that is not being abided by.
So my political leaning is towards the Constitution and toward the rule of law, and not toward any political party. Both major parties are doing the same thing to our liberties, spending us into a collapse of the dollar, all those issues to me are very important. Ultimately, I believe the way that the founders/framers set up our government is that the largest, most powerful form of government should be at the local level where people can control what their elected leaders are doing. It shouldn’t be a large federal or even a huge state apparatus.
LI: Have you always had this political position, or did you come to it over time?
The left/right paradigm is just an illusion in contrast. There really is no contrast between the two.
BS: No. I’m a recovering neoconservative. I supported Bush in 2000, and even was still a strong supporter by 2004. By 2008, I was starting to wake up and realize how far off course we were, and that the Republican Party was not interested in small government, limited spending, or freedom. I realized that the GOP wanted to control our lives, just in a different way from those on the left.
I quickly learned that the left/right paradigm is just an illusion in contrast. There really is no contrast between the two.
LI: As an investigative journalist in the 21st century, what are your thoughts concerning the state of journalism? Is it getting better? Worse? Staying the same?
BS: It’s getting worse, in that journalism is no longer about presenting fact or truth. It’s now about validating the belief system that people already hold. Most Americans don’t want real journalism, I don’t think. They say “I have this belief system, and now I’m going to have it validated by the media.”
Journalism is no longer about presenting fact or truth. It’s now about validating the belief system that people already hold.
However, having said that, I think technology today gives us the ability to find real truth and actual journalism. And it allows journalists like me to reach a wider audience and get the word out to those who aren’t simply looking for validation. So we’re in an interesting place — worse journalism than what we’ve seen in the past, but more opportunity for good journalism to thrive.
LI: Why do you suppose that there are so few journalists willing to challenge the state’s narrative on any given issue?
BS: I think part of the problem is that journalism, be it local or national, is (like many things in society) the product of groupthink. It’s difficult for journalists to think outside of what their peers are thinking, and what the general consensus of the day is.
You would think that most journalists would be very independent thinkers, but I don’t think that’s the case. First of all, many journalists are just broadcasters, meaning that they didn’t go to school necessarily to learn journalism or ethics — they learned how to read a teleprompter and edit video.
And so one of the problems is that we’ve morphed journalism into entertainment, and entertainment is always the product of groupthink. It’s the result of what consultants say, and marketers say, and focus groups say. Because journalism is no longer independent people thinking creatively and wanting to dig out facts regardless of where those facts take them, and because it has shifted to become a real form of entertainment in this country, it’s subject to the same issues that sitcom and reality TV was — a formula that’s created by higher-ups who dictate to their employees what makes good journalism, or good TV news.
LI: There are some serious journalists still, and it’s alarming what has been happening to them. Politicians and pundits are suggesting that Glenn Greenwald should be punished for his work with the NSA scandal. Barrett Brown faces significant jail time for his spotlight on Anonymous’ efforts. Many suspect that Michael Hastings was murdered because he was digging too deep in the stories he was investigating. In the work that you’re engaged in, do you fear for your career or your life?
I want to spend my days pursuing truth and working to make a nation that is more free for my kids than it has been for me.
BS: I don’t fear for my life or career. My career simply is a way to put out the truth, so whether I have a large platform or not, and in whatever capacity I can do so, I’ll continue to do it. And I’m not worried about my life, even though I’m asked this often. People notice, whether with Hastings or Andrew Breitbart, that there appears to be a pattern where people are disappeared when they push things too far. My response to them has been, and continues to be, that I honestly believe we only have a limited number of days in life, and we don’t get to decide how many days we have, regardless of how our lives end. What we do get to decide is how we spend those days, and I want to spend mine pursuing truth and working to make a nation that is more free for my kids than it has been for me.
LI: You’ve made a name for yourself as a local journalist, building a network of supporters and followers worldwide. How did that happen?
BS: Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. Instead of my work in Cincinnati being circulated only in my community, it can go worldwide through the internet and especially social networking. All of a sudden, I or anybody else has an audience in the hundreds of millions.
I’ve been stunned by how many people across the nation have seen Reality Check, know my name, and even people in other countries. I spoke in Iowa two weeks ago, and a woman came up and told me she was from China. She said that she works in China and that there’s a large group of people there who gather to watch my videos. She happened be in Kansas and heard I was speaking in Iowa, so she and a few others came to see me. That’s incredible! And ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible. Technology has changed everything.
LI: So this all leads to your Kickstarter project. What are you hoping to accomplish?
BS: The content that we’ve put out in the past 2.5 years with Reality Check is content that unfortunately is very unusual in today’s media landscape. I say it’s unfortunate because I don’t think we’re doing anything that is, or should be, considered groundbreaking. We’re just pursuing truth. That’s all we’re doing.
American media is not breaking these stories, and we want to change that.
You mentioned Glenn Greenwald. What’s sad to me with this NSA story is that almost all of it has been happening through the UK Guardian and foreign newspapers. American media is not breaking these stories, and we want to change that.
The idea behind the Truth in Media project is to create 5-minute long episodes of something called Ben Swann Full Disclosure. We have a couple sample shows at www.benswann.com to show what they will look like. We try to take things happening in the news cycle and break them down in five minutes to give people a factual, journalistic view of what’s happening. And we always hold whatever’s happening up against the rule of law.
