For nine days, peaceful protests have spread across the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police. With these protests, we have watched as media organizations’ obsessive need to present both sides render them incapable of reporting on America’s systemic racism.
Unicorn Riot, an independent, nonprofit media outlet, has become a go-to source for protest news and livestreams of protests in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Denver. Since its founding in 2015, Unicorn Riot has also published secret Discord chat logs of the white supremacists behind 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally; released a feature-length film about their Dakota Access Pipeline reporting; and covered countless Black Lives Matter protests and their aftermath, including a 10-part series about the trial of white supremacist Lance Scarsella, who shot five people protesting the killing of Jamar Clark in 2015.
I called up one of Unicorn Riot’s founding members, Dan Feidt, as he finished up an overnight shift producing the organization’s livestreams from his home in Boston. We talked about tactics for protest reporting and why independent media is so important in the fight against existing power structures.
Interview by Chris Erik Thomas. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Study Hall: Unicorn Riot started a year after the 2014 Black Lives Movement. Did you start the group in response to that?
Dan Feidt: It’s always been aimed at social movements. We figured we could give more depth and analysis: not just videos of live events alone, something with more substance. The whole thing’s evolved a lot and it’s gone in directions we didn’t expect. Before Trump was elected, we didn’t think we would be that focused on the far right, fascists, and white supremacists.
With the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protests in 2017, we got a tip that [the white supremacist] chats were done in Discord and people who were investigating the far right organizers had made [false identities] to get in the chats in Discord. We ended up with a cache of logs just before Discord shut down some of those servers, so we started sending those around to other journalists. That was how Discord Leaks came about.
SH: How many staff members are there right now?
DF: It’s less than a dozen right now. It’s pretty lean, so it can be tough because certain balls can be dropped. You might get a story half-done and if you don't have an editor, you might not get it done. We also don’t have health insurance, for example. Some journalists have access to therapists through health insurance for PTSD, but we really don’t have any access to that and that can be tough. I got pepper-sprayed last year; frankly, it kind of phased me for a while and I was really busy with work so I didn’t have any decompression time.
SH: How do you and other people at Unicorn Riot practice self-care? Burnout is such a big problem in activism.
DF: We don’t put ourselves on the hook to constantly grind. Even if you’re trying to work a beat, you might take a month off of it and do other shit. We don’t expect everyone to do [a certain number of] hours per week, period. Our minimum requirement is fairly low, because we understand that we aren’t going to go full-tilt. A lot of these things have been tough. [Covering the] Dakota Access Pipeline was super stressful. We didn’t have many resources then.
We try to let that elastic band go back and forth that way. Sometimes that does translate into a month of relatively low output from the group; we’re used to protests tailing off in the winter, especially in places like Minnesota or Massachusetts. We try to have an annual cycle built in.
SH: And then things like this happen.
DF: Yeah, absolutely.
SH: The Minneapolis Freedom Fund was directing people to you guys, right?
DF: Yeah, they were. That’s definitely been a major source of traffic. It’s been astonishing. We have [balanced budgets], and we have a savings account that we regularly try to look after, but we were wondering with the coronavirus, is that all going to dry up?
We had a five-year fundraiser, which started March 20. Before this week, we had $9,000 come in through that system. But this week, it’s practically gone exponential and [on Sunday night], total donations had surpassed $200,000. We’ve had lots of times where, even when we were getting a bunch of traffic, we weren’t really getting many donations. I think [with this week’s protests], it connected with people really hard that we were doing a donation drive.
Now we can get better computers, replace some people’s crappy cable modems and other weak links in the chain. But it’s a bigger responsibility now, too.
SH: You have a lot of experience doing protest reporting. What kinds of tactics or advice would you give journalists who want to report at these protests?
DF: Even though what we do is pretty improvised in terms of how it actually plays out, it also relies on years of previous experience and building community relationships and trust. A lot of people are reticent to talk to journalists or people they don’t know, but showing up makes a big difference. And then people are like, "Okay, you’re not just trying to do a hit job on us." The level of trust by default can be pretty low because you have to prove to people that that is not your style.
SH: There’s also a lot of parachute journalism, where they’ll pop in, report on something, and then just leave the city.
DF: Yeah, that too. And that’s a good point, because we have also traveled to places to go try to find out what’s happening and we don’t want to be seen as parachute people. That type of [journalism] works better if you at least know people in the city, because if you don’t know what groups are involved, you can really misinterpret things.
SH: What drew you to independent media? Your whole career has basically been in this niche type of media. You haven’t really gone to any mainstream outlets.
DF: I’ve always been a news junkie — ever since I was a teenager, I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve always had an interest in interacting with different issues and learning from my dad how to use PageMaker when I was little, I think it rewired my brain. I’ve always had a strong interest in it, combined with an awareness from 2005 to 2009 that the industry was super jacked up and that it wasn’t that tenable for traditional careers to work out.
I [thought], okay, I’m not really going to try to get on the inside of [mainstream media]. And maybe independent, DIY media doesn’t really get that far. Maybe it does just appeal to the activist community. But then, when something like this happens, suddenly independent media is very relevant. To some extent, it feels like we were out in the wilderness, away from what the mainstream focuses on, but then independent reporting builds up and builds up and builds up and builds up, and suddenly it’s actually the key thing that is the center of everything.
SH: In this moment, Unicorn Riot has become such a big part of the independent news cycle. Could you talk a little bit about why it’s important to have independent news sources?
DF: Corporate news will take positions in its analysis that are usually pretty defensive of existing power structures and will float that as objectivity. Very often, that frame of reference isn’t super connected to reality. Whenever independent media isn’t on the hook to defend the power structure, then it can be a lot more relevant to people and break through the noise. Be accurate not just in the primary reporting, but why it happens, the analysis.
In Boston, the legacy media is very deferential to developers, bankers, wealthy people, the landed gentry. What you don’t see in Boston is attention to anyone else: the students, the working people, the creative people. We’ve lost a lot of that alt-weekly voice that has a ruder tone and speaks truth to power. Alex Pareene wrote in The New Republic about the death of the rude press and the death of that tone. Splinter News, which was part of Univision’s Fusion mess, was trying to have that alt-weekly voice again. And when you look at people who are historically marginalized, whether it’s on the basis of gender or race or ethnicity or age, institutions tend to give people short shrift when it comes to coverage, staffing, platforms, et cetera.
We saw it with white supremacist coverage before Charlottesville: the stories about “nattily” attired white supremacist Richard Spencer and softball interviews with white supremacist leaders. Frontline reporters who are really in the details seemed to understand why it was a big deal, and a lot of legacy media editors were more detached. They had a much more detached way of looking at that stuff. Until Charlottesville, it was hard to break through on the seriousness of that on the editor level. I think independent media helps with that, because sometimes those entrenched old guard types don’t want to get serious about things like this.
If you’d like to support Unicorn Riot, Feidt asks that donations be sent through their five-year anniversary fundraising page.