We’ve done one on the NSA, for example. The issue isn’t about Snowden or Greenwald, or whether Snowden is a bad guy and working with the Chinese. The real story, that hasn’t been covered by American media, is whether or not what the NSA has been doing, and continues to do, is illegal. That’s the story. That’s the issue that nobody is speaking about with any kind of definitive voice in media. Instead, they focus on all the issues around it, and when they get to the NSA they say, “if” what the NSA is doing is wrong, or “if” NSA activities violate the Constitution. What we showed in my video is not opinion, but a simple breakdown of what the PATRIOT Act and FISA Act give the NSA authority to do and why what the NSA has been doing does not fall within that scope, therefore making it illegal. It’s not complicated, but it’s not being done.
We see a great opportunity to reach out to people. We want to take that content and place it on streaming sites like Hulu and Amazon, put it on Roku and Youtube, and even get it on local TV stations throughout the country to hit as large of an audience as possible.
LI: It’s definitely ambitious, and you’ve attracted a few thousand Kickstarter supporters so far. Many can see that the goal may not be reached in time, and are wondering if there’s a Plan B?
BS: There is. If we’re not able to reach the full goal (since Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform), all of the folks who have backed the project will not be charged anything. We’ll be asking those folks to move that pledge over to Paypal and fund a scaled-down version of Full Disclosure. Instead of 100 episodes, we will do maybe 20, or however many we can fund with the donations that we receive. I trust that most of our supporters will be willing to make the donation either way, because there’s great enthusiasm about the project, and a great willingness to make it happen on some level.
LI: With the announcement of The Ron Paul Channel, some supporters are wondering if this dilutes your effort unless you join forces. Have there been any discussions about collaboration between you two?
BS: There’s been a little bit of talk about it, and I think the Ron Paul Channel is a great thing. The one thing that gives me a little pause about it is while I think Dr. Paul has a great message that needs to be out there, for many people it would still be viewed as a “point of view” (opinion) channel. What we want to do is to create a Truth in Media network focused on truth regardless of where it takes us.
Journalism has to be willing to challenge anyone and everyone, regardless of whether your learning is towards them or not.
Here’s an example. Suppose that Rand Paul runs for president in 2016. Is there any chance that we will see any stories challenging him on the Ron Paul Channel? I suspect there probably won’t be. To me, that’s not journalism. Journalism has to be willing to challenge anyone and everyone, regardless of whether your learning is towards them or not. In order to keep transparency and truth in media, we can’t be a Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, or even Ron Paul where you’re not challenging those who are in power, regardless of who they are.
LI: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered during your career?
BS: I’ve been talking to a number of networks in the past few months that have contacted me about working with them. One of the networks I’ve chatted with explained to me that they’re not ideological, despite the fact that the public often feels that the media outlets are playing the left/right game. It was explained to me that networks aren’t ideological, they’re just interested in profit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was interesting to me because even after being in this business a long time, you start to believe that it really is an ideology type of thing.
It’s disappointing to consider a fourth estate in this country that isn’t interested in making waves.
When you realize that it’s just about making money and keeping viewers happy, I think there’s some shock to that. Certainly for me, at least, because as a journalist I’m not interested in making people happy. I’m interested in truth, and truth certainly has to come at a price, and at times that price is making people angry and frustrated, or having people call you a heretic. It’s disappointing to consider a fourth estate in this country that isn’t interested in making waves.
LI: If somebody wants to get involved in the liberty movement, and has limited time and resources, what do you think their focus should be?
BS: Part of the Truth in Media project is a larger project called Liberty is Rising. It’s a three step process. Step one is to inform people, and that’s what the journalism part of it does. Step two is to engage people, whether it be students, other journalists, professionals, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. And then the third step is to get people involved.
I just released a video called “Ben Swann Loves Agenda 21?” I explained to people at an event where I was speaking that there are certain things I really do like about Agenda 21, and they were horrified at the idea of that. But what I was trying to explain to them is that while I disagree with the goals of Agenda 21 on every level, the strategy behind it is a good strategy. That is, don’t try to enact a policy change at the federal level — forget about trying to influence the White House or change Congress as a starting point. The strategy of Agenda 21 is to change the country by going into individual communities and working with city or county leadership in order to push the agenda.
If we can’t fix these things locally, then we have no chance at restoring liberty at a national level. It just won’t happen.
I think that the liberty movement needs to adopt the same strategy. It would be great to get a liberty-minded President or Congress. But before we get there, if we cannot get a liberty minded city council or county commission, it really won’t make a difference.
Over-taxation, red light cameras, militarized police, heavy spending.. if we can’t fix these things locally, then we have no chance at restoring liberty at a national level. It just won’t happen.
So I encourage people to focus on their local elections. Who’s running for mayor, or city council? Who can we get behind that will push for greater individual liberty at a level where we can have greater influence? I think that if, as a movement, we focused on changing those things, and impact our communities that way, then we would see an acceleration of the liberty mindset across the country.
LI: Finally, if you had the attention of the entire American population for two minutes, what would you tell them?
BS: What the founders/framers gave us is an idea, namely, that individual liberty and freedom is the most important thing that a society can have. Not because they believed in hedonism, but because they believed that the individual is sovereign.
We’ve forfeited that idea. People are throwing away their liberties in the name of safety. We go to 4th of July events and see parades and speakers saying that we’re the freest nation in the world, and yet our government is conducting itself in a way that just a few years ago would have been rejected as something out of the Soviet era. But today Americans have accepted it as their future, and our present, simply because on some level it’s given us a perception of safety.
It’s a foolish choice. I want people to be free not so that the country comes unglued, but because I trust people with their freedom even if I don’t like what they do with it. I trust them with their freedom because I want them to trust me with mine.